Creating an orchard can sometimes fill the gardener’s heart with fear. Is there enough space? How do I prune? How do I manage disease control? What’s with irrigation? The list can be endless, but not as daunting as you might think. There are many ways to create a viable urban orchard with research, planning and creative space management.
Fruit trees can be grown in pots or directly in the ground, when space permits. Trees also can be espaliered, the horticultural technique of training trees through pruning and grafting to create formal “two-dimensional” or single-plane patterns by the branches of the tree.
When grafted onto rootstock, the size of a fruit tree can be controlled and kept to 12 feet to 15 feet tall with regular pruning. Some varieties are grafted onto ultra-dwarf stock that allows trees to be kept to a very manageable 4 feet or 5 feet.
The stone fruit family includes cherries, plums, nectarines, peaches, apricots and plum/apricot hybrids called pluots and apriums. Stone fruits do not continue to ripen after harvesting, and store-bought fruit is invariably picked early to avoid bruising. Thus it can be rather lackluster in taste. Homegrown stone fruit, however, when tree-ripened, is simply delectable.
All in-ground fruit trees should be planted in a large hole with amended soil. Water it, making sure to finish with a light mulch kept at least 6 inches away from the tree trunk and space at least 12 feet apart.
Potted trees need a large (minimum 25-gallon) pot. Drainage is important, and this can be easily achieved by the addition of a half bag of commercial cactus mix. A generous amount of good quality compost is also important.
In warmer climates such as garden hardiness zones 9 and 10 (California, Texas and Hawaii), pay attention to your tree’s chilling hours rating. This rate describes how many hours below 45 degrees that occur between November and February. It is important for those who live in warmer climates to select trees that have a chilling hour rating of 500 hours or less; trees rated above this level will not produce fruit in a warm climate.
If you have the space, it is a good idea to select an early variety and a late variety of one fruit. You can then enjoy an extended season of your favorite stone fruit. There are a few pests you may have to contend with, however. Peach leaf curl is a fungal disease that can devastate a peach and nectarine crop in short order through defoliation. Spray the trees, when totally dormant, with lime sulphur. This will contain the problem, but be careful to remove all diseased leaves and dispose of them thoroughly.
Newly planted trees can begin producing fruit in the second year. A light dressing with fertilizer annually will suffice.Selective pruning should keep the tree well-shaped and at a manageable height of 12 feet to 15 feet.
Stone fruits are very prolific bearers and a wonderful addition to the urban garden.
John Lyons is the founder of Earthmatters, a gardening school in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, and The Woven Garden, a firm specializing in edible landscaping. He has written on gardening for the Los Angeles Times and California Gardener.
Photo: Plums on a tree. Credit: Roma-Oslo