Landscaping with fruit and nut trees…and more…

5 years ago, I decided I was going to shift from a native plantings landscaping theme to one that turned my yard into a sylvan garden.  I had read about “Edible Landscaping” and “Permaculture”, and decided that approaching tough economic times could be mitigated by growing more of my own food in a manner that did not require a large degree of manual labor. After all, we are supposed to have several helpings of fruit each day, and nuts have been shown to be very healthy sources of protein and essential fatty acids (and even lowering cholesterol). My family likes to PYO at local orchards or buy at farmer’s markets, and felt that augmenting those purchases with our own fruits and nuts meant that we would rely even less on the local supermarket.

Where to start?

So how does someone go about determining what they can or can’t grow well in this area, or in a specific yard? First, one needs to know what hardiness zone they are in, to eliminate plants that will freeze in their area. We used to be on the edge of hardiness zones 6 and 7, but global warming trends now have us well into zone 7 (as calculated by the Arbor Day Foundation).  Thus, we can remove from our potential list all plants that require at least zone 8 (or 9, etc). Conversely, some plants require colder climes than zone 7.

From this point, we need to understand a few specifics about our site;

  • Disease-resistance: Many popular fruit varieties (that often show up in local chain store inventories) require extensive spraying to control a wide array of diseases, many of which have been imported from other countries and attack local species that have no inherent immunity.  Considerable effort has gone into creating hybrids of species with numerous immunities to produce species that are resistant to a wide variety of disease.  Once you decide on the types of fruit you would like to grow, learn about the diseases that are endemic in your area. Then select varieties that are resistant to those diseases. (More on this in future articles)
  • Pollination: Some species are self-pollinators and do not require a second specimen or variety to produce fruit.  Many species, however, require a second specimen or even another variety to produce fruit.  In this case, you must consider the other varieties that are needed, the timing of the spring bloom (which must overlap sufficiently), and an extra specimen so that the loss of one tree does not eliminate the ability to pollinate.  Also note how close pollinators should be (e.g., “no further than 25 feet”).
  • Fruiting schedule: Be cognizant of the timeframes in which your fruits will ripen; the best approach is to try to cover as much of the calendar year with harvest as possible.  For example, I’ve chosen 4 varieties of apples that will provide fruit from July through November, with the later apples able to be stored through the winter (“winter-keepers”).  Other choices include strawberries (May) and June berries for early fruit and Lingonberries for late fruit (December).  This way, one can enjoy fresh fruits almost year around.
  • Pests: Find out from your local horticulture agent which pests are likely to attack the types of fruits or nuts you’ve chosen.  Often, disease-resistant varieties also have some resistance to common pests.  Many natural pesticide products exist to keep insects from damaging your trees or fruit crop, and there are natural predators that can be encouraged (with their favorite habits) to take up residence in your yard.
  • Size: Standard sizes of common fruits such as apples, pears, and others are often too large for homeowners to maintain and harvest.  Dwarf and Semi-dwarf varieties are very popular now with home gardeners, and they also bear fruit much sooner.  The size (and other attributes such as disease resistance) depends greatly upon the rootstock used. Nut trees can be large without much issue.
  • Harvest/Storage: When will each plant bear their crop? How long can it be stored? What are the preferred storage conditions (temperature, humidity)? Can they be dehydrated/canned/etc?

Initial List

After performing the above analyses, I came up with the following list;

Fruit Trees:

  • Apple
  • Asian Pear
  • Plum
  • Pawpaw
  • Jujube (Chinese Date)
  • Persimmon (American)
  • Persimmon (Asian)
  • Watermelonball Tree (Chinese Mulberry)

Berries:

  • Blueberry
  • Raspberry
  • Grapes
  • Ligonberry
  • Juneberry
  • Elderberry
  • Gooseberry
  • Goumi
  • Aroniaberry
  • Black Huckleberry
  • Figs
  • Kiwi

Nuts:

  • English Walnut
  • Heartnut (Japanese Walnut)
  • Northern Pecan
  • Filbert
  • Chestnut

Does this look like a lot of plants? It is, though one’s yard can be artfully planned out to yield a large amount of fruits and nuts with a thoughtful design approach. For example, one family in Chicago has a planting of 97 apple trees (and other fruits) in a 1/4 acre yard!

97 Apple trees in the yard

Our own yard is approximate 1/3 acre, though we have many acres in sheep pasture. Coincidentally, the sheep also need some relief from the summer sun, so plantings just inside the electric fence (protected by circular fence cages) serve dual purposes.

In coming articles, we’ll talk about laying out plans, the types of fruits and nuts that are doing well here, and how to put it all together to begin executing your plan early this fall.

Come discuss your thoughts at the Sustainable Loudoun forum entry forum for Fruit Trees.

–Will Stewart

So you’ve been considering vegetable gardening…where to start?

Spring is around the corner, with its burst of warmth, renewal, and an irresistible call to come outdoors. Why should we bother heading out to our yards with shovels and seeds?

There are many good reasons;

  1. Fresh air and sunshine: (there shouldn’t be any need to explain this one!)
  2. Cost savings: While home values, goods, and services are deflating, food and energy costs are rising. Even “eating at home” costs were up 0.4% this January alone. Economic conditions may take a long time to change, and it is very possible that we will not return to continuous economic growth.
  3. Supply chains are shortening: Also called “relocalization” or “reverse globalization”, ‘near-sourcing’ describes the need to return to American-made goods and services in order to decrease shipping expenses. As freight costs remain high (and oil prices are only going to trend upward), globalization has become less competitive and is expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.
  4. Pesticides: You decide which (if any) pesticides are used on your food, not some distant industrial agri-corp. There are natural pesticides and/or methods that rely on the encouragement of natural pest predators (e.g., Ladybugs eat aphids, tiny Brachonid wasps lay eggs in Hornworms), and companion plantings that discourage pests (e.g., basil next to tomatoes, marigolds near a variety of vegetable, etc).
  5. Genetically modified: You decide which plants to grow, not Monsanto or ADM.
  6. Self determination: You are less reliant on big chain supermarkets, and can choose to grow the items you want that are not readily available at Loudoun’s farmers markets and CSAs.

Where to Start?

Planning a garden is an important first step that should be given high priority. It is far easier to learn from the many mistakes of others than it is to reinvent the wheel, so in this article, we will focus on planning.

Think big, start small – think about where you want to be in 3 years, 5 years, etc, but start with a small plot the first year, to get your feet wet and learn what works best for you. Layout a design that you can grow into, so that you can expand your garden according to a vision. For those who really want to consider what their whole yard might look like when also considering herbs, fruit vines/shrubs/trees, and nut trees, see this informative introduction to permaculture by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Permaculture is a broad topic, and will be discussed in more detail in future articles.

Some resources that I value highly include;

  • Loudoun County Master Gardeners: There is a wealth of information on their website, at clinics they hold, and terrific examples at their demo garden. One clinic is coming up on March 20-21.
  • Friends/Neighbors who garden: Always a great source of information about what works well in the area, especially in regard to pests and soils. It can be helpful to coordinate some pest control measures, such as Japanese Beetle traps.
  • Books:
  • There are many excellent books, more than we can reliably list here (especially those from the Rodale Institute), but let me share a few that have proved valuable to me and others;

    • The Garden Primer – Barbara Damrosch: Covers garden basics and the main garden crops with superb details on each. I consider this a must-have for every beginner.
    • Great Garden Companions – Sally Jean Cunningham: Covers planning, garden design, raised beds, companion plantings, plant family rotation, natural pest control. Highly valuable for beginners and intermediates alike, another must-have.
    • The New Organic Grower – Elliot Colemen: Covers planning, garden design, raised beds, pest control
    • Four Season Harvest – Elliot Coleman: Shows how to plan a garden to take advantage of lightweight, movable greenhouses to enable productive gardens Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall.
    • Square Foot Gardening: I’ve not tried this but some people report positive results.

  • Weblinks:

Major Planning Steps

  • Where to plant: Select a garden site that has plenty of sunlight, is a place you will want to spend a little time, and has reasonable access to water (think about where you will run your hose or bury a warm season water line to take water directly to your garden).

  • Preparation: For those who do not already have a garden, a new garden site is often part of the yard, currently covered with grass. There are a number of ways of preparing you soil, and most of them start with how to kill the grass. Simply turning it over doesn’t always kill the grass down to the roots. Some approaches;

    • Lay down a layer of newspapers covered with mulch/compost: This is a simple way to start. The grass roots decompose after dying, providing in-ground compost biomass that acts as a fertilizer.
    • Lay down a layer of black plastic: Also reasonably simple, and kills the grass more quickly due to the heat trapped at ground level by the black plastic. Some approaches call for punching small holes through with you would plant.
    • Tilling: They range between large gas tillers and small electric tillers (I use the latter from time to time). Some approaches don’t even use tillers at all. Most rental companies carry them.
    • Shoveling: This approach provides the greatest opportunity for exercise. The doubledigging approach is the most shovel-reliant.
  • Soils: What is the fertility and alkalinity of your soil? How deep is it? Don’t worry, soils in this county can be easily amended to produce bountiful yields. Know a neighbor who is looking to get rid of horse or livestock manure? Properly composted, it can yield tremendous benefits to your garden’s productivity.

  • Seed sources: It’s simpler to buy some of your plant already started, though some people like to start from the beginning with seeds. Some of the obvious names are Park Seeds, though they rely fairly heavily on hybrid varieties. There are now many seed suppliers that distribute open-pollinated seeds, that allow gardeners to save their seeds and have a reliable crop the following year. Attempting to save and replant hybrid seeds is almost always disappointing, as the genetics of the progeny are unpredictable and many hybrids are often either sterile or bear no fruit. Seed sources include (and more are here);

    • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange P.O. Box 460, Mineral, VA 23117 gardens@southernexposure.com
      Phone 540-894-9480 They carry a wide variety of open-pollinated and heirloom vegetables, and my favorite (the most local, too)
    • Bountiful Gardens 18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490-9626 707-459-6410
      All of seeds are open-pollinated and untreated.
    • Johnny’s Selected Seeds Foss Hill Rd. Albion, ME 04910 (207) 437-9294
      Wide variety of hybrid, heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
    • Seed Savers Exchange 3076 N. Winn Rd. Decorah, IA 52101 (319) 382-5990 Non-profit dedicated to preserving seed diversity. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
    • Seeds of Change 621 Old Santa Fe Trail #10 Santa Fe, NM 87501 (505) 438 8080
      Source of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
    • Start your seeds with an indoor micro greenhouse.

  • Tools: Ever buy a tool that way cheaply made and didn’t last anywhere near as long as you expected? I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me with Chinese-made tools purchased at the big hardware stores. So I started buying mine from Lehman’s in Pennsylvania, and have been very pleased with the workmanship and sturdiness of these tools. I’d rather pay twice as much any day for a tool that lasts 5 times as long. So of the tools you will need (others will be particular to the gardening style you select);

    • Shovel: no surprise here. A trenching shovel may also come in handy.
    • Stirrup hoe: A fascinating improvement to the old fashioned hoe. Now there is no more lifting and hacking, just moving the hoe back and forth over weeds to shear them away.
    • Hand cultivator: This one is multi-purpose.

All this may seem like a lot, but when you start small with a vision of what it will become in the future, it becomes quite manageable and enjoyable. Make the leap! We look forward to hearing your questions and plans at the Sustainable Loudoun Forum under the Garden Planning section.

Will Stewart