Fruity facts (pragmatism over romance)

Apples are a reliable crop for us

Apples are a reliable crop for us

???????????????????????????????The whole concept of a home orchard seems to evoke romantic images, often based on childhood books. The swing hanging from the old apple tree, the lichen encrusted gate by which one enters, feasting on windfalls, maybe sitting on a tree branch munching sun warmed plums – you get the picture. Needless to say, it is always sunny and there are no wasps.

In recent years, with the explosion of interest in growing one’s own produce, I wonder how many trees have been sold to people with that soft focus romanticism. Just as I wonder how many dollars have been spent buying fruit trees which are entirely unsuited to our geographic areas. No matter how optimistic you are, I’m sorry we are just not going to produce good Black Dawson cherries in the mid north.

Most fruit trees need care. There aren’t many that you can just plant and leave. The reality is that if you want a crop, you are going to have to give the plants some attention. They are not like an easy care camellia that you can bung in the ground and then hack back a decade later when it has grown too large.

Orchards take space, more space than many people have. This is because fruiting trees need full sun, some protection from strong winds yet plenty of area around each tree to allow for good air circulation. That air movement is what helps to combat the build up of pests and diseases. Over-crowded plants will not crop well.

Mark’s mother planted an orchard here. She was not without romantic vision. Little of it remains now. However we do grow a lot of fruit and maintain a fresh supply all year round. Most of the crop is organic. Over time, the fruiting trees have been placed in appropriate positions around the garden rather than in a designated area. However, as we are stripping out our former nursery, Mark plans a return to the old orchard and he has been stockpiling trees in anticipation. But unlike most gardeners, we have space.

There is no doubt that fresh, tree-ripened fruit tastes better and to be able to wander out and gather a bucket of fruit is a simple activity that marks a quality of life beyond dollar value. Much of the fruit that is sold commercially has been sprayed to make it look good for the consumer (pock marked skins just won’t do), picked green and cool stored. It is never going to compare with home grown produce, except in the looks department.

You are probably not going to achieve self sufficiency in fruit on a small urban section. But you can have the delight of some crops. Just think, before you choose what trees to buy.

Feijoas - one of the few plant 'em and leave 'em fruit crops

Feijoas – one of the few plant ’em and leave ’em fruit crops

The only fruiting trees and shrubs I can think of that can be planted and then ignored except at harvest time are feijoas, passion fruit, what we tend to call the NZ cranberry (myrtus ugni), the Chilean guava (Psidium littorale) and avocados (but generally you need to live within 5km of the sea to grow avocados successfully in this country). Pretty much everything else needs work.

Some fruiting plants need quite a bit of work – vines like grapes, raspberries and kiwifruit are not worth giving garden space unless you are willing to actively manage them. Given the major disease issues with kiwifruit in the Bay of Plenty, they are probably best avoided for a few years anyway. Besides they are frost tender, so not suited to inland areas.

Some fruiting plants need a different climate altogether. Cherries and apricots, in particular, thrive in conditions where winters are dry and cold and summers are dry and hot. Nectarines and peaches are similar but a little more tolerant of humid, temperate climates. However, if you want consistent cropping from them, you are probably going to have to spray for disease. Plums are the easiest of that range, but we find they are intermittent croppers and will skip some years altogether.

The modest lemon - common in many NZ gardens

The modest lemon – common in many NZ gardens

We grow a lot of citrus but we are coastal so don’t get much in the way of frosts. Oranges are our year-round staple fruit and we also have grapefruit, mandarins, limes, lemons and tangelos. Inland areas of the Waikato have summers that are plenty warm enough, but anything other than the ubiquitous lemon is going to be problematic without some frost protection. We get away with just one spray of copper in winter on the citrus.

The pears crop well, but not every year. As ours are not on dwarfing root stock, it takes an extension ladder to pick the crop but at least the trees survive on benign neglect. Apples really need annual pruning and some active management for pest and disease control. Our most successful ones are free standing espaliers on dwarfing stock, which allow plenty of air movement. Generally, they only get a copper spray once a year and occasional intervention when the codling moth gets going. Apples in our household are quartered, peeled and cored for eating because they are less than perfect. But they crop prolifically every year and taste good.

There is a whole range of lesser known fruit now on offer for sale – medlars, persimmons, pomegranates, kaffir lime, novelty citrus like Buddha’s Hand, to name just a few – but where space is limited, you are probably better to stick to the tried and true that will crop consistently.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.