“Fine fruit is the flower of commodities. It is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows. Trees full of soft foliage; blossoms fresh with spring bounty; and, finally, fruit, rich, bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious—such are the treasures of the orchard and garden, temptingly offered to every landholder in this bright and sunny, though temperate climate.”
- Andrew Jackson Downing
Sea Berry in full glory
Uncommonly delicious, uncommonly beautiful, uncommonly easy to grow … Yes, yes, yes. There is a world of fruit trees and bushes beyond the peach, cherry, and blueberry. These uncommon fruits fit perfectly in the front or backyard and require very little of you other than picking abundant harvests.
Culturally we have become accustomed to a handful of fruit trees and bushes that require an orchardist’s hand and arsenal of sprays. But it’s time for a revolution in the backyard. A revolution that brings us more ease in cultivation and rewards us with naturally healthy trees that drip with uncommon but delectable tastes.
The following fruits are just a sampling of the cornucopia that awaits to root in your landscape, titillate the senses, and fill the fruit bowl. Chosen for ease of care, beauty and taste. Recommended reading on these and many other easy to grow fruits is found in chapter 5 of ‘Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist.’
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a map that outlines 11 zones across the country to mark the lowest average temperature in each region. Although approximate, it helps the gardener choose plants hardy to their region. The most up-to-date hardiness map can be found at the National Arbor Day Foundation website: http://www.arborday.org/media/zones.cfm.
Pollination: Needs cross pollination with another variety
Imagine a carefree, ornamental tree with a fruit filled with the creamy custard flavors of banana, mango, pineapple, and hints of vanilla. Meet the Paw Paw. Reputed to be the largest ‘native’ fruit grown in North America, it is little-known to most Americans. The Paw Paw does not have a long storage life, nor does it have a thick skin needed for transporting. Otherwise, this exquisite fruit would be a well-known and favored fruit on the shelf. Ornamentally the Paw Paw stands alone with a perfect pyramid-shape and long tropical-looking leaves that remain lush all summer long before giving a spectacular show of golden fall color. Paw Paw’s grow up to 25 feet tall but are easily maintained at 8 to 15 feet in height.
Pair of mature Paw Paw’s planted together for pollination
Though the Paw Paw grows wild as an understory plant, they fruit best in full sun. They make beautiful care-free front yard specimens with their pyramid shape, lush leaves, and brilliant golden fall foliage. Mulch well to keep soil cool and moist, much like the forest floor, and to help catch dropping fruit which bruises easily.
A yummy paw paw cut in half
The fruit can range from 3 – 6 inches long by 1 – 3 inches wide, about the size of a mango. The skin is smooth, green, and fragrant, and the flesh is creamy white to golden yellow with two rows of dark flat seeds. Once ripe, Paw Paws only last for a few days – maybe a week in the fridge – so eat your fill and freeze the rest for making ice cream and smoothies. A good harvest can bring in a bushel per tree, about 40 – 50lbs.
Note: plant grafted varieties grown in deep pots. The grafting will ensure consistency of growth and output, such as size, flavor, vigor, ripening time, and good yields, while the deep pots make sure the long tap root is not disturbed. Paw Paws planted by seed, called seedlings, do not promise to reproduce their parents’
Persimmon, Asian & American
Diospyros kaki and Diospyros viginiana
Zones: 6-10 for Asian, 4-10 for American
Pollination: Variable, some need cross-pollination, some are self-fertile
Like the Paw Paw tree, the Asian persimmon has a lush, tropical look, with large, drooping, flawless, green leaves that turn to gold and scarlet in the fall, leaving bright red and orange fruit hanging in the tree like ornaments. The Asian persimmon tree is a prime ornamental specimen that tops out at 15 feet tall. It requires very little care to stay beautiful and productive, even in the late, hot summers. The American persimmon is a stately, tall tree, with fascinating alligator bark. It is widely adaptable and cold-tolerant.
Persimmons are very easy, carefree trees to grow. They are bothered by few pests and affected by few diseases. They grow well in most soil types. For good fruiting, they need to receive full sun for most of the day. Buy young plants, either in deep pots or bare root, that have full undamaged roots. The Asian persimmon grows well in zones 7-10, where max cold temps bottom out at 0°F. Certain varieties, such as Jiro and Saijo, are successfully being grown and harvested in zone 6, where temps typically go no lower than -5°F. The varieties grown in the more northern zones tend to be astringent types, so the fruit from these varieties should be fully ripened before being enjoyed. The American persimmon is tough down to -25ºF, zones 4 – 10.
Pollination: Needs cross-pollination from male plant
The hardy kiwi vine, a cousin of the fuzzy version, grows well in northern climates and is smooth and sweet, rather than hairy and tart. The hardy kiwi fruit is not that well-known commercially because of its short shelf life and wrinkled look when ripened. However, it is a fantastically flavored and productive fruit for the home grower.
Though emerald green on the inside like the fuzzy kiwi fruit, the hardy kiwi fruit looks quite different and produces smaller, inch-long, smooth-skinned fruits that grow in clusters and can be popped whole into the mouth like grapes. It is also a treat on the ornamental side with gorgeous shiny green leaves with red stems that stay lush throughout summer.
To begin, determine if you have an adequate growing area that is able to support the hardy kiwi’s vigorous growth and weight, approximately 200 square feet per plant. Then be sure you are selecting a male and a female plant, or at least one male per eight female plants (all plants sold in stores should be marked either male or female). The variety called “Issai” is an exception and is self-fertile, meaning it can be planted alone, but adding a male will still increase fruit size and yield.
Kiwi arbor example for space and training
As with grapes, the hardy kiwi vine makes a fruitful cover for a sturdy pergola or arbor. A minimum requirement is for trellising to be at least 6 feet off the ground, with room to spread laterally. This done in a variety of ways: a single wire between well-anchored posts, up a sturdy wall, as T-shaped trellises with multiple wires (like as a clothes line), or top-sturdy woody arbors. Even on top of a carport—the key being to have strength, height, and space.
Pollination: Partially self-fertile, best production with 2 varieties
The Chinese Date
How about a small, attractive tree that has no disease or insect problems, doesn’t suffer loss from late frosts, is at its peak of beauty in the heat of summer, and has a fruit as delectable as the apple and date together? Enter the Jujube tree, as carefree an ornamental edible you will meet.
The Jujube is a small elegant tree that grows up to 25 feet tall, boasting immaculate green shiny leaves on pendulous branches that turn golden yellow in the fall, and attractive gray bark for year round beauty. But don’t let their luscious looks fool you, as the Jujube tree will thrive under the harshest conditions.
The Jujube is a sure-fire recommendation for the low maintenance landscape with poor, compacted soil – which I think describes most of suburbia. This is a tree you can stick in the lawn and forget about the care notes. Plant a Jujube and you will be rewarded with a healthy, beautiful specimen that droops with sweet shiny fruit.
The fruit is the size of an apricot with a smooth skin that changes from light green to a handsome mahogany red as it ripens. Just as the fruit turns mahogany it has a delightfully crisp, juicy flesh that is sweet like apples with hints of caramel and almond. Left to ripen longer on the tree, the fruit starts to wrinkle and concentrate its sugars and richness of flavors, earning its name as the Chinese Date.
Pollination: Fruit bearing females need cross pollination with male
The Medicinal Wonder
Also known as Sea Buckthorn, this compact regal shrub is widely grown and revered in Europe and Russia as one of the most medicinal fruits on the planet. Beyond its healthful fruits, it is a stand-out beauty in the landscape, growing upright to about 10 feet tall with gorgeous fruit laden branches and narrow silver shimmering leaves.
Like the Goumi, it is widely adaptable to poor soil conditions and fixes its own nitrogen. Unlike the Goumi, you do not want to eat its berries out of hand, unless you really like sour. It’s good to sweeten them up as a juice. Although sour, the Sea Berry is wonderfully flavored, reminiscent of oranges and passion fruit. Small oval fruits are born in late summer and fall as long cascading clusters of bright orange-yellow berries that create a striking contrast to the shrub’s silvery green leaves. A stunning feature in the edible landscape.
The Sea Berry has been used for thousands of years in Eastern Asia and Russia as a cure-all, treating all sorts of health issues and illnesses. A super fruit with an impressive nutritional profile, Sea Berry boasts 14 essential vitamins, super charged anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, omega’s 3, 6, 7, and 9, and hundreds of other nutrients. The berries’ oil is a healer for any kind of skin damage and is renowned for supporting mucous and tissue membranes. It is beginning to pop up in high end organic skin products like Weleda as a ‘beauty berry’ that nourishes skin and body tissue, from the inside-out. Your all-in-one fruit supplement!
In the Landscape
The Sea Berry is adapted just about everywhere in its regional range, even in sand. It’s perfect for that ignored part of the landscape that has poor dry soils, high or low pH, and where nothing else wants to thrive or the deer munch everything down to the ground. The buckthorn version of the name is well earned as many varieties have gnarly 1 inch thorns that keep deer and mooches at bay. Granted this does make harvesting a challenge and is why some cultures just lop off the branches and freeze to make the berries fall off easily. Those thorns can also make the sea buckthorn a veritable barrier as a living fence to keep varmints and zombies at bay. Some varieties are prone to sending up suckers that can be easily pruned away or left to help form a hedge. These characteristics also make the Sea Berry a good candidate for soil erosion control and land reclamation projects.
Gooseberries & Currants
Pollination: Self-fertile, no pollinator needed
I plant more gooseberries than any other fruit in my food forest gardens. It has a perfect size as a small bush and is partially shade-tolerant, giving it versatility hard to match. And what flavor-packed jewels it produces – hanging all along its arms, every color of the rainbow. A royal fruit in any landscape.
Gooseberries hail from northern climates and have a rich history of breeding and use in European culture, just ask an older friend from that part of the world about gooseberries and you will see their eyes light up in reminisce of bygone gooseberry pies and jams. The best of gooseberry selections have a juicy aromatic pulp with a sprightly sweet sour flavor that puts grapes to shame. The worst of them will make you pucker and twist. Fortunately, its European popularity has led to many sweet cultivars that are easily and inexpensively available from bare root mail order nurseries. A few recommended varieties for flavor and disease resistance are Invicta, Pixwell, Poorman, and Hinnomaki Red.
The gooseberry bush has a diversity of growing habits, but most contain themselves in an orb shape approximately 3 – 5 feet tall and round. It has arching arms that hang heavy with fruit and attractive lobed leaves. Most gooseberries protect their bounty and beauty with an army of thorns, just enough to keep the deer from nosing too far down. Fruiting follows strawberries in late June/early July.
Though cold-hardy and shade-tolerant (up to 40% shade), I find they like open sun and good airflow so long as they are well-mulched underneath. Care is simple and is based on good mulching and pruning to maintain good air flow and new fruiting wood.
Gooseberries can be trellised as fans in urban spaces quite easily, creating a unique and fruitful curiosity
Currants are a stately bush of upright canes, attractive leaves, and fruits like dangling pearls that are beauties in any edible landscape. Another European and Russian favorite that bursts with flavor and tremendous aroma, though not for the lighthearted as they are quite tart and acidic. These qualities make them ideal for jam and wine making.
Similar in size to the gooseberry but thornless and erect in growth, usually between 3 – 5 feet, they blend in nicely at the shrub layer around trees, foundation plantings, and next to evergreens. I plant them between fruit trees where they get just enough light to fruit (6 hours) and stay cool in our hot Maryland summers. There are black, red, white, and pink types of currants that go from very tart to sweet respectively. Aside from their packed flavor, the currant boasts 5 times the vitamin C of oranges by weight, twice the potassium of bananas and antioxidants of blueberries.
Care is simple, as for gooseberries: keep the ground well-mulched and prune to keep the air flow. A few recommendable varieties of the black currants – Ben Sarek and Swedish Black—and of the red currants: Red Lake, and Jonkheer Van Tets. Of the white and pink currants: Primus and Blanca White, and Pink Champaign. Raintree Nursery has a fine and extensive list of currants to choice from for the home gardener
The Jostaberry is a cross between a gooseberry and black currant that captures the best of both in a thornless bush with sweet berries. The Jostaberry has a more vigorous growth easily reaching over 6 feet and ranging wildly. If you have the space, this wild child is worth every inch.
Pruning and Shaping
Fruit trees that have been potted or transplanted often need continued care and support in balancing their form, especially for good fruit production. Fortunately, pruning is far more simple than most folks think, especially when started with early shaping. Rather than give an academic account of the various pruning styles and approaches, I hope to impart here a sense of what to do as you approach your tree or bush and how to arm yourself with the proper pruning gear.
The term shaping is used when talking about directing the plant’s form, usually when young. Pruning refers to thinning and opening up a mature tree or bush. The two terms often overlap.
The first thing to do is acquire the right tools, and assure that they are properly sharpened. Please do not grab those old, dull loppers hiding in your shed, intending to prune anything beloved. For most pruning and shaping needs I use only two tools; a hand pruner and a folding pruning saw. I also keep a pocket sharpener on hand to keep the blades of the hand pruner sharp, assuring clean cuts.
Los Tres Amigos de pruning
Hand pruners are ideal for cutting anything smaller than the size of your index finger. Just about any hand pruner you purchase will do the job, as long as they are “bypass,” meaning the two blades work like scissors. I also recommend using the little holster most pruners come with that clips to the belt or waist band leaving your hands free between cuts. To sharpen the hand pruner blades, I use a nifty little gadget by Smith’s Sharpeners that sharpens pruners up in a jiffy.
The folding pruning saw works for cutting branches up to 6 inches thick and efficiently replacing loppers. Beyond that, consider busting out the chainsaw. Any folding pruning saw you purchase will do, as long as the blade can be replaced easily, since they cannot be sharpened. Felco makes good pruning tools and replacement blades.
Approaching the Tree
Where shaping and pruning is involved, there is an old adage that states, “A bird should be able to fly through the tree.” If you make this your mantra, pruning is going to be a breeze. The saying is designed to teach two of the most important concepts of healthy fruit tree shaping: air flow and light. Air flow allows the tree or bush to “breathe” and reduces the dank, stagnant conditions that funky fungi, bacteria, and viruses thrive in. Allowing proper light through the tree also reduces these conditions, while supporting the development of fruit buds, which are most often found on the inside branches.
Keep the tree open for air and light flow
What to Cut
When deciding which branches to cut, it is important to first stand back and observe the tree. To begin:
1. Prune out any branches that are growing across or rubbing against other branches.
2. Prune branches that are growing downward or toward the center of the tree.
3. Prune out any branches that appear diseased or broken.
4. Prune out competing central leaders and sprouts that are clogging the tree’s center.
How to Cut
How the branches are cut is simple but important to do correctly to maintain the overall health of the tree. The main rule is to never make the cut so close that the trunk is damaged or so far away you leave a big nub that rots.
Cut branches at their collar
1. When pruning a small branch make a clean cut 1” from the body of the tree at a slight angle (approximately 30 Cut branches at their collar Cut branches at their collar degrees) away from the trunk.
Remove the branches weight before making the final cut
2. For large branches make a cut on the underside forward from the final top cut and remove bulk of branch and weight. Lastly make a third cut to cleanly remove the stub. This will prevent the bark from stripping downward on the trunk.
3. Use thinning cuts all the way back at the branch base. A heading cut farther out on the branch creates a hedging effect and further clogs the tree.
When to Cut
Remember that pruning trees, or shaping, is best done in the late winter before sap rises. Prune water shoots and shoots from the trunk base throughout the year.
Shaping the Young
If you are starting out with a young tree that is one to two years old, you can shape its life-long structure with just a few snips. Most all bare root trees ordered from catalogs arrive at about two years old and 3 to 4 feet tall. Trees sometimes arrive as “whips,” which mean they have no branches. However, most often they already have two or three small side branches, which you may or may not choose to keep depending on their orientation. Though these little branches look insignificant, they will eventually become thick branches that will be the main frame of the tree. These main frame branches are called the tree’s ‘scaffold,’ and that’s what we want to shape.
Whether you start with a bare root tree or a more developed tree they usually come with a few existing branches, often coming off the trunk at 2 or 3 feet high. If there are three or four branches well-spaced around the tree at the same height, you are set. If you have more than four branches at the same height, prune the extras so that the remaining three or four branches are well spaced in opposite directions, like the four points of a compass. It’s helpful to lean over the tree and look down at the branches like hands on a clock to best see their radial spread.
Depending on the type of tree, you may only want to keep these three or four spread scaffolds and discourage any further vertical growth on the truck. This training is called the open vase and resembles an inverted umbrella. Or, you can allow the trunk to continue up and branch again in another well-spaced orientation of three or four branches; this shaping is called a central leader. Do not fret over which is best but rather how you would like the tree to grow in your landscape. The concepts for both styles focus on opening the tree for air and light flow.
Note: If you are individually fencing your trees due to deer browsing, snip the side branches off clean at the trunk and allow the leader to grow up higher. When it reaches about 5 feet high, snip it above a bud to force branching at that height, then select three or four well-spaced branches. This does make your fruit higher to reach but allows strong, healthy branches to form instead of bent and crippled ones caught in the fencing.
The Older Tree
The mature fruit tree that has never been pruned or shaped is usually a wild jungle of branches: branches crisscrossing crowded in the middle, angled downward, broken, and hanging. This is where you usually stand staring in wonder at where to begin.
Though the temptation to whip the tree into shape all at one time is hard to resist, it is best to pace its return to glory gradually by removing a maximum of 25 percent of the tree’s mass each year. An unruly, full-sized tree can take up to three years to work back into shape and health.
Note: Many fruit trees, especially apples, respond to intense pruning by sending up water sprouts, which are soft vertical shoots. These should be pinched or nipped off throughout the growing season; otherwise, they will thicken and become unwanted branches.
To keep in mind:
- Do not fertilize during the years of intense pruning, as pruning already stimulates new growth.
- Combining pruning with sheet mulching out to the drip edge (where the branches reach) will double the tree’s response time and return to health. See the Food Forest chapter for sheet mulching instructions.
- Heavy pruning can reduce or eliminate harvests for the year but will eventually help the tree regulate its bearing to produce fruit every year.
Consider whether the older tree is strong enough to handle intense pruning. Is it worth the pruning process, versus cutting it down and replanting another tree? If the latter, be sure to choose a tree better suited to the site, one that can be shaped and pruned from the beginning. Replanting often results in getting a harvest in the same amount of time as bringing back an older, overgrown, existing tree.
Pruning Gooseberries & Currants
It’s important to remember that gooseberries and currants produce fruit on one, two, and three year-old wood.
- Prune gooseberries and currants when the plants are dormant in late winter or early spring.
- After the first year of growth, remove all but 7 or 8 of the most vigorous shoots.
- At the end of the second growing season, leave the 4 best one-year-old shoots and up to 4 two-year-old canes.
- At the end of the third year, prune so that approximately 4 canes of each age remain.
- Fourth year and onward, the oldest set of canes should be pruned, allowing the new canes to grow.
- Always remove any diseased or broken branches and any that lie along the ground.
This rhythm of pruning ensures that the plants remain productive. A strong, healthy, mature plant should have about 8 to 10 bearing canes, with younger canes eventually cycling out the oldest. This not only optimizes fruit production but keeps the bush ‘breathing’ and helps prevents fungal disease.
Winter Tree Care
Heavily pruned trees and young tree trunks are sensitive to summer sunburn and winter sun scald respectively. To protect recently exposed branches and young trunks I use and recommend a homemade reflective “tree paint”. The Cornell Extension agent who taught me about pruning temperate trees said to simply mix a 1:1 ratio of water and indoor white latex paint. Since this is basically a lime wash, the latex could be traded out with a hydrated lime powder or a milk-based paint.
Tree paint and hardware cloth protect trees from sunburn and gnawing critters
For young trunks, regardless of whether you have pruned them or not, paint all the way up the trunk and into the main branches. This white layer helps reflect the winter sun that heats up the southwest side of a tree’s bark during the day, causing it to expand. Then, during the night, that same bark contracts when it gets cold or freezes. This expansion and contraction creates fissures along the bark, like cuts on the skin, which enlarge with age and become entryways for disease and insects. To make this mix more multifunctional, add in finely sifted compost as a microbial inoculant, dried blood meal as fertilizer and deer repellent, diatomaceous earth to help deter pest larvae, and kaolin clay to bolster the ‘sunscreen’ and smother overwintering insect eggs. For trees newly exposed from heavy pruning, paint the tops of the remaining branches exposed to the sun.
Preventing Insect Damage Using Kaolin Clay
Kaolin is a very fine powered clay used on plants to deter crawling insects. If applied early in the season, before critters like stink bugs and Japanese beetles get crawling, it is an effective protectant. By coating the leaves of plants with the fine clay as a spray you create an unwelcome surface to crawling bugs – just imagine your eye and ear openings filled with irritating clay particles, and your reproductive parts literally clogged . . . surely you’d want to boogie from such a place. By deterring many crawling insects like the curculio and codling moth from landing and laying larvae, the cycles of infestation can be broken for seasons to come, benefiting your plants in the short and long-term. Kaolin clay is just as effective on your fruit trees as on your tomatoes and ornamentals. Be sure to apply three good coats at the early stages of the season. Don’t worry about impeding sunlight and photosynthesis as the clay actually helps plants to reduce sunburn and balance light intake. Our beneficial flying allies are not negatively affected by the clay as they land and launch with ease. The best resource to learn more about Kaolin clay is Michael Phillips’ book “The Apple Grower, A Guide for the Organic Orchardist”. Kaolin is often known and sold as ‘Surround’.
Kaolin Clay sprayed early on grape leaves to deter Japanese beetles and munching bugs
For more detailed information on fruit tree care and how to graft existing ornamental trees to become more fruitful see chapter 5 of ‘Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist’.
Ecologia helps with seasonal planting, pruning and site prep. Contact us for a consultation.
“Ecologia helped us design and implement a change from holly to blueberry bushes in our backyard. They purchased the bushes at a reasonable price and completed the work on time and efficiently. We happily recommend Ecologia landscaping services.” Mary and Carl, Taskers Chance, Frederick