As I prepare this article in early May, the plum trees in my front yard and boulevard are in full bloom. Each branch is dense with innumerable white flowers and their fragrance surrounds me when I step outdoors or open a window. Looking up through the profusion of blossoms I see clouds of bees, butterflies and other pollinators swirling about the branches. They feast on the nectar now and in doing so transfer pollen from one plum to the other, making possible the fruit I will relish in August. I love everything about fruit trees – the great flower show they put on in spring to attract audiences of pollinating insects; the stylish reds, oranges and purples they parade in the autumn; and of course the culmination of their efforts in celebrations of apples, plums, pears, apricots, and cherries. Yes, all these fruits can be raised in the Twin Cities.
The term “permaculture” encompasses many concepts surrounding more sustainable lifestyles and cultures. I use the term narrowly in this article to speak specifically about the inclusion of fruiting trees and shrubs into city, and especially residential, landscapes. The notion is that our yards and other open urban spaces can be home to trees and shrubs that provide all the environmental and aesthetic benefits normally associated with them and also yield food. Instead of fruits freighted to you from the far corners of the U.S. and other continents, you can step out your door during part of the year and pick the freshest fruit possible. And if you preserve part of your crop in pies, jellies and jams, then you can enjoy a taste of summer year around. But success with fruiting trees and shrubs requires active interest and effort on your part. Here are a few starting points: Pay attention to the cold hardiness of the plants you see in nurseries and garden catalogs. Nurseries occasionally carry plants that are only marginally hardy for Twin Cities winters.
If you are a beginner permaculturalist, do yourself a favor and select varieties known to be hardy in this part of the state. You may love sweet cherries, but they just are not tough enough to endure Minnesota winters. Plant a sour cherry instead. Realize that many fruit trees and shrubs require that another plant of the same species be nearby to ensure cross-pollination. If you have room for only one fruit tree or shrub, then either select one that is capable of pollinating itself (self-fruitful) or canvass adjacent yards to see what fruit stock already exists that could pollinate your lone planting (or collaborate with neighbors on plantings). Apple trees, for example, require cross-pollination but the popularity of flowering crab apples as an ornamental tree generally assures that pollen sources are sufficient. When in doubt, ask nursery staff and utilize the sources listed below.
It takes a considerable amount of photosynthetic activity for a tree or shrub to produce fruit. You may want something to fill that shady area on the north side of the house where the grass won’t grow, but although some fruiting plants may tolerate such locations, they will never thrive there. Give them the sunniest locations possible and they will reward you with branches drooping with fruit. Recognize that fruit trees are not a good match if you insist on an impeccable lawn. Fruit trees drop fruit. They do it in June when they shed excess fruit that they are not capable of supporting, and through the summer and into the fall from wind throws. Grass competes with woody plants for water and nutrients. Keep a large mulched zone around fruit trees and shrubs. If you won’t give up that much grass, at a minimum maintain a narrow grass-free buffer around the base of each tree or shrub to reduce the potential for striking it with the lawn mower or slashing it with a weed whacker.
The life spans of countless trees are reduced drastically by people damaging their trunks and thereby allowing disease organisms access. Growing fruit in the city can give an urban landscape some rural and rustic qualities. Obtaining fruits as impeccable as those in the big box supermarket may require you to adopt the same measures used to achieve them – a heavy regimen of fungicide and insecticide spraying. Do yourself and the urban environment a big favor. Temper your standard of what is acceptable for eating; beneath that slightly marred surface is likely the sweetest fruit you will ever taste. Consider gravitating toward varieties with a reputation for insect and disease resistance. The real key to success with fruit trees and shrubs is to get excited about the idea of growing fruit in the city. Translate that interest into exploring the information available to help you with your choices and questions. Once you plant a fruit tree or shrub, nurture it and it will reward you and the community.
See Also: Arts: Native Plants