by Maria Reidelbach
Last month in my column about bees, Chris Harp, local apiarist, explained that the blossoms of fruit
trees are one of the richest sources of food for bees. Just after I wrote the piece, there was more bad news about the colony collapse disease that threatens the entire honeybee species. What a great time to think about adding more blossoming fruit trees to a garden both for our six-legged allies and for our own delight!
If foraging wild food is like a pick-up, and growing annual vegetables is like a summer fling, planting a fruit or nut tree is like getting married. Both marriage and tree take time to get established, but if healthy, both endure for a very, very long time. “You plant a pear for your heir,” is the old saying that John Wightman repeated to me. John is the extremely knowledgeable farmer of Wightman Fruit Farm and an NRCCA Certified Northeastern Crop Advisor. He sobered me about the impact of, and the amount of care needed by, the unimposing twig with roots that you place in your garden. If all goes well that twig will become a towering presence, so you want to take your time and choose very, very carefully. If you choose well, John adds, well-placed and -tended fruit and nut trees can add a lot of value to a garden both visually and productively. He points out succinctly, “Trees are fantastic at turning solar energy into stuff that tastes good.”
Siting a tree in an optimal location is crucial. The main conditions that affect a tree’s success are: the amount of space for mature size, amount of sunlight, the condition and composition of the soil, water drainage, exposure, wind direction and soil contamination. Many species need to be planted in pairs in order to fruit abundantly (kinda romantic, I think), so you’ve either got to have room for two, or get your neighbor to plant one. The permaculture method takes the art of siting to a new level. Ethan Roland is the principal of Appleseed Permaculture in Accord and for the last seven years has been planning balanced ecosystems that contain a wide variety of food-bearing plants, from annual vegetables to berries to fungus to trees. Ideally, all live in a symbiotic community that makes the best of a site’s conditions and that maximizes self-maintenance and sustainability.
The variety of tree you choose will have a huge impact on your success. Counterintuitively, the most obvious choices are not the best! Our Hudson Valley climate spans the USDA hardiness zones from 5 to 7. This rules out citrus fruits and tropical fruits, obviously, but also makes some borderline species much more challenging. Peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums will grow here, but you court failure at many turns. Successful growers take these limitations seriously and instead choose species and varieties that thrive here.
Elizabeth Ryan is a local ag powerhouse, one of the founders of the New York City greenmarket and farmer of four orchards in Dutchess and Ulster counties. For home growers she recommends pears; the trees don’t freeze and although they grow slowly, they will live 100 years (plant a pear for your heir!). Elizabeth also suggests the sweet cherry varieties Schmidts Biggarreau and Hedelfingen, and sour cherries, which I think are the most insanely delicious fruit ever.
Lee Reich is a New Paltzian who has written a bunch of books about all aspects of edible landscaping. He’s got a master’s degree in soil science, and a doctorate in horticulture. Lee grows a stunning variety of fruits and vegetables on his “farmden” (farm and garden). He recommends native varieties because they evolved especially for our environment. These include the pawpaw (get a named variety), the persimmon (Szukis is good), pear (dwarf trees do well), sour cherry trees (Cornelian), and chestnuts (peach chestnut). Wightman recommends dwarf varieties for small gardens.
Cultivated fruit and nut trees need more care than ornamental or native trees because it’s heavy-lifting to grow fruit every year (literally): they need species-specific feeding and pruning, they are vulnerable to pests and diseases (who also like to eat fresh fruit), and some more particular than others. Apples, as it turns out, are incredibly difficult to grow, and require specialized pruning and multiple pesticide sprayings, whether organic or not. It’s not rocket science, but if you don’t do it right you probably won’t get fruit and your tree could die. Who knew?
Many smart growers choose native fruit trees with unfamiliar fruit. Natives are both hearty and disease and pest resistant. Philip Perlman is a retired video and filmmaker and a founder of The Kitchen, a performing arts org in New York City. These days he farmdens in Accord, and has become so smitten with the pawpaw tree that he has planted over 60 of them—a real pawpaw plantation! Pawpaws are a delicious, tropical-tasting fruit that is distantly related to the banana. Philip sells his extras to the High Falls Food Co-op, where you can get them for a few weeks in September. Lee Reich points out that pawpaw trees are very beautiful in all seasons. They also begin bearing in just three or four years. Another native tree that is recommended by the experts I asked is the persimmon. Philip likes the hearty American persimmon varieties, which bear a juicy, sweet-tart fruit in the fall. Ethan recommends mulberry trees, with a delicious fruit that looks like a blackberry.
Chestnuts take a long time—7 to 10 years to fruit—but they, too, are a favorite with our mavens. A generous neighbor gave me some fresh chestnuts once and they were shockingly good. Most native chestnuts were wiped out in the 20th century by blight, but now there are new blight-resistant varieties. Lee recommends hybrids and Philip likes the flavor of Chinese chestnuts best. Hazelnuts are also a hearty native nut and they grow in curious little cabbage-like shrouds.
There’s something I haven’t mentioned that is a problem with almost all fruit trees. Squirrels are the elephant in the room (or, er, garden). Philip recommends planting your trees far enough apart so that the little buggers can’t jump from tree to tree. Birds, also, can be voracious. Chris Hewitt (CW publisher) once told me that smart old farmers would plant mulberries next to their cherry trees because the birds liked mulberries better.
I hope that I’ve whetted your appetite for tree fruit and nuts. But do your homework! Catalogs may entice, but as John Wightman points out, “You don’t build a house by going to the lumberyard first,” and “don’t plant more than you can care for.” It’s a bit of work, but the payoff? John confides that “my apples taste better to me than any other apples do,” and your fruit probably will, too. He thinks it’s the taste of pride.
Maria Reidelbach is the proprietress of Homegrown Mini-Golf on Kelder’s Farm: wacky putting greens set in a tasting garden of edible plants.
Tree fruit related events in May:
Lee Reich plant sale (keep an eye on his blog for details)
Kickstarter project to rebuild the historic cider house at Breezy Hill Orchard: kickstarter.com, search Breezy Hill
Appleseed Permaculture: appleseedpermaculture.com
Lee Reich’s website and blog: leereich.com
Fruit Production for the Home Gardener, Penn State: http://extension.psu.edu/plants/gardening/fphg
The Pruning Book, by Lee Reich
Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich
Landscaping with Fruit, by Lee Reich
The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, by Rosalind Creasy
New York Nut Growers Association: nynga.org
Northern Nut Growers Association: nutgrowing.org
Local commercial orchards mentioned above:
Breezy Hill Orchard, Staatsburg
Stone Ridge Orchard, Stone Ridge
Wightman Fruit Farm, Kerhonkson