Benicia is a natural mecca for fruit trees. Our hot growing season and cool winters are ideal for growing a wide variety of fruits, and the summer breezes keep many diseases to a minimum. A walk through most downtown alleyways will reveal an enticing array of citrus, apples, apricots, pears, peaches, figs, pomegranates, vineyards, and more. These plants are grown by local families not only for their delicious fruit, but also for their enchanting beauty, summer shade, and redolent blossoms.
Not long ago, fruit trees typically took many years to start bearing after planting, required significant yard space, and often bore daunting harvests that would go to waste. However, in recent decades, a quiet revolution has occurred in the way fruit trees are grown at home. “Backyard Orchard Culture” has turned thousands of years of farming practice on its head, and solves many common problems for those who want to grow fruit in suburban spaces.
Dwarfing: The development of modern dwarfing rootstocks has been central to the emergence of Backyard Orchard Culture. These rootstocks control the size of a mature tree to more manageable dimensions. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees sold in local nurseries have root systems that are ideal for the heavy clay soil so common in Benicia. And happily, trees grown on these modern rootstocks usually begin bearing fruit within a couple years of planting.
Multi-grafts: Another common feature of Backyard Orchard Culture is the practice of grafting more than one fruit variety onto the same tree. Instead of harvesting a large crop of one type of apple for instance, we can grow several different varieties on the same tree, each with different ripening seasons, and enjoy tree-ripe fruit continuously from July to January! Once considered a garden novelty, multi-graft trees are now a highly practical mainstay of the home orchard. Multi-grafts are widely available from nurseries, and grafting is fun and easy to learn (see Grafting Fruit Trees For Fun, Faster Harvests & Higher Yield, Benicia Magazine, February 2015).
Compact plantings: Backyard Orchard Culture abandons traditional guidelines for spacing trees far apart. In fact, planting three or four trees in the same hole is a common practice. The benefit is the same as with multi-grafts: fruit diversity from a compact space. Espalier is another technique to grow fruit in a narrow stretch such as a side yard, or against a garage or fence. And many dwarf trees can be grown in containers, yielding good crops year after year.
Summer pruning: Orchards have traditionally been pruned during the winter dormant season. The tree senses a survival threat, and in response to the pruning it sends out new growth and an abundance of fruiting wood. For a commercial grower this is nearly always desirable, but for the backyard orchardist, summer is usually a better time for this chore. Working in good weather is more enjoyable, and summer pruning helps to manage tree size by curtailing the amount of energy stored in the root system over the winter.
Heirloom and novel varieties: In contrast to the limited and staid selections available in supermarkets, the home orchardist can choose among hundreds of different heirloom fruit varieties, which offer up an explosion of variety, flavor, and character. It certainly is possible to grow the familiar supermarket fruits at home. But the heirloom varieties invariably taste better, may be more suitable to local microclimates, and are often more disease resistant and easier to grow. Better nurseries (such as Mid City Nursery and Navlet’s) carry heirloom fruit trees, and a wide selection is available from www.treesofantiquity.com.
In addition to the antique or heirloom fruits, new varieties are continually being bred for the home grower—including the trendy “interspecifics,” which are actually genetic (non-GMO) hybrid crosses of familiar stone fruits. Going by names such as pluots, apriums, and nectaplums, interspecific fruits are now widely available in nurseries, and their emphasis is all on flavor.
According to a recent major study, an average commercially grown apple travels over 1,500 miles before it reaches the supermarket, representing a significant carbon footprint for that crop. Grapes travel a whopping 2,100 miles! And especially if the California drought persists, concerns are mounting regarding some of the water intensive and environmentally damaging practices at commercial farms. There is perhaps no better way to help the environment and enhance quality of life than to bring the entire food production cycle to within a few steps of your own back door—whether that is an apartment balcony or a rangy rural lot. And with Backyard Orchard Culture, it is now easier and more enjoyable than ever before.