Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

A Compact, Fruitful Garden Plan

As promised last post, here is a sketch of a model fruit gar­den that I saw dur­ing a work­shop last sum­mer at the Berk­shire Botan­i­cal Gar­den. This com­pact gar­den could be used or mod­i­fied slightly to fit even the small­est sub­ur­ban lot. I’ve embell­ished the orig­i­nal design with a few addi­tional ideas of my own. Even some “not nor­mally native” fruit, such as figs or dwarf cit­rus, could be grown in pots with the intent of mov­ing them to pro­tected indoor areas for win­ter. The pho­tos that fol­low are let­tered to indi­cate from where on the plan they were taken.

Plan for a compact home fruit garden

Plan for a com­pact home fruit gar­den with lots of options for dif­fer­ent fruit

Here is the gar­den plan from var­i­ous van­tage points. These pho­tos were taken in mid-June, so most fruit was still devel­op­ing. Some, such as straw­ber­ries, had already been harvested.

View from the East-West axis
Fruit garden

Fruit gar­den viewed from the east. Berk­shire Botan­i­cal Gar­den (A)

As you approach the gar­den from the east, you’ll notice rhubarb flanks the entrance arch. The two large plants will pro­vide abun­dantly for even the most ardent rhubarb lover. The native poles used to cre­ate the fences, arches, and sup­port struc­tures in this gar­den give it a serene, nat­ural feel that inte­grates eas­ily into the land­scape. Just the place you can enjoy relaxing!

Even with its relaxed feel, the gar­den is actu­ally designed on a more for­mal grid. The perime­ter fence defines the rec­tan­gu­lar garden’s shape. Two per­pen­dic­u­lar walk­ways, direct the flow of traf­fic both through the gar­den and to focal points that will appear later in other pho­tos. Vis­i­ble from this east­ern van­tage point are grape vines that soften a green­house wall. This makes-up the south­ern bound­ary of the gar­den. Sev­eral dwarf fruit trees each occupy their own square within the garden’s grid. Pot­ted blue­ber­ries define one of the two paths that bisect the garden.

Fruit garden. Berkshire Botanical Garden

A closer look (A)

This photo is just a closer view from the same spot. Note the use of var­ied nat­ural wood tex­tures and col­ors;  wood-chip mulch on the paths, pine nee­dles in the grow­ing squares, and a weathered-wood shed door as a dis­tant focal point.

Grow­ing in the grid — some possibilities
Fruit as ground cover

Var­i­ous fruit, straw­ber­ries and mel­ons, are used as the ground cover under this com­pact apple tree (B)

This square is but one of 4 that make up this com­pact fruit gar­den. In its cen­ter we see a colum­nar apple tree. Dif­fer­ent dwarf fruit trees could be planted in each of the other squares. This will allow you the pos­si­bil­ity of both an extended har­vest sea­son and a broad selec­tion of vari­eties or types of fruit based on your per­sonal pref­er­ence. Just keep cross-pollination needs in mind as you develop your plan. Note the use of more nat­ural mate­ri­als, the bam­boo piece bor­der, that cre­ate a com­pe­ti­tion free area under the tree. (The few over-zealous straw­ber­ries can be hand-pulled eas­ily enough before they get out of hand.)

Straw­ber­ries serve as an attrac­tive and pro­duc­tive ground cover. Day neu­tral vari­eties will pro­duce a mod­er­ate, con­tin­u­ous crop. They will also reduce the amount of ren­o­va­tion needed after each crop sea­son (not such an easy job in a con­fined space.) This gar­den cre­atively intro­duced an annual fruit — mel­ons — as another ground­cover. Keep­ing holis­tic grow­ing prac­tices in mind, you could also con­sider herbs, some of which serve as host plants for ben­e­fi­cial insects that prey on pests.

A Focal Point Bekons
Potted blueberries and a shady pergola

Pot­ted blue­ber­ries and a shady per­gola lead you to the relax­ing bench and font beyond ©

View­ing the gar­den now from the north, one is enticed to seek relax­ation under the vine-covered per­gola or fur­ther on; where a shaded bench and gur­gling font await. Although this entrance is flanked by large, showy foliage plants; you could as eas­ily plant fig or dwarf cit­rus trees in these pots. Con­tin­u­ing down the path, you find pot­ted blue­ber­ries. The use of pot­ted plants offers you the option of expand­ing your gar­den with plants that are either not suit­ably hardy in your cli­mate or, as in the case with the blue­ber­ries, have vastly dif­fer­ent soil or pH require­ments from the rest of the plants in the garden.

This gar­den com­bined fruit­ing and non-fruiting plants. If you would like to con­cen­trate on just fruit, the per­gola would make a fine sup­port for kiwifruit — hardy or fuzzy, depend­ing on your cli­mate. The var­ie­gated leaves of actini­dia kolomikta would add an addi­tional splash of white and red color. In this case the grape vines soften the large, plain wall of the green­house and pro­vide a shady refuge. Although most of us might only dream of hav­ing this green­house, the tech­nique is equally applic­a­ble to dis­guis­ing any other build­ing as well.

Clos­ing Shots
Pear tree espalier creates a decorative and fruitful fence

Pear tree espalier cre­ates a dec­o­ra­tive and fruit­ful fence (D)

vine-covered pergola

The espalier gen­tly nudges you to the vine-covered per­gola (D)

The pho­tos for this post were taken at a Gar­den Writ­ers Asso­ci­a­tion work­shop at the Berk­shire Botan­i­cal Gar­den (BBG) in Stock­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts last June. They were my first foray into gar­den pho­tog­ra­phy, but thanks to my very sup­port­ive col­leagues and won­der­ful teach­ers, surely not my last. Hope­fully, the lovely gar­den shown here will entice you into a fruit gar­den­ing foray if you are not already enjoy­ing pomo­log­i­cal plea­sures. If you get a chance, visit the the BBG in per­son. There is much to delight in there. I’ll close with these 2 final shots; the pear espalier and the vine cov­ered per­gola. Enjoy and fruit­ful gardening!

For all you need to know to put your fruit gar­den plan into action and grow that dream gar­den buy The Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home gar­den or buy The Back­yard Berry Book: A hands-on guide to grow­ing berries, bram­bles and vine fruit in the home gar­den.