There are few things finer in life than going out of your house on a summer’s morning – perhaps holding your child by their hand – to pick the fruit you will eat with your breakfast. Plucking a ripe pear or a crisp apple from the branch, savoring its aroma and looking forward to the fresh, deep taste that comes from cultivating crops in harmony with nature is a wondrous thing.
Most permaculture gardeners with sufficient space will include at least one fruit tree in their garden design. It can provide a focal point in a small suburban plot, or even, if a dwarf variety, add variety to a courtyard garden. Fruit trees are typically the centerpieces of the common permaculture planting technique of guilds, and they bring a lot of benefits to any site, from shade to protect plants and deep roots to improve the soil structure, to attracting birds to the garden and, of course, providing a crop for eating.
For those with more space, an orchard can be a very attractive option. Indeed, orchards are arguably the most likely legacy of your permaculture garden, as with a little care and attention, they will provide fruit for years to come. While the specific attributes of your site and local climate will ultimately influence your choice of fruit trees and the location of your orchard, there are some general guidelines to consider when planning an orchard on your permaculture plot.
Orchards are typically a design feature for Zone 2 of your permaculture plot. Requiring less attention than the vegetables, herbs and fruits in Zone 1, they will still benefit from attention every few days – to check for any potential pest problems or to see if wildlife has been able to access the orchard, for example. You will visit more often when the crop is ready for harvest, and if you allow livestock such as pigs to forage in the orchard, you will want to check on them every day to ensure their needs are being met. However, once established, orchards need very little actual maintenance; with the correct planting when instituting your orchard, it should pretty much take care of itself.
Orchards need a lot of direct sunlight for the trees to grow robustly and to provide abundant, healthy crops – ideally six to eight hours a day. Be aware of any larger trees – or trees that will potentially grow large in the future – that are adjacent to your orchard, either on your plot or your neighbor’s land. These trees may shade out your fruit trees, and compete with them for soil nutrients. However, fruit trees are also susceptible to damage from string winds, so you might want to consider planting trees to act as a windbreak, as long as they won’t shade out the fruit trees.
They also need well-drained soil. A slight slope can be particularly apt as it allows water to drain slowly and avoids the risk of soil erosion. If planting on flat land, make sure the soil is humus-rich by adding lots of organic material, and not too high in clay.
Choose Trees
The two primary things to consider when choosing fruit trees for your orchard are which are suited to your location, and what fruit you like to eat. However, most fruit trees will flourish in most situations given enough sunlight and a well-drained soil. It is worth bearing in mind that some fruit trees – such as Golden Delicious apples, Bartlett pears and most varieties of peach – self-pollinate, meaning you can have just a single specimen in the orchard and it will still set fruit. Others require at least two individual trees in order to cross-pollinate and set fruit. If neighbors have trees of the fruit you want to grow on their property, you may well get pollination that way, but having at least two on your plot is the best guarantee. For these species, plant the specimens next to each other to assist with pollination (and to make harvesting easier).
Preparing the soil before you plant your orchard is a very good investment to make. It is much harder to adjust the soil once the trees are in the ground. Add lost of organic material to the soil and water it in well. Not only will this help with drainage and nutrient supply, it should get the soil pH to around the desired level. Most fruit species prefer a soil pH of between 6.5 and 7. If your soil is still too alkaline, add some composted animal manure or compost with coffee ground in it, while if the soil is too acidic, consider adding some organic agricultural lime.
Consider the space that your fruit trees will need when fully grown. You want them to be close to each other but not so close that their plan an orchardcanopies intermingle, as this can affect growth and crop productivity. Individual species will requires distinct spacing, but as a general rule you want to allow a 10-foot circle around a dwarf fruit tree, and a 25-foot circle around a standard-sized tree. If possible orientate your trees north to south so they get maximum exposure to the sun.
Allowing sufficient space for your fruit trees also gives you room to plant companion plants around each tree in a guild that will benefit both the fruit tree and the companion plants. For instance, the tree can give shade to lower-lying legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil that the tree accesses. Different fruit species favor different companions, but an apple tree guild, for example, could contain dill and fennel that attract pollinating insects, as well artichokes, whose roots help keep the soil in good condition, and nasturtiums to repel pest insects. It is worth considering that most fruit tree species do not do well if surrounded by grass, as the grass competes with the tree roots for soil nutrients and moisture. Plant companions that suppress grass growth, such as leeks, garlic or daffodils. You can also mulch around the tree – although always leave a space around the trunk.

41 Responses

  1. We’ve got six fruit trees here but only planted them two years ago and an early frost ruined the first harvest. Fingers crossed for peaches, nectarines, cherries, apples, and two plums…. Can’t imagine how cool it will be if we get a full harvest to go with the veggies, raspberries and strawberries!!! All credit to Roxanne Barber for our bounty.

  2. Hydration and a composting routine. What fish to raise in my water tanks what other plants to plant to balance the ecosystem and keep it sustainable. Red worms or black fly larva? Dehydrate, freeze,ferment, or can the fruit for the winter? Will they survive in the soil while it is being recovered or do I have to recover the soil first? Windmill pump or solar pump?

  3. I live in a small city and through hit and miss I have been trying to figure out what plants will and will not work where I live. I have had to figure out things like where to plant in regards to sunlight, wind and space available. I had some serious mistakes last year I do not want to repeat this year. I want to grow more of an edible landscape and not a lawn. Last year I tried container growing and made a few mistakes. My potatoes were doing great until a tree fell on them and then I used to small of containers for midget melons. You learn by your mistakes though. I am thinking of using raised beds instead this year where I can because the soil here is hard and the owner of the property has approved vegetables but no fruiting trees.

  4. I just stay away from planting anything that attracts gorillas. It’s not that I don’t like gorillas I just don’t like walking under gorilla infested trees (they are worse than birds if you know what I mean). :^)))

  5. I would love to do it if I had the space. As it is, on our tiny plot in the suburb, we have 3 apple trees, two peach trees, a pear tree, and 2 cherry trees. We had a lot of evergreens (23+) removed to make room for a border of hedges and the rest of our gardens.

  6. I live in suburbia too. But I have 2 new apple trees, 2 new elderberry trees, and 2 potted key lime trees. I intend to plant an all-in-one almond tree this spring and eventually plant kiwi trees and olive trees in the next couple of years. That’s in addition to my garden of 21 raised beds. 🙂

  7. Anybody have a clue on how to thwart barbarian squirrels? They ate every single Apricot, apple, grape, plum in my city garden. Aggravating as I even netted the grapes. The only thing they left alone was sour cherries.

  8. If you caught shooting squirrels in the city you can be charged with 1. Shooting a fire arm in the city 2 animal abuse. I have a Havaheart trap but then where do you take them that does not add to somebody else’s problem? Otherwise a good solution Amanda Copeland.

  9. It’s on the to do list. Apples, persimmons, pears, plums and citrus seem to bear the best here. And then a berry patch and some grapes. We don’t get enough chill or heat hours for most stone fruit to bear consistently well for us

  10. Love my backyard orchard. Cherry, plums, peach, pears, almond. Adding apples and fig this Spring. Out of room after that w a 60’x120′ veg garden, about 20 ‘ of blackberries and 20′ of raspberries. Last but definitely not least, a 6’x12’ asparagus patch.

  11. There is some interesting work out of Canada about “permaculture orchards” which stagger different trees to benefit each other and eliminate the spread of pests. There is also added a nitrogen fixing tree in the mix. We’re researching and planning to do something similar on our ranch outside Los Angeles.

  12. It says to give a standard-size tree 25 feet in diameter of space for preventing nutrient competition.. does this mean EACH TREE, for a total of 50 feet between trees or 25 foot spacing between trees?

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