A Guide to Fruit Trees in the Home Garden

I’ve recently become the caretaker of two important places – an abandoned garden and a cool climate nursery. The garden is a monster, with a dense overgrowth of shrubs and trees sprouting from every direction under the sun. The only way to think about the space without feeling overwhelmed is to categorise it into individual pockets – the northern corner, the front gate, the cotoneaster fiasco. One thing I can imagine without a degree of anxiety is an orchard. Romantic notions of precisely spaced fruit trees fill my dreams, ladders perched at the base of their trunks ready to welcome visitors to their canopies in search of hidden fruit. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many movies filmed in Northern Italy, but the desire to begin my fruit tree growing adventure is strong.

An espaliered pear tree growing against the barn at Mickey Robertson's Glenmore House. Image by Lucy Munro

This is where the nursery comes in handy. If you think a cool climate nursery goes to sleep for the winter in the same way that the deciduous plants and trees that it houses does, think again. Winter time is bare root time. As temperatures drop to minus and below, hundreds of bundles of dormant ornamental and fruit trees roll in, their roots bare from the earth. Customers appear out of the woodwork, selecting their chosen trees with a careful eye and transporting them home to blanket with soil in a hole prepared weeks before.

I shared glances of amazement with these customers as the fruit trees were unloaded – apples, pears, stone-fruits, figs, pomegranates, almonds and berries in every shape and size. Some with limbs long and whippy while others were short and squat. Before departing, each person shared me with their plans for their new tree: a garden of stone-fruits for the grandchildren to pick and eat when they visit for school holidays, a pink lady apple to espalier around the clothes line, cherries to give as gifts to parents-in-law and a gorgeous brown turkey fig paid for with every last dollar saved over the previous month.

The excitement about the prospect of their fruit tree adventure was infectious, and before long, I was heading for the drawing board to resolve what could and couldn’t be lugged back to the abandoned garden with me, my imagination alight.”

Every garden has its own microclimate. Here, an assembly of honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and hawthorne guard a lone lemon tree from frost and wind while the local wallabies keep the tree pruned. Image by Lucy Munro

If you’re even the slightest bit interested in the idea of growing more fruits and vegetables in your garden, I highly recommend the Digger’s Club The Australian Fruit and Vegetable Garden by Clive Blazey and Jane Varkulevicius. Even if you aren’t, Clive will soon convince you. He makes a strong case for growing your own food for a number of ecological, tasty and aesthetic reasons, ‘Isn’t a persimmon in autumn as exquisite as any magnolia in spring?’ he writes. Clive will even tempt you to begin replacing all your camellias with avocado trees – so read at your garden’s own risk! But the information inside is unsurpassed, highly specific and relevant to any person in any climate zone across Australia.

Below is a process which will guide you on your way to turning your backyard into a forest of fruit trees.

Make a list
This is where you can embrace your inner romantic.

What’s the biggest, grandest, wildest idea you can possibly dream of?”

15m long lemon walk? Sounds great! Been to Spain and basked amongst the olive groves recently? Jot it. Hoping to grow some native fruits? Let your imagination run wild! Don’t even think about it, just let the idea float to your thoughts and write it down. I’m going to go ahead and add to my list one of my favourite tropical fruits, pumelo (Citrus maxima). There’s no reason why it should ever grow where I live, but it’s on my mind so it’s going on the list. Now that’s an adventurous idea!

Make another list
This is to get an idea of what will actually grow in your area. Get yourself some good reading material to research your particular climate and the fruits available to you. Google, drop into your local nursery to check out what’s on offer and ask people living in your area what grows best for them. Consulting the Diggers book, I can see that I’m in a cold climate zone with 120 or less growing days a year and I know from first-hand experience that heavy frosts up to -12°C can be a problem, a detail I’ll need to add to my list. Fruiting varieties that tend to grow well in my climate include things like apples, pears and berries – a vastly different catalogue compared to someone living in tropical North Queensland. Don’t be deterred – regardless of wherever you are, there is an abundance of fruit trees suitable for your area.

Time to be at a least a little realistic…
This step isn’t as much fun as the first two because it usually involves scaling down on the big ideas, but comparing your two lists realistically now will save you from major heartache later on – nobody wants to be the person crying over a dead tree and an empty bank account. Cross reference the two – is there anything that matches up? If so, then heck yes! Put it on the top of the plant-it list. This is also a good time to remove things that definitely won’t work. Unfortunately for me, it’s highly unlikely that pumelo will grow in my cool climate area – they have a particularly low tolerance to cold, not to mention minus temperatures, so for the sake of pumelos everywhere I’ll be striking it from my list.

This isn’t to say you can’t experiment or be a little adventurous when choosing what to grow – every garden has its own microclimate after all.”

In my abandoned garden, a spectacular lemon tree grows prolific and strong despite years of neglect and attack from wallabies, sheltered from the frosts and wind by an assembly of jagged honey locust trees. Man-made structures such as green houses, hot houses and orangeries will also allow you access to a much wider palette of fruits from tropical climates, so if you live in Hobart but your heart is set on experimenting with growing mangoes, there are some avenues possibly available to you, but make sure you do your research!

You’ll need to also be realistic about factors like climate, where you’re planning on growing your trees, space requirements and access to water. Ask yourself questions like what aspect does my planting area face? Do I have enough water to keep this plant alive if drought strikes? How much room do I have? The great news for inner city folk looking for maximum production for minimum space is that grafted dwarfing varieties are becoming increasingly available each year, meaning they can be contained in courtyards and pots. A new strain of columnar fruiting trees called Ballerina grow to be only 60cm wide and 3m high, an ideal size for small urban gardens.

Espaliered apple trees frame the walls of Mickey Robertson's kitchen garden at Glenmore House. Image by Lucy Munro
Bundles of mid-summer prunings from the fruiting trees at Glenmore House to be used as staking material. Image by Mickey Robertson

Pollinating or self-pollinating?
So, you’ve just about finalised your list of fruits, but have you considered whether they are pollinating or self-pollinating? Are there male and female types required for fruit production, say in the case of kiwi fruit where one male plant pollinates up to five females (phew!)? Many fruits require planting of different varieties that produce flowers and fruit at the same time, such as Fameuse and Granny Smith apples, to produce a crop. Don’t get caught out on this one!

Meaning shoulder in French, espalier is a style of growing and pruning trees horizontally against a structure, like wires, a fence or a wall. Growing fruit trees in this way creates a higher yield of fruit, as the sap will flow horizontally slowly to the buds rather than shooting up the tree to create excess foliage. Dwarf varieties are ideal as they will develop fruit quickly (within two years in some varieties) and won’t grow excessively large. Fruit trees that work well for espaliering are pears, apples, stone fruit and lemons. When grown successfully, espaliering also looks very impressive and structured, though they can be difficult to net.

I first encountered espaliered fruit trees in the grand gardens of Europe, but a gorgeous example much closer to home exists in the Camden garden of Mickey Robertson at Glenmore House. A master of this method, I asked Mickey what advice she could give to first time espalier growers.

With espaliers, you need to be vigilant, especially when they are young. Try not to miss the very best option of a branch to train how you want it,” says Mickey.

“Be sure to keep your prunings once they get established. I find the espaliered fruit trees put on exponential growth here straight after fruiting, so in mid-summer I take out all those lovely long, often straight rods that are heading for the sky. I strip their leaves, bundle them up and use them in the kitchen garden as staking material. You will get at least two seasons out of them, and whether you use them as ‘pea sticks’ or to demarcate areas where you’ve scattered seed, as I do, they can become a feature in their own right. Each of the fruit trees have a different coloured wood and texture, so you can end up with a quite pretty effect.”

Plan out your space and plant!
So, you finally know what you want to grow, it’s now time to plan out how your selection will best fit into your space.

In an area no bigger than a domestic front yard, any gardener can grow a year’s supply of fruit and vegetables,” writes Clive Blazey.

The key is to be smart – if you’re low on space, choose self-fertile varieties, dwarfing stock, container plants and utilise espaliering to maximise your space. For those with larger areas or country gardens, you can enjoy the beauty of mixing fruit trees with ornamental varieties or create an orchard space that experiments with a plethora of fruits. Plan out your space before planting, keep varieties together which harvest at the same time for ease of netting (protection from birds and hungry wildlife), think about the amount of sunlight your trees will receive, what type of sun (early morning, afternoon) and their exposure to elements like wind and frost.

Although you can plant fruit trees any time during the year, mid-winter bare root planting is ideal as trees are cheaper and dormant root systems mean there is less chance trees will be disturbed during planting. Water your trees in well and pay attention to how they look and their size so you can monitor future growth.

Last minute details
To prevent many of the fungal diseases fruit trees are prone to, spray your trees (NOT apricots or citrus) with organic lime sulphur fungicide in mid-winter while trees are bare. You should also remove any old leaves or debris from the base of the tree during this time to prevent the spread of disease. Mulch well and await your spring blooms and summer crop!

One last thing
There are exceptions to every rule.

Plants are just like people, with their own personalities and temperaments.”

Even if you provide the perfect spot in the perfect site and climate, sometimes a tree just won’t perform – the same goes for a tree thriving in a spot it should never be able to stay alive in. Even though preparation is key, sometimes it all just turns sour anyway. It’s all part of the adventure – the best you can do is research properly, give it a go and learn from your experience. Who knows what you might discover!


Header image of an espaliered pear tree growing on the barn at Glenmore House by Mickey Robertson.

An existing grapevine grows wild and untended in the abandoned garden. Image by Lucy Munro