Space is a big hurdle when it comes to growing fruit trees in a city yard, says Justin Newcombe
I'm about to drop some massive palms, sacrificial lambs, if you will, to a bigger garden plan but that's another story - I'll keep you posted. In their place I plan to plant a small orchard. Growing fruit trees in the city poses a few problems especially when it comes to maximising use of the space and yield. And then of course there's the question of aesthetics. Space seems to me to be one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to maximising yield from trees. Choosing the correct tree for the site and positioning it well are key, as is maintenance.
Then there is the ground under the trees, there's usually lots of it that you can't let lie. You could just grow the lawn up to the trunk. But then you just have to mow it. Field trials prove without a doubt that this is detrimental to the performance of your tree, and mowing becomes a real sod. In fact mowing around several trees can become so frustrating there is a tendency to bump into them, damaging the fragile bark around the trunk. A few of you may have resorted to weed whacking and a desperate few to "munter grafting" with the chainsaw. Avoid these scenarios at all costs by, at the very least, mulching around your trees to the drip line.
In an urban environment, where design and structure are desirable a big swath of brown mulch may look a little boring. So what do you plant under your cherished fruit trees that both looks good and earns its keep? If you have your trees as a border or next to a fence, a small hedgerow of cherry guavas in front of the taller trees can look rather smart. They can be clipped into tight hedges or kept looser to improve yield. Guava is well known for improving the pollination of citrus and looks rather smart with feijoa, among others. Raspberries are a good option, and in the right conditions so are blueberries and strawberries.
If you've got deeper groups of trees you can under-plant with a mixture of herbs and flowers including lavender, rosemary and chives. In the summer shade of deciduous trees try basil and coriander. Colourful borders using large drifts of calendula and lobelia add continuity. Garlic, onions and rocket can also be good options, especially with apple trees. Bulbs give you wonderful spring colour and colourful cyclamen will head off those winter blues. Foxgloves add some height and variety.
To really have your underplanting do double duty, use dandelion to mine trace elements from the soil. You could also use chicory, although it tends to discourage earthworms. Borage brings on bees and the pollinators and is prolific. Then there's comfrey. This is a wonderful plant for any avid gardener as it has a deep tap root and is rich in potassium. Comfrey foliage can be harvested ruthlessly throughout summer and used in your compost as an activator layer. It is great as a tonic when you soak leaves in water to make up a tea and spray it directly on to the garden. Or use the leaves as a lining for any potato trench. Lay it as a mulch around your hungry trees.
It's important to consider how you want your small orchard to look, but if you want to have healthy trees laden with fruit then make sure you consider the health of the trees first. Diversity and careful plant and positioning choices are key. I've found you can bend most plant types into a variety of design genres but many design sins are readily forgiven when your plants look as though they're pleased to be there.