The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Gardening: The urban orchard

By Justin Newcombe

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Justin Newcombe discusses how to get the best from your fruit trees.

Fruit trees provide an annual harvest and, cleverly planted, other benefits such as shade and privacy. Photo / Dean Purcell
Fruit trees provide an annual harvest and, cleverly planted, other benefits such as shade and privacy. Photo / Dean Purcell

Having enough space in an urban garden to have a meaningful orchard is something we can struggle with.

Many of us want to grow our own fruit but can't afford swathes of precious footprint to do it. It can be challenging to get everything we want into the space without taking up a whole lot of ground we might need for the dog, the kids or even parking the boat. So how do we approach this tricky problem?

The first thing I've had to do is change my mindset as to what an orchard is. Instead of neat rows of trees or a specific area designated "orchard" I've had to realise fruiting trees can also perform an ornamental function which can work well in a contemporary context.

Background screening or shade for example can be beautifully achieved using the mighty avocado. Although a bit temperamental in the early planting and development this lush heavy bearer can be shaped annually and worked seamlessly into many garden styles including native and, especially, sub-tropical.

Citrus have a long history of very stylish use in pots and planters or as standards in a formal garden. I'm fond of using them as slightly unruly hedges. The Tahitian lime is good for this as a profusion of foliage combined with an abundance of fruit give the perfect balance between form and function: the key for any urban orchard. Feijoas also make a great hedge. However I find fruiting can be compromised if the tree is pruned too strictly because they need secondary wood to fruit. Instead I have them in a more formal situation. I keep my feijoa trimmed in a moderately tidy configuration and have under-planted it with rhubarb. The rhubarb takes the place of shrubs or other ornamentals and tucked behind a buxus hedge actually look quite smart. Along with the buxus hedge, a pot of cyclamens adds colour and form.

Another favourite of mine is the apple. Apple trees have a lovely white blossom in spring which gives way to distinctive cheerful leaves, with the fruit also providing another seasonal decoration and an edible one at that. The smooth trunk and branches are flexible and easily trained making them perfect for topiary or espalier. Use apples instead of flowering ornamentals such as magnolias and cherries. They may not be as spectacular during spring, but they provide a similar form for the rest of the year. During winter they drop their leaves, letting in more light which can be important for a small city garden.

Figs have quite a different foliage and structure but are no less attractive. A small boulevard on a driveway or perhaps a boundary planting gives a rich green look for nine months of the year and with solid blocks of under-planting you can achieve a highly attractive finish with little or no compromise. Persimmons, plums, pears and peaches all have their visual virtues and if used in the right way will leave your neighbours wondering how you managed to make room for such an abundant orchard.

I think you're getting my point: I've veered away from separating my orchard from the rest of my garden and have simply combined the aesthetic virtues of edible plants with those used for their form or colour.

3 of the best: Winter herbs

1. Bay leaves
Great with a casserole, stew or roast.

2. Thyme
Goes with everything from spuds to chicken to and come spring is often the last herb standing.

3. Chilli
I know this doesn't grow in winter but nothing warms you as fast than short, sharp chilli blast.

- NZ Herald

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