Giving Trees: How to Grow Fruit in Your Backyard
So there’s a bare spot in your yard. Perhaps you’ve been daydreaming of plucking an orange for breakfast, just steps from your backdoor. Growing fruit trees can be incredibly rewarding with a little bit of hard work.
San Diego has a unique growing climate thanks to its geography between the coast and the desert. We grow trees and plants that enjoy our mild, arid weather. However, some varieties of fruit trees are not suitable for the San Diego climate because they require the dormancy and rest of a cold winter.
Choosing a Tree
When picking out your new tree, consider both your own preferences and the tree’s destination. What fruit would you be happy to collect 20 pounds of? Are you a lemonade lover or an apple enthusiast? Select a spot on your property with full sun and enough space to handle the width and height of a full-grown a tree. Many trees come in dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard sizes.
“Chill hours” refers to the hours each winter in which air temperatures are between 32° and 45°F. According to UC Davis, last winter Torrey Pines State Park experienced 30 chill hours, whereas Sacramento experienced 714 hours. San Diego weather is ideal for trees with low chill-hour requirements, so when shopping at your local nursery look for a tree with 300/200 hours or less.
A few favorite varieties in Southern California include:
Apples: Anna Apple, Dorsett Apple, Pink Lady
Citrus: Eureka Lemon, Cara Cara Orange, Meyer Lemon, Kishu Mandarin, Gold Nugget Mandarin, Valencia Orange
Fig: Blackjack, Panache, White Kadota, Celeste
Avocado: Bacon, Fuerte, Hass, Reed
Peaches: August Pride, Mid-Pride, Bonita, Red Baron
Other trees to consider: plum, mulberry, sapote, cherimoya, loquat, kumquat, macadamia, pomegranate. Talk to your local nursery and ask for recommendations for varieties in your neighborhood.
High-density planting is a unique orchard idea that involves planting multiple trees in a single hole. About 18 inches should separate each tree. This method may crimp the overall height of the tree but this is an advantage for home growers. (For example, a standard orange tree at full maturity is around 30 feet tall). High-density planting has the advantage of increasing crosspollination among the trees, which means more fruit for you! Practitioners recommend planting different varieties of the same kind of tree and even planting varieties with a staggered blossoming schedule. For example, a cluster of three plum trees (varieties Beauty, Santa Rosa and Burgundy) could take up less space than a single tree and produce fruit successively from June to August.
High-density planting or not, follow these general directions for planting your backyard fruit tree.
Plant in the spring in order for the trees to be well-established before the heat of the summer.
- Dig a hole the depth of the root ball and twice its diameter to allow for future root growth.
- Gently massage the outside of the rootball.
- If planting a bare-root tree, make sure there’s space for each individual root.
- Place a low-nitrogen-based organic fertilizer in the hole or mix the fertilizer into the soil that will be used to refill the hole.
- Place tree in the hole and fill with soil while lightly compacting as you do. Add soil to cover the root ball, up to the original soil level from when the tree was potted.
- Give tree a deep watering and mulch at least 3–4 feet around the base of the tree.
Vitamins and Haircuts
Apply organic fertilizer two or three times throughout the growing season. Broadcast the fertilizer around the soil basin of the tree and avoid pile-ups. Irrigate to dissolve the fertilizer and then cover with mulch. Mulch is a wonderful ally to trees because it retains moisture, deters weeds and encourages microbiotic health in the soil and roots.
Prune each summer to control size but do not “top” or buzz-cut the tree. Summer pruning is best done sparingly in order to avoid sunburn and loss of important photosynthetic leaf material. Make sure your tools are sharp for making clean and easy cuts. If working with diseased material, clean your tools with an alcohol or bleach solution before moving to another tree.
Prune each winter before the buds begin to pop. This is the time to remove dead branches and make cuts to increase airflow and structure. For example, prune a branch that crosses and may touch or lie on other branches. Healthy structure makes for a happy tree but do not prune more than 25–30% of the tree volume in one pruning session. To summarize: Summer pruning is for size control and winter pruning is for shape and invigoration. For further reference, check out The American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce.
Besides nutritious soil, trees need sun and consistent water. The quantity of water depends on the size of the tree, the heat and humidity of each day and the way the water is delivered (by hand, sprinkler or drip irrigation). One way to way to determine if your tree needs water is to feel the soil a few inches deep to check for moisture. Keep an eye out for pests, and spray the leaves with a hose on a strong spray setting as a first line of defense. With a San Diego–suitable variety, proper planting technique, thoughtful biannual pruning and the occasional fertilizer, you can have the productive backyard tree of your dreams. Happy growing!