Sophie Thomson on setting up her home orchard
Keen on growing some fruit at home? In her new book Sophie’s Patch, SOPHIE THOMSON describes how she set up her home orchard, and the planting and growing techniques she has deployed in her quest for a year-round harvest
The orchard at Sophie’s Patch contains around 100 fruit trees and is home to our flock of chooks, ducks and geese. Planting the orchard was the first thing we did when we purchased the property, as we realised that it would take several years before the trees even started to fruit, let alone reached full production. Growing our own fruits would cut our food bill tremendously.
The settlement of our property came through in late winter, and by careful planning and lots of ringing around I managed to buy 100 bare-rooted fruit trees at the end of the season. We invited 50 friends to come with a spade, gloves and a plate of food to an ‘orchard planting’. We managed to plant the 100 trees in just 90 minutes before enjoying a wonderful shared lunch. A few of the trees ended up in the wrong spot, halfway between rows, and I needed to replant about 10 per cent; however, having this working bee was a great way to get started.
fruit tree selection
The goal was to have fruits all year round. We planned to achieve this by planting many different varieties of each type of fruit, giving fruiting across the season. To extend the season further, excess produce would be stored in the large cellar under the house and in a small household cool room. Fruits that don’t store well would be bottled, frozen, dried or made into preserves.
The initial planting included: 15 apples, 10 pears, 10 apricots, 16 peaches and nectarines, 3 almonds, 3 chestnuts, 3 mulberries, 5 cherries, 3 pistachios,
10 figs, 2 persimmon, 2 quinces, 3 avocados, 3 white sapote, 3 jujubes, 3 walnuts, 2 guava, 2 olives and 2 loquats. When I chose multiple varieties, as with the 15 apples, I selected 15 different varieties ranging from early to late season, in order to spread the harvest.
As well, I included pollinating varieties for those fruits that need cross-pollination. When choosing a fruit tree, it’s important to check whether the variety you like is self-fertile or requires another tree for pollination. Trees grafted with a pollinator are also available for some fruits.
layout and preparation
The orchard block is roughly rectangular with an angled bottom. It is divided into four quadrants by broad paths that allow vehicle access. One quadrant contains the fowl yard and Sherlock the Maremma sheepdog’s pad.
The rest is given over to fruit trees.
To prepare the soil for planting, we used a cultivator to deep rip the entire area to 50–60cm deep, running parallel with the contour of the gently sloping land. This means if there are any summer showers, the rain soaks along the rips, rather than running away down the hill. The rips were spaced 1.5–2m apart, and we planted in every second rip row. The fruit trees were spaced 3–4m apart in rows, depending on the variety. This relatively close planting means that the trees will be slightly stunted and should not get as big as they would if more space was available, yet they will remain as productive as a full-sized tree.
While I’d love to say that all the trees survived and thrived, I can’t. Some died due to the heat and possibly the effects of our salty water or didn’t take to our soils, while others were ringbarked by the geese or snapped off by Sherlock the dog while he was racing around. We’ve reviewed our plant choices and replanted some, while others were swapped for tougher varieties that should tolerate our soil, water and extreme climate.
I planted several varieties of avocado, white sapote, jujube and chestnut, yet none were successful. I think the avocado and chestnut didn’t like our salty water, so
I plan to try again as we get more rainwater collected from the new sheds. I also planted a total of 100 raspberries, all of which died, and have since discovered that they don’t like the salty water either! I will try berries again down the track when I can water them with stored rainwater.
While we have space to grow lots of individual trees, it’s still possible to grow a selection of varieties with some clever planting methods or smart grafting even if your space is limited. Some are even suitable to grow in containers.
These are trees that are grafted onto a rootstock that limits the tree size. The downside is that sometimes production of fruit is also limited as, while the individual fruit is usually of the same size as on a larger tree, there’s just less of it.
This is a planting technique that allows several different deciduous fruit trees to grow in the space that it usually takes to grow just one. Choose two or three trees of a similar type and habit, and plant them with their trunks 15–30cm apart at the base. Each tree can grow on its own root system, so one variety won’t grow more vigorously than the others, as can happen with multigrafted fruit trees. The size of the combined trees remains the same as it would for just one tree, as they stunt each other and in effect grow as two halves (or three thirds) of a single plant. Prune out any limbs that grow from one variety into the space of another.
If choosing just one type of fruit, such as apple, you can choose varieties that will ripen at different times, as long as you cover their pollination requirements. Alternatively, you can choose three different types of fruits, provided they are self-fertile, such as nectarine, peach and plum.
In this technique, a number of different trees of the same family (such as citrus) are grafted on to one tree. This can work well; however, a degree of skill is needed to keep all the grafted varieties growing successfully, as they vary in vigour. The more vigorous varieties tend to take over, and the more they are pruned, the more vigorous they become.
CLOSE OR HEDGEROW PLANTING
This suits a number of fruit trees including apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and citrus. Choose specimens that have a strong central leader, and plant them 1.5−3m apart in a row (depending on the size of the variety planted). Once established, simply maintain the trees at around 3m high by 1.5m wide. Rows are best orientated north–south.
Many fruit trees can be grown very successfully on a trellis, or against a wall or fence, as espaliered or fan specimens. This form of training is ideal for apple, crabapple, lemon, pear, plum, quince and stone fruits. To establish and maintain these trees requires rigid
training and heavy pruning to keep the tree flat against its support and following the desired pattern. As an added benefit, espalier against a sunny masonry wall that retains heat to create a warm microclimate for cold-sensitive fruit trees such as citrus in cold climates.
beyond the orchard
Outside the orchard I grow a hedge of feijoa (also called pineapple guava), one of elderberry, Chilean guavas, some strawberry guavas and two medlars plus a medlar hybrid. I also have a separate grove of more than 20 citrus, planted in the early spring of 2017.
It’s important to get advice from a fruit tree specialist about the best rootstock–citrus combination for your garden. My trees have been custom-grown for me on trifoliata rootstocks designed to survive salty bore water and manage with potentially waterlogged soils. Even with this, we’ve raised the beds to at least 50cm above the original ground level to ensure good drainage. They are planted in the garden beds around our brightly coloured bike wheel arch, where crops of pumpkins and garlic have previously been grown. I plan to grow some pumpkins in between them as they grow.
At Sophie’s Patch, I planted the most commonly grown citrus – lemons, oranges and mandarins – as well as limes, grapefruits, tangelos and cumquats. If you have space, choose early-, mid- and late-season varieties to extend your harvest.
To get the most out of your space, especially with oranges and mandarins, plant trees just 2m apart. Choose trees grown on normal rather than dwarf rootstock, as close planting works to dwarf them to 2m high. Close-planted trees are still capable of producing up to 200 fruits per tree per season.
This way, they produce most of their fruits in the outer 90cm of the tree canopy. Tip-prune young trees regularly to keep them compact and encourage a good shape. Any vigorous water shoots can be reduced in size in late winter. On established trees, pruning and shaping is best done after harvest in spring. This is an edited extract from Sophie’s Patch, by Sophie Thomson, published by ABC Books, RRP $35. Available from bookstores everywhere and at abcshop.com.au.