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

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.

grow­ing op­tions

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.


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 abc­

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