My son’s kindergarten class took a field trip to pick apples at an orchard in Julian a couple weeks ago. My wife asked his teacher if he could go but not pick apples. Can he go on the field trip to the apple orchard but not pick apples?
Every so often we notice how strange we are.
You see, his father here has worked hard to plant a number of diverse fruit trees such that his son has something fresh to pick every day of the year. And in fact, right now there are plenty of apples ripe on the trees in the yard.
Providing fresh fruit all year for my family was my dream when we bought our house six years ago. It is only this year that for the first time we have a truly full, year-round harvest.
This post is about which trees I planted, how I chose my trees, what mistakes I’ve made, and how one might accomplish this in slightly different contexts.
Should I answer the question as to why one would want to do this in the first place? Okay, a few top reasons: better taste, cleaner and healthier for all (no poison sprays of any kind), and convenient.
General seasons of types of fruit trees
In order to have fresh fruit to pick off trees in your yard every day of the year you need two things: trees with different harvest windows, and enough of them.
Each type of fruit tree has a main harvest season. For example, peaches are mainly harvested in the middle of summer. There are some early and late varieties of peaches, but most varieties are ripe about the middle of summer. It’s useful to know these main harvest seasons when choosing trees to cover the year.
A crude summary of the main harvest seasons of different types of fruit trees is as follows: Winter through spring is covered by citrus (mandarins and oranges). Summer is for stone fruits (first apricots, then peaches and nectarines, then plums and pluots). Late summer and fall is apples and pears, and then persimmons and pomegranates too.
When I was choosing fruit trees for my yard, I had these main harvest seasons in mind, but then for specific varieties I referred to charts such as this one from Dave Wilson Nursery for deciduous fruit trees and this one from Maddock Nursery for citrus varieties. The Sunset Western Garden Book is also a good reference here.
Which trees did I choose for a year-round harvest?
Here is a chart I drew of the main dozen fruit trees that I chose and the harvest seasons of each:
Winter and spring are covered by the citrus varieties of Kishu and Gold Nugget mandarins, and Cara Cara and Valencia oranges. Summer is Blenheim apricots, then Snow Queen nectarines, then Red Baron peaches. Next come the Flavor King and Dapple Dandy pluots. In the fall are Fuji and Pink Lady apples, and then pomegranates.
The truth is that we also have some vines and berries that fill in here and there throughout the year, as well as a few other fruit trees, but the varieties on this chart show our core trees which we all love and which alone could cover the whole year.
How to choose your trees?
There are a hundred other types of fruit trees you can grow in Southern California: jujube, mango, banana, feijoa, guava, fig, and on and on. I chose ours based on what we already liked to eat, what would grow well in our yard’s climate (as far as I could tell), and what we couldn’t buy of high quality elsewhere.
For example, we don’t grow many bananas because they don’t like our chilly winters very much and we can buy decent bananas at the grocery store.
(For more on choosing fruit trees, see my post “What kind of fruit tree should you plant?”)
How many trees do you need?
Our core is a dozen trees, but there are a lot of factors that might make your needs different.
The main one, however, is how many people you are feeding. We are a family of five.
If you are just two or three people, you could get away with fewer trees but I would guess that you would still need close to a dozen varieties. You still need to cover the year; you just don’t want as much fruit at any one time. How can you accomplish that?
Multi-graft trees are one great option here. In fact, our Snow Queen nectarines and Red Baron peaches are on one tree.
The tree is about two-thirds nectarine branches and one-third peach branches. I did the grafting myself, but you can buy similar trees.
It is a small tree — I keep it pruned to only the height of my reach — and yet it still makes more fruit than our family of five can consume in some years. For only two or three people, it seems clear that a single large and productive peach tree would provide far too much fruit in a short period of time for fresh eating.
So try multi-graft trees or try planting individual trees close together. You can fit a dozen fruit trees into a surprisingly small area this way, and by doing so you’ll essentially get the production of a half a tree out of each one.
(For reference, my deciduous fruit trees are mostly planted 14 feet apart, and my citrus trees are about ten feet apart.)
In the winter of 2011-2012, I planted seven fruit trees in a row along a wall in my mom’s backyard. I spaced the trees eight feet apart, like a fruit-tree hedge. Here is how they looked after losing their leaves in their fifth winter:
One of my aunts has seven fruit trees which she keeps pruned down in her suburban backyard. From them she gets fresh fruit almost all year. Also in her backyard is a vegetable garden, a lawn, a swingset, and a patio with tables.
The other day, I visited a friend who has eleven fruit trees in his small suburban backyard. He carefully chose a combination of deciduous and citrus trees that will give him a successive harvest all year. But in addition to his trees, he has a patch of grass and a shaded patio with a picnic table.
The point is that even in a surprisingly small backyard you can have your fruit trees and space for other things.
How many years until reaching a year-round harvest?
I’ve found that most fruit trees take approximately three years before giving a substantial harvest. For example, I planted our Gold Nugget mandarin from a five-gallon container in 2015, and we ate dozens of mandarins from it in the spring of 2018.
I planted our Flavor King pluot as a bare-root tree in January of 2017. It gave us a couple pluots last summer, but gave us an abundance this summer of 2019.
I planted our Pink Lady apple as a bare-root tree in February of 2015. It gave us about twenty apples last year, but here in 2019 I had to thin a lot of its fruit and it’s able to hold about 50 apples to maturity.
So I’ll say that it takes most fruit trees two to four years before a substantial harvest — three years on average.
Unexpected hiccups along the way?
There is always an element of discovery involved with this kind of endeavor, however. A particular fruit tree might not be as suitable to the climate in your yard as you’d guessed. Or a particular tree’s fruit might not be as suited to your tastes as you’d guessed.
When I started planting fruit trees we didn’t have kids so I had no way of knowing which fruit they’d prefer. It ends up that they are all crazy for apples and pears. I’ve planted more apples and pears recently.
In contrast, I guessed that the kids would like figs. It turns out that even though they love fig newtons, they don’t like figs much. I removed the fig trees.
As an aside, Flavor King pluots are probably the kids’ favorite overall during summer.
And during winter, Kishu mandarins are their favorite.
Is the year-round harvest as cool as I imagined?
Long ago, I dreamed of having a yard in which I could wander and snack. Then I began to dream of a yard where my whole family could wander and snack. We finally have it. Is it all I hoped it would be?
It’s not all that our kids hoped for. They have no idea that every yard isn’t a place where you can pick fruit off trees any time your belly beckons. It’s not exciting to them at all. They’re not ungrateful; they just don’t know any different.
But once this summer some neighbor kids visited and they followed our kids around to pick what our kids picked. It was early in the summer so there were still lots of berries to be harvested too. After a half hour of moving from patch to patch and tree to tree, one girl looked up and said, “It’s like a food forest!”
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