There are few things finer in life than going out of your house on a summer’s morning – perhaps holding your child by their hand – to pick the fruit you will eat with your breakfast. Plucking a ripe pear or a crisp apple from the branch, savoring its aroma and looking forward to the fresh, deep taste that comes from cultivating crops in harmony with nature is a wondrous thing.
Most permaculture gardeners with sufficient space will include at least one fruit tree in their garden design. It can provide a focal point in a small suburban plot, or even, if a dwarf variety, add variety to a courtyard garden. Fruit trees are typically the centerpieces of the common permaculture planting technique of guilds, and they bring a lot of benefits to any site, from shade to protect plants and deep roots to improve the soil structure, to attracting birds to the garden and, of course, providing a crop for eating.
For those with more space, an orchard can be a very attractive option. Indeed, orchards are arguably the most likely legacy of your permaculture garden, as with a little care and attention, they will provide fruit for years to come. While the specific attributes of your site and local climate will ultimately influence your choice of fruit trees and the location of your orchard, there are some general guidelines to consider when planning an orchard on your permaculture plot.
Orchards are typically a design feature for Zone 2 of your permaculture plot. Requiring less attention than the vegetables, herbs and fruits in Zone 1, they will still benefit from attention every few days – to check for any potential pest problems or to see if wildlife has been able to access the orchard, for example. You will visit more often when the crop is ready for harvest, and if you allow livestock such as pigs to forage in the orchard, you will want to check on them every day to ensure their needs are being met. However, once established, orchards need very little actual maintenance; with the correct planting when instituting your orchard, it should pretty much take care of itself.
Orchards need a lot of direct sunlight for the trees to grow robustly and to provide abundant, healthy crops – ideally six to eight hours a day. Be aware of any larger trees – or trees that will potentially grow large in the future – that are adjacent to your orchard, either on your plot or your neighbor’s land. These trees may shade out your fruit trees, and compete with them for soil nutrients. However, fruit trees are also susceptible to damage from string winds, so you might want to consider planting trees to act as a windbreak, as long as they won’t shade out the fruit trees.
They also need well-drained soil. A slight slope can be particularly apt as it allows water to drain slowly and avoids the risk of soil erosion. If planting on flat land, make sure the soil is humus-rich by adding lots of organic material, and not too high in clay.
The two primary things to consider when choosing fruit trees for your orchard are which are suited to your location, and what fruit you like to eat. However, most fruit trees will flourish in most situations given enough sunlight and a well-drained soil. It is worth bearing in mind that some fruit trees – such as Golden Delicious apples, Bartlett pears and most varieties of peach – self-pollinate, meaning you can have just a single specimen in the orchard and it will still set fruit. Others require at least two individual trees in order to cross-pollinate and set fruit. If neighbors have trees of the fruit you want to grow on their property, you may well get pollination that way, but having at least two on your plot is the best guarantee. For these species, plant the specimens next to each other to assist with pollination (and to make harvesting easier).
Preparing the soil before you plant your orchard is a very good investment to make. It is much harder to adjust the soil once the trees are in the ground. Add lost of organic material to the soil and water it in well. Not only will this help with drainage and nutrient supply, it should get the soil pH to around the desired level. Most fruit species prefer a soil pH of between 6.5 and 7. If your soil is still too alkaline, add some composted animal manure or compost with coffee ground in it, while if the soil is too acidic, consider adding some organic agricultural lime.
Consider the space that your fruit trees will need when fully grown. You want them to be close to each other but not so close that their canopies intermingle, as this can affect growth and crop productivity. Individual species will requires distinct spacing, but as a general rule you want to allow a 10-foot circle around a dwarf fruit tree, and a 25-foot circle around a standard-sized tree. If possible orientate your trees north to south so they get maximum exposure to the sun.
Allowing sufficient space for your fruit trees also gives you room to plant companion plants around each tree in a guild that will benefit both the fruit tree and the companion plants. For instance, the tree can give shade to lower-lying legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil that the tree accesses. Different fruit species favor different companions, but an apple tree guild, for example, could contain dill and fennel that attract pollinating insects, as well artichokes, whose roots help keep the soil in good condition, and nasturtiums to repel pest insects. It is worth considering that most fruit tree species do not do well if surrounded by grass, as the grass competes with the tree roots for soil nutrients and moisture. Plant companions that suppress grass growth, such as leeks, garlic or daffodils. You can also mulch around the tree – although always leave a space around the trunk.