The Littlest Orchard
Almost one year ago today, Modern Farmer publisher and Million Gardens Movement co-founder Frank Giustra, visited our urban permaculture front yard garden for a tour. At the time, Frank hadn’t heard of permaculture, much less its urban interpretation, and MGM was still in its big idea infancy.
We had fun touring the garden and Frank filled a harvest basked with carrots, beets, squash, cucumbers, leeks, kale, and assorted greens, but it was the tiny orchard of dwarf fruit trees — apples in particular — that really caught his attention.
I’ve known Frank for a long time, and can attest that he doesn’t show his cards or get visibly excited about too many things. I was blown away then, by the joy he received through the simple act of picking and biting into a single perfect apple, and by the huge smile on his face. I was rewarded in equal measure, knowing that the Northern Spy apple that I had nurtured from its blossom stage, was appreciated so abundantly, providing joy and nourishment to a friend.
Next spring, we will be adding a small dwarf fruit orchard to the urban permaculture gardens that we installed in Frank’s yard this spring, and no doubt he will find as much joy in growing apples and such, as he does now growing heirloom tomatoes and beans.
For now, I remain busy with our dwarf apples, pears, plums, crabapples, cherries, quince, and persimmons, and uncommonly devoted to the mythical, quasi ceremonial role they play in the life of our family and friends
From February when I start monitoring the leaves for bud break and premature flowering, straight through to mid December, when I harvest persimmons from bare branches, I engage with my tiny orchard, and it engages me. I am outside, breathing fresh air, exercising my body, growing food for my family, helping to sequester CO2, providing habitat for wildlife and pollinators, and encouraging friends and neighbours to improve food security locally.
First and foremost to engage are the apples — bright and shiny, voluptuous and rosy, golden blushy, snowy white fleshed, crunchy, delicious, nutritious, and tough as nails — this most beautiful and ancient of fruits holds pride of place in my heart.
The American pioneer nurseryman Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) was indeed a visionary, sowing apple love and creating a legacy of apple tree nurseries throughout much of the US and parts of Canada during the late 1700s and early 1800s. I am sure though, that even Johnny couldn’t have imagined that apples would become symbolic of goodness and wholesome comfort, and that so-called dwarf apple trees would spread apple love beyond his wildest dreams.
Dwarf fruit trees are nothing short of tiny perfect miracles — producing high yields of full-size fruit on hardy and resilient pint-size trees planted in the ground or in pots. How great is that?
It is truly amazing how much fruit these trees can produce in a small amount of space. This is great news for urban and suburban farmers, even if you are farming on patios, balconies or rooftop decks. There are best-practices to adopt of course, and in true urban permaculture fashion, the best of those practices follow nature's simple logic.
Our tiny fruit and nut orchard of 18 trees, including two in pots, was planted just over two years ago in our front yard, and those trees have done incredibly well. Within the dwarf tree category there are many options and categories ranging from miniature bush size trees to semi-dwarf trees that reach 12-15 feet in height, to the more common dwarf offering that grow no taller than 8-10 feet.
Most dwarf type trees you will find available for purchase are the latter type, and their size and shape can be further managed by pruning, and controlling how and where they are planted.
My Dwarf Fruit Tree Orchard
Golden Sentinel Columnar, M26 Dwarf rootstock, mid season (3)
Cox Orange Pippen, M26 Dwarf rootstock, mid season (1)
Jona Gold, triploid, M106 Dwarf rootstock, mid season (1)
Northern Spy, M26 Dwarf rootstock, late-season (1)
Dolgo Siberian, M26 Dwarf rootstock, late-season (1)
Flemish Beauty, Quince Dwarf rootstock (1)
Poirier Ste-Sophie, Quince Dwarf rootstock (1)
Bing Columnar, Colt Semi Dwarf rootstock (1)
Stella Columnar, Colt Semi Dwarf rootstock (1)
Lapins Columnar, Colt Semi Dwarf rootstock (1)
Green Gage, St. Julien Dwarf rootstock (1)
Blue Damson, St. Julien Dwarf rootstock (1)
Multi-grafted Brooks, Yellow Egg, Satsuma, Shiro, Stanley, St. Julien Dwarf rootstock (1)
Le Bourgeot, Quince Eline Dwarf rootstock (1)
Fuyu, unknown dwarf rootstock, (1)
Hull Hardy, Spanish Dwarf rootstock (1)
It is critical to consider the pollination and growth habits of all fruit and nut trees that you purchase and plant. For fruit to develop, pollination — the transfer of pollen from the male ‘anthers’ of the flower to the female ‘stigma’ of the flower — must occur when the tree is in blossom. Pollination can be performed by insects, birds, wind, wildlife and people passing by, and by hand.
Bees are the very best pollinators, visiting thousands of fruit and berry blossoms in a single day. My native bees, also known as Mason Bees, are particularly efficient, pollinating at a rate of up to 85x greater than non-native honey bees. I keep several native bee houses within 50 feet of the fruit and nut trees.
Self-fruitful or self-pollinating fruit and nut tree flowers may be pollinated with their own pollen (like tomatoes), and other types require pollen from a different variety of the same type of tree. This latter type is considered self-unfruitful, and requires ‘cross-pollination’.
Cross-pollination is required for apples, pears, sweet cherries (most) and Japanese plums (most). Apricots, European plum varieties, sour cherries, nectarines and peaches do not require cross-pollination, but their yield typically improves if cross-pollination occurs.
Crabapples, work very well for cross-pollination because they bloom early and have a long blooming period. Planting a dwarf crabapple tree within 25 feet or so of dwarf apple and pear trees is a very good idea.
There are too many fruit tree varieties, variables and exceptions to list here in a cross-pollination guide, but your local nursery will be able to supply you with a cross-pollination table for the dwarf and standard fruit trees and berry bushes that are suited to your climate and plant hardiness zone. There is also a plethora of information available online.
Six of our trees are what are known as 'columnar' or vertical cordon trees. Through the magic of precision pruning, these trees produce fruit vertically along and very close to the trunk, as opposed to branching dwarf trees that produce fruit horizontally along branches.
Columnar trees are the stars of small-space fruit tree farming. Imagine a picket fence made of columnar apple and cherry trees; so beautiful and productive. In our backyard, we have one especially beautiful older espaliered apple tree, producing Gala, Chehalis and Gravenstein apples along three sets of paired horizontal branches grafted onto a central dwarf trunk.
Espalier and cordon (columnar, but at a 45-degree angle) are two very old techniques of pruning and shaping fruit trees to grow flat against stone walls and buildings. The thermal mass of the stone collecting solar energy all day and slow-dripping it back to the fruit at night works miracles. As urban permaculture gardeners we can this logic by placing potted fruit trees in front of masonry and walls of buildings, south-facing ones being optimal of course.
Dwarf fruit trees of all kinds are perfect for smaller space gardeners, because no matter how small the trees are, the fruit size remains standard. Dwarf fruit trees tend to produce fruit sooner than standard trees, often after just two to three years, versus three times that for standard.
Through a process of 'grafting' conventional branches (top stalk) onto specific dwarf type rootstock (below) chosen for its resilience, hardiness and growth capacity, the ultimate size of the grafted tree is minimized. The tree's growth directions and limitations are determined by the rootstock. The shape and branching of the tree is determined in large part by us.
In our urban permaculture garden, in three guilds of three trees each, I planted six apple, two pear and one crabapple tree (for cross-pollinating the apples). The trees were arranged in a triangular pattern, with equal sides of approximately 24 inches in length.
As a rule, trees do better in thoughtfully spaced groupings than they do on their own, communicating and exchanging nutrients, information, even protection from pathogens and predator organisms and microorganisms below-ground, by way of established mycorrhizal networks.
When siting the trees, I turned them to best advantage the sun and also each other, leaving as much of the 'central open column' inside the triangle, between the trees, clear and devoid of any branches. When I was happy with the arrangement of and within all three guilds, I planted the trees in 50/50 native soil and organic compost (to mimic composted natural leaf litter) and then removed ALL branches that crossed over each other or into the air space of that central column.
It should be noted that if your native soil is inferior, you should amend the mixture to suit. Soil test kits are widely available. Instinctively, I did not stake my trees because I wanted to encourage strong root development quickly. Admittedly, staking is recommended by orchardists, especially in unsheltered or windy areas.
Creating and maintaining a central column is key to tree health as it affords ample sunlight, and allows for drying breezes to pass through and help prevent mildew and disease. Indeed you end up with somewhat 3/4th sided trees, but in groupings they are lovely to look at, and not at all unbalanced.
If you were to plant your trees in rows versus groupings, you would want to prune away only those branches that crossed over each other within their own individual frameworks (same reasons — to keep things dry, airy and sunny.
I keep my trees pruned to below 7ft in height, as that is how high I can comfortably reach to harvest the fruit, attend to aphids and general tree health, and prune branches twice annually.
Throughout the growing season, I check all of the trees early in the morning, to make sure I notice small changes or pests that require bio-management. This is the best time of the day for me. All is quiet, the birds are waking up, the grass is dewy and soft, and that garden-grower connection is at its strongest. In the morning I see everything, including those plants and/or insects that need help establishing or restoring balance within their habitat.
To aid in establishing balance and with respect to nature's logic, we under-planted our dwarf tree guilds with beneficial perennial companion plants. These dual-purpose plants attract pollinators to ensure fruit-set, attract predator insects to feed on aphids and other pests, deter aphids and other pests, keep the soil cool through bio-mass mulching, feed the soil biology by contributing trace minerals and/or nitrogen, and produce edible herb foliage, flowers, seeds, etc. Some underplants are thought to emit ethylene gas which helps ripen fruit.
Practical urban permaculture suggests incorporating several different beneficial plants under fruit trees, and these range from borage to tansy. Where you live, which plants or seeds are available to you, and where you trees are planted, will determine your choices. I chose tall blue flowering borage in the centre of the circular column, medium height bushy chamomile in the middle of the circle, and low flowering chive around the perimeter. I love classic symmetry in garden design, so the peaceful, repeating aesthetic was important to me in the front garden. In our back garden, and for potted fruit trees, perennial underplantings are more casual and wild in arrangement.
Nearby to the apples and pears, in a perpendicular arrangement, I planted another three guilds of dwarf trees — three plums, next to a solitary almond (anticipating its size in the future), next to three columnar cherry trees.
The plum is a rather special tree that has five varieties of plum grated onto a single dwarf rootstock. By its nature, I suppose, it needs more space and grows more quickly than its guild companion damson and green gage plum trees.
A lone Fuyu persimmon tree planted in a terracotta pot but increasingly shaded by wisteria rambling over two new arbours, was moved this July to a sunny new ‘edible ecosystem’ that I planted in a rather dramatic response to a heatwave. The deepening shade prevented pre-transplant fruitset this year, but I am confident that it will thrive in its new location.
If you have fallen in love with the idea of dwarf fruit trees in pots, lined up like little fenceposts along your sideyard, or in guilds throughout your garden, NOW is the perfect time to plant. The ground is warm still, rain is rife, and disturbed roots have all winter to dig in slowly and make themselves at home. If your local tree nursery is short on inventory, order now for spring, and be sure to consider soil amendments, under-plantings, and all the beautiful soil and soul enriching trimmings.
As I write this, we are experiencing a rainy deluge similar in intensity to the three record-breaking heatwaves we endured this summer. The long-range forecast reads 70%-90% likelihood of rain in perpetuity, so I will be harvesting apples and pears in the rain this weekend, in preparation for making ‘savoury apple and pear schmear’.
In a perfect world I could wait until our fruits and berries are fully ripe before picking, but if I were to do that, the black bears (and racoons and other furry neighbours) with their super keen sense of smell, would beat me to it. They have.
The schmear was the evolution of an idea that our children had, to preserve for as long as possible, the fruits of our mini orchard labours. Our schmear, so-called in deference to its use as a loanword from Yiddish, with roots of Germanic origin equivalent to ‘smear’ or ‘spread’. More particularly, I was inspired by a fantastic throw-everything-at-it compilation cream cheese ‘schmear’ at Solly’s Bagelry near to where I live.
Within these next few weeks, if things unfold as they typically do, I will receive harvest time gifts of fresh and dried fruit from friends. Also, during my annual re-organization of the freezer, I will run across forgotten but precious small batches of homegrown and gifted figs, grapes, and plums set aside for a special occasion.
These sweet treasures, together with the apples and pears from our mini orchard will get pitted, cored and quartered, and set to simmer slowly (aided by a cup or two of apple cider) in a huge pot on the outdoor propane burner. Only the apples will be peeled; the cores, pips, and skins set aside to make apple scrap vinegar, and also apple ‘must’ for cooking and baking.
Once the medley of fruit has melted down in to a beautiful mush, I will let it cool somewhat before batch pureeing it, skins and all, in a blender, together with a cup or two of very finely chopped and golden brown roasted sweet onion or shallots. I will return the puree to the heat, add minimal maple syrup or honey to taste (popular fruit butter recipes vary from 1:5 fruit to sweetener to 1:1), plus a healthy dose of super finely ground Chinese five spice blend, Thai spice blend, or Moroccan spice blend, and then let the whole mess cook down over very, very low heat, for hours and hours, stirring often, to prevent burning of natural and added sugars. This process of reduction can be done in a low (250F) oven as well.
When a small spoonful of puree cools to the consistency of thin porridge, I will add several handfuls of assorted dried whole berries, raisins and chopped fruit and cook only until the dried fruit has absorbed enough liquid to create a thick porridge. The ratio of dried fruit to pureed fruit is subjective, but I aim for a ratio somewhat shy of chocolate chips to cookie dough, or raisins in banana bread.
I then hot-water process the schmear in pint and two-pint jars, for family use and for sharing and gifting. Last year, while I was outside canning schmear, the power went out and I was stirring, ladling, and processing long into the evening by oil lamplight, accompanied only by my enthusiasm and an icy cold wind.
I think of that very long day and cold night when I spread some schmear on warm toast, or share a jar with a friend. I think of my thoughtful children whom are grateful for the gifts of our summer garden, and for the labour of their mum who stood happily in the cold dark, stirring individual memories into one hopeful and collective culinary celebration.
I think of sending jars of schmear off to our three children and to their grandmothers, to live on the shelves of their pantries and fridges, and on their kitchen tables. I think about the holidays when schmear thickens gravy, sweetens coffee cakes, tops vanilla-bean ice cream, and gets eaten by the spoonful straight from the jar on the counter while too many people fit into too small of a space, preparing too much dinner.
I am grateful to our tiny orchard of dwarf fruit trees for these and so many other gifts and traditions in the making. Gifts like applescrap vinegar made from those reserved apple peels, pips and cores, covered in spring water sweetened slightly with honey, and left for months to ruminate. The resulting softly sweet and gently acidic vinegar has become a much-loved pantry staple.
The thin layer of apple flesh that once clung fast to the skins falls away over the weeks and gets filtered out into a thick applesauce-like ‘must’. This must keeps for ages in the fridge; infinitely useful as a thickener, binder, and acidic sweetener in baking and in soups, stews, bowls, and sauces.
Only the thin remnants of fermented apple skin and the pips are unpalatable, finding their way ultimately into the in-bed worm composts, feeding the worms and microorganisms. Feeding the gardens and dwarf fruit trees. Feeding my soul.
My appreciation for apples and other dwarf fruit tree progeny is heightened at this time of year when we are knee-deep in harvest and preservation, and when the holidays are upon us.
As climate change continues to adversely affect fresh produce supply chains, techniques like grafting onto resilient root stock become more and more relevant, and not just for fruit trees. I predict that very soon we will be hearing much about resilience grafting of fruits and vegetables, and we will see grafted plants for sale in garden centres across the country.
Lessons learned from my littlest orchard.
Until next week, happy gardening.