Growing your own fruit is a great way to enjoy local food and avoid pesticides--and it's surprisingly easy.
Growing your own fruit can be a gratifying way to eat fresh food and also share the ripe crop with your family and friends. Across the country, fruit trees and their care have been attracting attention, as people embrace organic eating and shy away from fruits grown with pesticides.
Benefits of growing your own fruit
Depending on growing locations and climate zones, home gardeners may be able to enjoy cherries in July, blueberries and plums in August, and apples or pears in October.
“Homegrown fruit tastes better and you can grow many varieties of fruit that are not available in the supermarkets,” says Susan Poizner, Director of Orchard People, a Toronto fruit tree consulting and educational company.
Fruits are good for our health because they’re packed with essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fibre, and disease-fighting phytochemicals. These substances contribute to healthy growth, protect against disease, and keep our bodies functioning optimally. Most fruits are also generally low in fat and calories.
“Environmentally, fruit trees, like other trees, help clean our air and soil, while cooling and shading our communities,” says Poizner. “When you grow your own food, you cut down on the environmental costs of transporting fruit from far away.
“But more than that, interacting with fruit trees is amazing. When you plant a fruit tree, you are starting a long-term relationship. You and your family will grow along with that tree. A well cared for tree becomes a valued part of your family and of your community. They teach us how precious nature is and how, if we care for a fruit tree, it will nurture us right back with delicious organic fruit for many years to come,” Poizner says.
Organizations such as Toronto’s Growing for Green and Orchard People, and Vancouver’s Copley Community Orchard have sprung up to create urban community orchards. Volunteers at the orchards maintain the trees, harvest the fruit, and often have educational and social events, such as festivals. These organizations also teach home gardeners, schools, and businesses how to plant and care for fruit trees.
Toronto: Growing for Green
In 2009, Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard became Toronto’s first community orchard planted in a public park. Spearheaded by the community group Growing for Green, vacant land near the Eglinton West subway station was transformed into a lush fruit orchard including five apple, three plum, three apricot, and three sweet cherry trees. Volunteers irrigate, mulch, prune trees, clean up the orchard, and harvest fruit. Harvested fruit is given to volunteers and agencies such as the food bank.
Other city orchards
With the support of Vancouver City Council and various organizations, Copley Community Orchard broke ground in East Vancouver in 2012. Its organizers educate people on fruit cultivation at on-site workshops. Plans underway include an apple orchard, cherry trees, rare or unique fruit trees, and fruiting shrubs.
One of the orchard organizers is Jodi Peters, Project Coordinator with Environmental Youth Alliance. She says, “Copley Community Orchard has been a very rewarding project from the start. Our main goals have been community building and education in caring for and using perennial fruits. The fact that we actually grow delicious fruit is often a bonus.
“We have had an overwhelming response from the local neighbourhood. More than 90 people participated in multiple work parties in our inaugural year, and more than 70 people signed up as members again for 2013. Since there is little or no fruit from young trees in the first three years, people mostly sign up because they enjoy meeting their neighbours, getting outside, doing something positive in their community, and learning how to cultivate fruit trees and berry bushes organically.”
On the Canadian East Coast, provinces such as Nova Scotia have been growing apples in the fertile Annapolis Valley for more than 100 years. In the West, the City of Calgary has been planting fruit trees and shrubs at four community orchard pilot locations since 2009 as part of research to encourage the growing of local food. Calgary has four community orchard pilot locations.
Plant hardiness zones
Fruit growing is usually restricted to areas where winter temperatures don’t go much below -20 C. As a result, more than 85 percent of commercial fruit growing in Canada happens in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. The remainder is mostly concentrated in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Each type of fruit tree and shrub has its own growing temperature requirements. Generally, air temperatures below -25 C will harm their growth. There are exceptions, such as Saskatoon berries and apples grown in northern locations.
“In colder areas you have to be on top of what varieties are chosen and where they were developed,” says Dr. Bob Bors, head of the fruit breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan. “Ideally, you should get your varieties from a place of similar climate. Saskatchewan [temperatures drop] to -40 C almost every winter and [we’re] able to grow many very hardy fruit varieties.”
Be sure that the plants and shrubs you buy can withstand variations of climate and temperature in your region, as indicated by average annual minimum temperature. The plant hardiness zones map from Agriculture Canada outlines the different zones in Canada where various types of trees and shrubs will most likely survive.
Jim Rahe, a biologist, and his wife Mary Ann operate Annie’s Orchard near Aldergrove, BC. Their orchard grows more than 60 varieties of apples and 10 varieties of pears. He says that apples and pears are practical options for growing in home gardens, depending on the plant hardiness zone.
As with most fruit trees and shrubs, apples and pears need a location with full sun and good drainage. Requirements also include space, time (it takes several years until they begin bearing fruit), pollination, nutrition, pruning, fruit thinning, and a pest management strategy.
Container fruit growing
For homeowners who don’t have a backyard to grow fruit in, containers offer another growing option.
“As our population becomes more urbanized, there is increasing interest in growing apples in containers,” says Rahe. “The container restricts root development and has a bonsai effect on the tree, making it possible to obtain fruit from a tree of 3 to 5 ft (1 to 1.5 m) in height. Some pest problems are also reduced or eliminated by growing the tree in a pot.
“Growing apple trees in containers is probably practical only in areas with mild winters. Even so, it is essential to start with trees grafted onto a cold hardy rootstock, or alternatively, protect the potting medium from freezing during the winter.”
Container fruit trees can suffer from lack of water, so regular watering is important. Garden clubs, university horticultural departments, and specialist mail order tree nurseries are good sources of information on appropriate fruit tree and shrub selection.
Fruit growing tips
Poizner and Peters offer some pointers for new fruit gardeners:
Do your research before choosing a tree
Don’t just pick up a tree from your local nursery, because many commercially popular varieties are designed to be grown with harsh pesticides and fungicides. Choose a disease-resistant tree whenever you can.
Decide whether you can care for a fruit tree
For the first two years, your young tree will need nurturing, including watering twice a week during the growing season, composting and mulching in the spring, and possibly annual pruning. If you’re up for it, go for it! If you want to plant a tree and forget about it, then a fruit tree is not the way to go.
Choose a tree that fits your climate and space
Most residential yards should stick with a semi-dwarf fruit tree size. Proper pruning will keep fruit within reach and will bear fruit earlier than a full-sized tree. Check out online guides specific to your climate zone.
Choose a well drained site
Fruit trees will not thrive in soggy, saturated soils.
Commit to continued education
Learn how to prune your tree and how to check it for disease so you can nip any possible problems in the bud. Get a good book on growing fruit trees in your climate and check out local workshops.
|peaches||Dwarf Empress||4 to 5|
|blueberries||Dwarf Top Hat||3 to 7|
|apples||Columnar||4 to 9|
Here are a few suggestions for fruit varieties you can grow in your own backyard.
|Type of fruit||Variety||Hardiness zone||Nutritional benefits|
|good source of dietary fibre and vitamin C|
|good source of dietary fibre and vitamin C|
2 and 3
|good source of dietary fibre, and vitamins A, C, and K|
|good source of dietary fibre, vitamins C and K, and manganese|
|3 to 8
|good source of dietary fibre, vitamins C and K, magnesium, and manganese|
|Saskatoon berries||Regent Martin||2
|good source of dietary fibre, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium|