The Home Orchard: Fruit Trees Without Chemical Sprays? It Can Be Done.

Move over apples, apricots and nectarines. Other trees and bushes will produce fruit without the chemical dependency of traditional orchard fruits and, because many are handsome and smaller plants in their own right, they can be planted right in your garden.
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The apple looms large in the folklore of our gardens, and there was a time when every back yard had its version of an apple orchard. But for all its bounty and beauty, the apple tree is not as revered as it once was. With reason.

Plump, unblemished apples come with a price: They must be sprayed to avoid inevitable disfigurement or infestation by pests and diseases. The search for the perfect peach may be even more elusive. In our hot and humid climate, developing peaches can be counted on to rot in the absence of chemical intervention.

The worst fruits for the home? The apricot and the nectarine, says Mike McConkey, a fruit tree nurseryman in Afton, in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The apricot tends to bloom so early that its flowers (and future fruit) are killed by frost. The nectarine, devoid of protective fuzz, is prone to brown rot. Then there's the pear tree, a plant susceptible to a potentially fatal bacterial disease, called fire blight because the blackened twigs look scorched. A weevil named the plum curculio lays eggs in the fruit -- if, that is, it can't find an apple or peach first.

So what's a fruit lover to do in this age of environmental consciousness?

Other trees and bushes will produce fruit without the chemical dependency of traditional orchard fruits and, because many are handsome and smaller plants in their own right, they can be integrated into the landscape.

Cheryl Corson, a landscape architect in Upper Marlboro, said "you can do all kinds of great things" with edible plants in the landscape. She moved to a property that had a grape arbor and a native fruiting shrub called the Juneberry. "Usually I don't get to the berries as fast as the birds," she said. "It's a sharing system."

She also has a mature Asian pear tree, which, while not immune to fire blight, has been disease-free.

"There's no reason to have one place for fruit plants and another for ornamentals, because a lot of your fruit trees are ornamental," said Lee Reich, horticulturist and champion of the fruit less traveled. He wrote "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden" (Timber Press) five years ago and recently published "Landscaping With Fruit" (Storey).

Nick Covatta, a wholesale grower of fruit plants near Chincoteague, Va., said "the popularity of easy-to-care-for fruit has been very strong." He listed blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, figs and Asian persimmons as examples. "If I had to say what's king of all the small fruits, it's blueberries," he said. "I think the antioxidant aspect of blueberries attracts people," said Covatta, of Eastern Shore Nursery of Virginia. He has shifted from producing small bushes in two-gallon containers to larger ones in five-gallon pots because of the blueberry's status as an ornamental and fruiting shrub.

Corson has a large apple tree that is welcomed in spite of the inglorious nature of its unsprayed fruit. The deer eat the apples and avoid her vegetable garden, which gets to another aspect of planting fruit trees: "It feeds humans, insect, birds," she said. "It doesn't matter who gets the harvest; what matters is that there is one."

Here's the lowdown for growing fruit trees as landscape plants.

Blueberries

The blueberry has it all: It's a native shrub with pretty white blossoms in April, delicious fruit in summer, stunning autumn leaf color and red twigs in winter.


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