Memoirs of a First Year Urban Orchardist

lawanddisorder(6)September 1, 2013

I've come to the end of my first summer - technically my second, but since I had only 2 plants last year, and added 48 new plant cultivars this year, it feels like my first year all over again. This forum has been crucial to my orchard's success thus far, and I owe a big thanks to the experienced commentators, so, in attempt to return the favor, what follows are my observations and lessons I've learned this year. First year orchardists or urban orchardists may find these scatterbrained ramblings helpful.

I have a total of 50 varieties of fruit growing in a very tiny, urban orchard. I live in a rental duplex in Lakewood, OH (think Cleveland) and to permit future relocation of the plants, all my plants are potted, most in 20 inch, plastic pots, though there is a lot of variance in pots styles and some are plastic storage bins. The pots are mainly in two rows, along the North and South borders of my yard. One row is 21 feet long, by 20 inches wide (i.e. the size of the pots), and the other row is 40 feet long by 20 inches wide, and, technically, there is a third row of pots directly in front of the longer row, about 15 feet long by 20 inches wide. So, basically 75 feet by 20 inches (i.e. 125 square feet) for 50 different potted plants. That�s a tight fit.

I do not get quite full sun; I get closer to 5 hours of direct sun, and then shaded, dappled sun the rest of the day. I think this is limiting a number of the trees� growth, which isn�t necessarily a bad thing given my spatial constraints (hopefully it doesn�t affect the fruiting too negatively), though all seem to be able to tolerate this amount and many of the bushes seem completely unaffected, if not better suited for it. If you have less than full sun, find cultivars that are okay in shade. In general, it seems like bushes can deal with less than full sun better than trees, even though they are all marked as requiring full sun.

Each pot is basically touching the next, and air flow is a pretty major concern and requires consistent summer pruning to alleviate mold and other fungal issues.

I am planning, and have begun, espalier training of all of the trees, and have the pots situated in a tree-bush-tree-bush-tree-bush, etc. pattern to assist in spacing. It took me a while to figure this out, but with this set-up I think I can successfully fit these 50 potted plants into this tiny space. By using an espalier technique with the trees, I can train the trees and bushes to fit together to take advantage the little space I have.

The trees need to be trained into an espalier form with an unusually tall trunk with no low horizontal scaffolds. The trees� lowest horizontal scaffolds should be approximately 5 feet above the pot, so that the bushes in the pots right next to the tree can make use of the 5 feet immediately above the pots, and the tree can use space from five feet above the pots, and upwards. This will require me to use a step ladder to tend to the trees, which is kind of a hassle, but it allows me to fully maximize my limited space. I haven�t seen this technique used by other urban orchardists, and when I figured it out, after nearly the full summer of fretting over the tangled mess of trees and bushes, it was kind of a eureka moment for me. It helps with air circulation, sunlight management, and maximizing space. By the end of next summer, I hope to have the full structural branch work in place for this espalier plan. As of now, I have only a couple trained in this manner, as I only figured this out about a week ago. Young trees are pretty forgiving and their young wood is easily manipulated into espalier form. I recommend this technique for any spatially constrained urban orchardists.

My plants were purchased at HD, Lowes, or online through Henryfields, miller nurseries, or starkrbos. All provided healthy plants. I think the big box stores get a bad rap, and the plants I've got from them had equal or better growth this year compared to the ones I ordered online - they have bigger, and stronger roots, and if you buy at the right time, most of the plants are strong and healthy.

Here are my plants:

1 Apple , 4-in-1 - Big Red Delicious, Yellowgold Delicious, Mcintosh, Northern Red Spy
2 Apple , Pixie Crunch
3 Apricot, Harlayne
4 Apricot, Sugar Pearls
5 Blackberry, Black Satin
6 Blackberry, Chester Thornless
7 Blackberry, Hull
8 Blackberry, Prime-Jan
9 Blackberry, Prime-Jim
10 Blackberry, Triple Crown
11 Blackberry, Unknown Varietal
12 Blueberry, Bluecrop
13 Blueberry, Bluegold
14 Blueberry, Blueray
15 Blueberry, Chandler
16 Blueberry, Elliot
17 Boysenberry, Thornless
18 Cherry, Carmine Jewel
19 Currant, Black, Unknown Varietal
20 Currant, Red, Unknown Varietal
21 Fig, Brown Turkey
22 Fig, Hardy Everbearing
23 Gooseberry, Unknown Varietal
24 Grape, Concord, Seedless
25 Grape, Concord, Seedless
26 Grape, Glenora Seedless - Blue
27 Grape, Lakemont Seedless - Green
28 Grape, Reliance Seedless - Purple
29 Honeyberry, Borealis
30 Honeyberry, Cinderella
31 Kiwi, Arctic Beauty - Female
32 Kiwi, Arctic Beauty - Male
33 Kiwi, Issai Hardy
34 Mulberry, Illinois Everbearing
35 Nectarine, Mericrest
36 Nectarine, Yumm Yumm
37 Pawpaw, Pennsylvania Golden Graft
38 Pawpaw, Unnamed cultivar
39 Peach, Flamin' Fury Jumbo
40 Peach, Flavorcrest
41 Peach, Redhaven
42 Pear, 2-in-1 - Bartlett and Red Sensation
43 Plum, Stanley
44 Raspberry, Munger's Black
45 Raspberry, Red Willamette
46 Raspberry, Royalty Purple
47 Strawberry, Allstar
48 Strawberry, Quinalt
49 Strawberry, Seqioua
50 Strawberry, Tribute Everbearer

In general, the trees seemed to be the most problematic, especially the peaches, nectarines and apricots. The bushes were fairly straight forward, and the strawberries grew like weeds.

Peaches deserve most of the caution that they receive. The spring started with peach leaf curl, and before I knew it, I was seeing a lot of die back on new shoots. PLC is common enough that it wasn�t too concerning, but the twig shoot die back was a different story. I believe it was either peach twig borers or oriental fruit moth, and I was a little late on the spraying. Actually, I was hoping that I wouldn�t have to spray at all. I quickly realized that was a futile hope, and sprayed Sevin as directed, as soon as I recognized the problem. Next year I will have sticky traps up so I can monitor the adult moths� arrival and will be ready to spray accordingly. From what I�ve read, with a planned, monitored spraying schedule, this shouldn�t be too much of an on-going problem.

I bought the Flavorcrest peach tree last year, and it fruited this year. It had about 15 ripe fruits on it, thinned from 30 or so, and, literally, the day I was going to pick them, the squirrels ate every single peach. I went out in the morning and looked at them, and decided to pick them as soon as I returned from running a couple errands. Well, two hours later, every single peach was gone. I found two half eaten peaches on the ground. Don�t tell anyone, but I took them inside, rinsed them, and ate the other halves. They were delicious. My neighbor confirmed that the squirrels were eating them and said he tried to chase them away, but they came right back. Seems stupid, but this was a really low moment for me, very disappointed and almost shocked that they could have eaten all of the 15 peaches within like 2 hours, literally right before I was going to pick them.
I have waged war on squirrels and found a very inconspicuous trap online (basically a long pvc pipe standing inside a bucket with water, and place the trap next to a tree or fence and bait the top of the pvc pipe and when those b@stard rodents fall into the pvc pipe while trying to get the bait, they quietly drown in the bucket). I will also have bird netting ready for next year to help dissuade the squirrels from eating my fruit.

The mulberry, fig, apple and pear trees grew without any issues whatsoever, all put on good growth.

The blueberries were fairly difficult for a while. I started with a soil recommended by my local nursery and added an acidifier in a pellet form to the soil. The bushes looked really bad at first, for three reasons, I believe. 1) the pellet acidifier is a slow release product, so at first it really didn�t do anything to acidify the soil, 2) I watered with tap water, which I think must have a rather high PH level, and 3) I didn�t water enough. So, I started conserving rain water and kept the soil moist at all times. I still don�t, but I know I should add an acidifying agent to the tap water when I run out of rain water. They look much healthier now.

The blackberries and raspberries grow like weeds. The currants and gooseberries look healthy, though haven�t put on a ton of growth this year, but I�ve only had them for a month or so.

Another turning point for me was when I added mulch to the pots. Seems really obvious now, but when I started, I didn�t think to top off the pots with mulch. The mulch helps for a few reasons: 1) helps reduce evaporation, 2) keeps the roots cooler, and 3) inhibits the squirrels from digging in the pots and burying nuts. Also, pine bark mulch is acidic and further helped to acidify the soil for the blueberries. Use mulch.

Another thing I did to maximize space, was took all of the strawberry runners and planted them in the pots with the trees. I was worried about the roots of the strawberries and trees competing with each other, but figured the strawberry roots were so shallow that the deeper tree roots wouldn�t be negatively affected. They seem to be doing fine together now. So, I now have about 20 more pots with strawberries growing in them, in addition to the 3 I originally had; by rough calculation, at least 80 total strawberry plants. I think this is pretty cool.

Another thing I wish I would have considered, was buying older, more mature plants. For instance, the arctic kiwi may not fruit for another 7 years. I am way too impatient for that. If I could have found a 6 year old male and female plants, for double, or even triple the price, instead of what looks like a first year plant that I got, it would have been worth the extra money. Buy mature plants if you can find them and afford them

Likewise, berry bushes seem to fruit a lot faster than trees. Pretty much all of my berry bushes produced at least some fruit this year, while none of the first year trees produced any fruits.

Starting and maintaining a backyard orchard is not cheap. Pots, plants, soil, fertilizer, insecticide, water, netting, traps, etc. It adds up fast. I probably spent about $1000 this year and didn�t have a clue it would end up costing that much. Figure at minimum, $10/pot, $10/plant, $3/soil and fertilizer, and you are at about $25 per potted plant. That�s bare minimum. Of course, craigslist and hand outs will help, so be resourceful.

The 4-in-1 multi-graft trees are great space savers. I plan to take on grafting next summer and hopefully turn three peaches into a 3-in-1 and same with the other trees. Trees need cross pollination, so for most trees, at least 2 varieties are required. Multi-graft trees create cross pollination within one pot.

Consider when the plants will be ready for harvest. I didn�t know enough to consider this at the time, but try to get plants that will be ready for harvest at staggered times, this way you extend your fruit eating season. Think early spring, mid spring, late spring, early summer, mid summer, later summer, early fall, mid fall, late fall. Try to get at least one plant that will harvest in each period and you�ll have fresh fruit for 3/4 of the year.

Limit your plantings to one main plant per pot. I have a couple pots with multiple blackberry plants, and it is already a problem. I will have to take them out this winter and remove all but one bush per pot, and this will needlessly harm the roots to at least some degree. I think groundcover type plants like strawberries, or even some herbs would be fine, but more than one big plant per pot is too much.

I was concerned that two of my blackberry plants only grew one primocane this year. I was expecting a couple primocanes at the minimum, and posted a couple queries on here for ideas to encourage primocane growth, and got no answers. I came up with a quasi-solution, and buried a few of the tips of the lateral shoots growing off of the single primocane. I checked a couple weeks ago, and the shoots rooted and over the winter, I will cut the shoot away from the primocane it was growing on and now I have another primocane. I�m not sure if this was really a good idea or not, because now I have more than one plant in the same pot, but for now, I�m happy with it. Yes, I realize this directly conflicts with my advice in the previous paragraph, but there are always exceptions, right?

Start a compost bin immediately. You will have a lot of cuttings and compostable material fast, and compost is expensive.

Learn the growth cycle of your plants. Most brambles have a biennial growth cycle, grapes and peaches grow on new growth, growing off of second year growth, etc. I still don�t know the growth cycle for all my plants, but as I�m learning, I�m realizing how important it is to understand this, so you can prune in a manner that results in good growth and more fruit.

If you're using pots, get matching pots to improve the aesthetic. I have about 15 different types of pots and it looks like sh!t� at least that�s what my fianc� tells me.

Get dwarf trees if space is an issue. My mulberry is a standard sized tree and is projected to grow to 35 feet, and will require a lot of pruning to keep in a pot. It may end up being too big for a pot, regardless of canopy and root pruning

Don�t bother trying to plant any underplanting/groundcover plants in a pot with a fig tree. Fig trees have very fibrous roots, and while they love being constrained in pots, they also seem to love constraining other plants. I�ve tried - unsuccessfully - to transplant about a dozen strawberry runners in my fig tree pots, and they have all been choked out within a week or so.

If you spray, find a way to indicate the fact you�ve sprayed to your neighbors. I told my duplex neighbors and the neighbors on the east and west side of my house to help themselves to the berries that I was growing, but whenever I sprayed the intermixed fruit trees, there was overspray that must have hit the bushes. I put a red sock on a post to indicate that I sprayed and for them not to eat the fruit while the sock was out. Don�t poison your neighbors.

I didn�t fertilize this year. I�m mad at myself for not fertilizing, but with adding 49 new plants, I didn�t know when or what to use. Next year I will fertilize on a set schedule.

Don�t get overwhelmed. I did. I�d catch myself wandering around my backyard staring at all these different plants, wondering what I needed to do to each one and would get nothing accomplished. I had to focus on pinpointing one thing to work on at a time and prioritizing my to-do list to maintain my focus. With 50 different plants, it was very easy for me to lose focus. Take it one plant at a time, if you�re getting overwhelmed.

So, a full year with a couple plants, and a summer with a sh!t load of plants, I have learned that I have a lot more to learn. It�s not rocket science, or anything, but there is a lot of work that goes into having a good backyard orchard. It has been a very rewarding hobby and should be even more rewarding in the future.

Now, I need to figure out how to keep these guys alive through the cold Cleveland winter. Wish me luck.

So, yeah, I feel like I have learned a lot, and I still don�t know a d@mn thing. Good luck with your urban orchards!


This post was edited by lawanddisorder on Mon, Sep 2, 13 at 12:39

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This is the south side.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2013 at 10:34PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

I'd say your plants look nice! I hope you get a good harvest soon.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2013 at 11:06PM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

Thanks for the report.

That squirrel trap sounds interesting. I'd like a trap that would work continually, my traps only get the first squirrel so they need regular attention. Did you actually build one and try it?


    Bookmark   September 1, 2013 at 11:47PM
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Bradybb WA-Zone8

Those are some good ideas.
Are the plants on drip watering?I found it a lot less work than lugging around buckets of water.
Some of the plants can get big by their third year,even the Blueberries.
I am wondering about the Mulberry,if that is going to be espaliered or be kept as a shrub?I found a video that may help.
If it can be located,Pine or Fir bark may be a better mulch than Cedar,especially for Blueberries.
I saw that Squirrel trap posted earlier.Looks quite simple,but effective. Brady

Here is a link that might be useful: Pruning Trees into Bushes

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 10:54AM
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It is very good of you to post beginner type info when it is still fresh in your mind. The more expert people may not remember the simple questions they had in the first year.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 11:31AM
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Dear Lawandisorder, I am so impressed as to the care of the your trees, shrubs and fruit bushes. Also, the number of your fruiting plants has grown quickly in one year. I do see some green grass in one of your photos, Can any of the trees be planted there or would they have to be moved? Your report is very accurate, as it is not a 'hobby' for the faint of heart or faint of 'checkbook'. It does get a bit better as you go along, but not much. I have an orchard budget per year (which I go over easily each year). There is always one new tree I'd love to own. I too hope your future harvests will be bountiful. Congratulations. I'm sure this forum will help you with protecting your trees for winter time. Mrs. G

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 11:34AM
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I admire your tenacity and creativity. Thanks for sharing your experience. We all can learn something from one another.

I've grown fruit trees for about 5 yrs and have only about 20 trees. I still feel overwhelmed at times!!! Hope you'll find ways (and room) to protect all your potted plants/trees.

I'd like to ask if you could post a pic of your squirrel trap and tell us what web site you bought it from. It sounds interesting.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 11:56AM
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Bradybb WA-Zone8

Here is a link to the earlier post about the Squirrel trap.Look for danzeb's entry about water trap. Brady

Here is a link that might be useful: Squirrel Control - Bait Update

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 12:16PM
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Below is a link to the squirrel trap. I did not mean to take credit for the trap, and I haven't even built one yet, but it seems like it would work rather effectively.

I like it because it is the most inconspicuous one I have ever seen, which is a major selling point for me, living right next door to two families. trapping and drowning them seems like a quick way to get the ASPCA called on me, and relocating them seems like a major hassle, also seems safe for neighborhood cats.

Yes, I meant PINE BARK. Thanks for the comment, I will edit accordingly.

No, I water them with the hose. I had a drip line set up for about a day until I realized I put it on the blueberries to, and the way I coiled it around the plants, I had to remove the whole line to get it off the blueberries. Also, watering with the hose, by hand gives me an extra excuse to examine them without looking like a weirdo staring at his plants all day :)

Brady, funny you posted that link, I saw that before and was planning on doing something similar to that but now that I need to keep the branchwork of the trees higher up, to allow sunlight/airflow to the bushes below, I am going with an elevated espalier form. This tree seems like a trouper though, so I think I can afford to experiment with it a bit.

Here is a link that might be useful: squirrel trap

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 12:38PM
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Thanks, Brady and Law for the post of the water trap.

I agree that it is so inconspicuous that's very suitable for my suburban neighborhood.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 1:21PM
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