The Urban Orchard


The urban orchard isn’t one of my ideas of course, but it is one of those secret little treasures that people discover when they have a bit of land, and have an interest growing food. Besides the fact that I inherited the beginning (or maybe the end) of an orchard with our house, I have read about it in the different organic gardening books I have. I have also come across the concept in various ways, and under different names when talking to people about their “gardens” and watching videos, or movies about urban sustainability.

An urban orchard is a group of fruit trees that are crammed into a space that is typically considered too small for even just one tree. If you do an investigation of fruit tree culture, invariably the bulk of info you will find is about trees out in the field with ample space. What most urban gardeners don’t realize is all that info is about optimal growing and harvesting (i.e. farming) conditions. It comes from industrial growing interests, whose job it is to grow lots of fruit for commercial harvest.

The reality is many older heirloom tree varieties have a wide range of characteristics allowing them to grow in highly variable conditions. Not only that, contemporary trees are grafted onto a choice of rootstocks, which not only are pest hardy, but can be dwarfed. If you stay away from the commercial supermarket varieties, usually you can cram fruit trees into every nook and cranny of a yard and they will be OK. They will produce small amounts of fruit, and maintain a slow and steady growth pattern, which is perfect for the family garden.

In our back yard, which is only about 2500sf, we have a 40 foot avocado tree that produced several HUNDRED pounds of avocados the year we moved in (they have multi-year cycles, so that was a peak year,) a 15 foot Nispero/Loquat tree, a 15 ft plum tree, orange tree, lemon tree, grapefruit, apple tree, and several hedge Avocados. To that I have added two pear trees, grapes and berries.

Despite the small size of our yard and presence of all of these trees, we have plenty of space for a large garden, roses, flowers, and grass to run around. Our yard was a big part of why we bought this house, actually. With such a small interior, we wanted a space that could provide us with a wonderful outdoor lifestyle right away.

Obviously, the yard wasn’t quite right in some ways, but the trees were spot on in their placement and size, and the layout was very good. The shade is great, and the temperature gradients they produce beat any heating/cooling system. Plus, using a phrase from dear relative, the fruit is out of this world.

So far, the trees haven’t added much “work” to the yard care duties. The greatest effort each year is picking fruit, particularly from the 40 foot avocado tree. Collecting dropped fruit is also a chore, but nothing more than raking leaves, really. We have had issues that are on going, though. The main problem we have run into is pests. The apple tree gets wiped out each year by weevils and codling moths. and the avocado tree is a favorite of the squirrels. We also get opossums and racoons, but I think those are caused by neighborhood-wide fruit tree neglect, and are endemic. I am working on our fruit tree problems, and hopefully with the little bit of extra time I have being out of school I should come to some solutions. Inexpensive, safe and eco-healthy solutions are hard to come by, but I have some ideas.

The only other expenses so far besides time and water (a complicated issue I’ll touch on as I go along), has been an arborist and fertilizer. The tree trimmer was pretty expensive, but that really is a cost of home ownership, with a little previous neglect thrown in. The bags of Dr. Earth fertilizer aren’t cheap either, but when purchased in bulk, they pay for themselves in added productivity. I think I’ve added 50-100% to the orange crop, just with the application of a few dollars worth of fertilizer.

Urban fruit trees are fairly common in California, but taking them to that next orchard level is often overlooked, yet very doable. It was quite common in the years of old, and hearkens back to another era when people put a lot of time into food and home life. Now it provokes a lot of questions about maintenance and time requirements; priorities have shifted. So far, for us having an urban orchard is proving to be lost treasures we never knew about, and one we intend to add to.

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