The first step to a successful home orchard of any size is choosing the most suitable fruits for you and your area. Start by making a wish list of all the different types of fruit you could want to grow. Don’t hold back! Imagine you have unlimited space with the perfect soil and climate.
Next, you need to work out what trees on your list can actually be grown in your local climate. Temperature can be a limiting factor, but when you do your research, you’ll find selected varieties of different fruits that can be grown outside their normal climate range, like "low chill" apples and stone fruit that can be grown in warm areas. You may even find a suitable "microclimate" on your property – like a sunny north facing wall that will allow you to grow tropical fruit in a cool area. Your local garden centre is a good place to find out what will grow well in your area.
If your space is limited, then consider some of the space-saving ideas described below like multi-grafted and dwarf trees, and don’t overlook berries and brambles, as well as vines like grape, passionfruit and kiwifruit – these can be trained onto existing fences, trellises and pergolas.
Fruit trees need at least six hours or more of direct sun a day to produce good crops. A north or northeasterly aspect is best. Fruit trees need shelter too – strong winds can damage trees, upset pollination and cause premature fruit drop. Try to find a position that offers natural wind protection, or allow space for planting a windbreak of hardy shrubs. Fruit trees hate wet feet, so avoid areas of the garden that get boggy. Wherever you choose to plant, try to position your fruit trees reasonably close to your house. That way you are more likely to keep an eye on any problems that may need immediate treatment.
Most fruit trees will grow in a range of different soil types, as long as the drainage is good. Poorly drained clay soils can be improved by digging in lots of compost as well as coarse sand and gypsum. This helps to open up a clay soil and allow air, water and plant roots to move more easily through the soil. Incorporate these soil improvers in a 1-metre radius around your planting point. Another way to improve the drainage is by mounding the soil. This also creates a greater depth of topsoil for root development.
Sandy soil drains, but it dries out quickly. The best way to help a sandy to hold moisture is to dig in lots of well-rotted compost and manures, so be sure to do that before you plant.
Soil pH is important, too. All fruit trees perform better when they are grown in their preferred pH range. Most fruit trees prefer a pH of 6 to 7, i.e. a neutral to slightly acidic soil. Some plants prefer a more specific pH, for example, blueberries (pH 4-5) and olives (pH 7-8). Most garden centres will be happy to test the pH of your soil samples, or you can buy a simple pH testing kit to keep at home. If you need to increase the pH of your soil, use agricultural lime or dolomite and to lower pH use powdered sulphur. Our fruit fact sheets have information on the preferred pH and growing conditions for a range of popular fruit trees.
Remove any grass or weeds in a diameter of 1-2 metres by chipping it away with a mattock and send it all to the compost bay.
Incorporate a full barrow load of compost, mushroom compost or decayed animal manure into this area. Test the pH and make any necessary corrections as described above. If the soil is heavy clay, add gypsum and coarse river sand as described above and mound the soil to ensure drainage is adequate. Make the mound at least 20-30cm deep.
Dig a hole for your tree larger than the container it is in. Check the depth – the soil surface should be level with the potting mix at the top of the root ball or in the case of a bare rooted tree, the soil mark on the stem.
Fill the hole with water a few times letting it drain. This will moisten the surrounding soil.
Place the root ball into the hole, gently teasing a few roots to encourage growth. With bare rooted trees, cut away any damaged parts, make a mound of soil in the hole and then open out and spread the roots over it.
Backfill the soil, gently firming the soil in the hole when it gets to half full and three quarter full. Top up to the surface with loose soil. Don’t add any fertiliser at this stage.
Drive two strong wooden stakes into the ground, one either side of the planting hole then secure the tree to the support using a soft fabric tied in a loose figure of eight. The tree needs to be supported, but still able to move slightly in the wind. Remove the label to avoid strangling the trunk. Attach it to one of the stakes or keep it in a folder as a record.
Shape a well on the soil surface around the root ball to hold water when watering. Add a small amount of fertiliser to the surface and water the tree in well.
Cover the planting area with a 70mm layer of organic mulch, keeping it clear of the trunk.
Best planting times: Evergreen trees
- Cold and frost areas – Plant in spring to allow foliage time to develop and harden before winter.
- Warm frost free areas – Plant in autumn and winter to allow root systems to establish before summer.
Best planting times: Deciduous trees
- Cold and frost areas – Plant bare-rooted trees in winter or potted plants in spring and autumn.
- Warm frost free areas – Plant bare-rooted trees in winter or potted plants in autumn.
Regular watering is one of the key factors to enjoying healthy productive fruit trees. Dry soil can lead to dry fruit and smaller returns. Local climatic conditions soil types will determine how often and how deeply you need to water. As a rule, one deep soaking a week (by watering or natural rainfall) is normally sufficient, but if your soil is sandy and the conditions are hot and windy, you may need to water twice a week.
It’s important to water effectively. Always target the root zone i.e. the area directly below the canopy and just beyond. Avoid wetting foliage and flowers – this can encourage unwanted disease. Timing is important too. Early morning and late afternoons are the best time to water. That way the moisture has time to soak in before the heat of the sun starts to evaporate moisture from the soil surface. If you plant lots of trees, you might like to consider installing an irrigation system. This is the most efficient way to water fruit trees, because it allows you to automatically regulate the amount of water given to the trees.
It’s worthwhile maintaining a layer of mulch over the root zone of your fruit trees. Organic mulches like straw, compost and wood chip act like a blanket over the soil, conserving soil moisture, reducing weed competition, and regulating soil temperature, and when they break down, they add valuable humus to the soil. Aim to maintain a cover of up to 70mm thick over the root zone, but don’t allow it to touch the trunk as it can cause damage to the bark and encourage disease.
Fruit trees need a healthy well-balanced diet to keep them growing and cropping well. Regular fertilising with a balanced fruit tree fertiliser will give your trees the nutrients they need. Some trees have specific times of year when fertilising is most beneficial, but as a general rule, a little bit often is a good approach, that means, give your trees small applications every six weeks or so during its peak growth periods to give them a steady supply of nutrients. Be sure to water fertilisers in well over the weeks following application.
Most people can find the space for two or three fruit trees in an average backyard, but if your space is particularly small, or you want to grow more, try some of these space saving ideas.
Multi-grafted fruit trees – These are trees that have a number of different fruit varieties of the same type (e.g. different citrus) grafted onto the one rootstock. Imagine one tree that provides you with lemons, limes and mandarins, or a variety of peaches and nectarines.
Dwarf trees – Dwarf fruit trees are high yielding, popular varieties of fruit that have been grafted onto a dwarf rootstock. This produces fruit trees that are far more compact, making them ideal for growing in smaller spaces as well as in pots.
Espalier – This is the age-old practice of training trees flat against a wall or fence. It’s a great to enjoy productive trees in a small space and looks fantastic. You can train the plants onto an existing frame like lattice or attach some horizontal wires to a wall or timber fence. As the tree grows, lightly tie branches to the frame and prune off or shorten anything that grows outward from the frame. You can have lots of fun training trees into all sorts of interesting shapes and patterns.
Growing in pots – Dwarf trees and various berries are the most productive and practical fruit choices for growing in pots. Choose a big container that is at least 40-50cm wide and make sure it has adequate drainage holes – if not, drill some more. Plastic and glazed ceramic pots are better than terracotta pots, which are porous and allow wind to pass through the sides and dry out the roots. Use only a good quality potting mix and add additional coir peat that will help the mix to hold moisture for longer. Also, it’s worth mixing in 30 to 40 per cent coarse river sand to help avoid a slump in the level of the mix over time. Attention to watering is even more important when you grow fruit in pots because they dry out more quickly than trees grown in-ground. When conditions are hot and dry, some pots will require watering every day, sometimes twice a day. Be aware that when potting mixes dry out, they can become water repellent, making it difficult to provide plants with the moisture they need. It’s a good idea to have a commercial "wetting agent" on hand (available at garden centres), which can be applied to 'rewet’ the mix whenever this happens.