With an abundance of fruit trees available, where do you start? The first question is size. If you don't have the space to grow a large tree, you can choose a small form which grows between 1–2 metres high and 1–2 metres wide.
Many trees are self-pollinating but a small number do need a second tree to assist with pollination. If you've only got room for 1 tree, ensure it's self-pollinating. “Peaches are self-pollinating and the white-fleshed ‘Anzac' peaches are tops for taste,” says garden expert and television presenter Melissa King. Citrus, apricots, nectarines, figs and some pear and plum varieties also self-pollinate. “Apples need a compatible pollinating partner to produce a good crop of fruit, so make room for two delicious varieties,” she advises. Columnar trees are great for squeezing more than one tree into a tight space.
Good looks can also be a factor, with bright fruit and delicate blossoms making many fruit trees desirable for more than their tasty harvest. Espaliering a tree – training it to grow along a wall or fence – looks pretty and saves space. “Virtually any fruit tree can be espaliered, but certain trees, like apples, pears, citrus and olives, work better than others,” says Melissa.
This will affect your choice of tree, so always check the plant's label to see if it's okay for your area; stores will generally carry suitable trees for your zone. Potted fruit trees can sometimes be brought inside or moved to a protected spot if you're concerned about frosts.
Fruit trees need a sunny spot, with at least 6–8 hours of full sun.
Good drainage is a must, so improve poor soil with gypsum, and lots of compost and organic matter. If your soil is heavy clay, grow in pots or raised garden beds.
Deciduous fruit trees, including stone fruit, apples, pears and quince, can be bought in winter bare-rooted (without soil) and planted straightaway. Before planting a bare-rooted tree, it's a good idea to prune it. “Hold the tree in 1 hand and, with the other, prune away 50 percent of the top branches,” says Wes. “It may feel like a shame to cut away all that growth, but you will be amazed at how well the tree will grow in spring.” Potted fruit trees can be bought and planted during other times of the year, but autumn or winter (after the last frost) are ideal.
Improve the soil with organic matter, like compost and well-rotted manure. Wes recommends digging a hole 1.5 times the size of the root system. “Backfill lightly with soil to create a cushion in the centre of the hole, then position the tree and backfill,” he says. Firm the soil around the base of the tree and water in well. If planting in pots, ensure the container is big enough and use a good quality potting mix.
In periods of active growth and fruit development, feed fruit trees well with a complete flower and fruit fertiliser.
The time frame from planting to harvest varies depending on the fruit type. For example, citrus can take up to three years to fully form – while the fruit will form earlier, it's best to remove them to encourage the tree to focus its energy into strong structural growth. As a general guide, most fruit trees can be harvested within two to five years.
“Most fruit trees will benefit from a good prune when they are dormant in winter,” says Melissa King. “This will help improve the quality and amount of fruit, and create a strong network of branches.”
There'll be unwanted visitors on your fruit trees, typically during warmer months as the trees are budding or fruiting. They can differ from tree to tree, so it's a good idea to get a proper diagnosis from a garden expert. Generally, most sap-sucking bugs, such as aphids, mealy bugs and scale, can be treated with a broad-range insecticide, but always check the label or ask in-store if you're not sure.
Fruit fly and codling moth are particular problems for keen orchardists, so it's good to take preventative action. For fruit fly, hang lures and spray foliage regularly with a fruit fly specific insecticide. Spray early in the season (once flowers have fallen), as this will help prevent population numbers from exploding later in the season. Codling moth is a common pest of apples, pears and quince. The larvae (caterpillars) tunnel into the fruit and can, if you're not careful, ruin an entire harvest. Regularly inspect the tree and discard any infested fruit. Spray trees thoroughly with a targeted spray and remove loose bark from branches to reduce hiding areas for cocoons.
Fruit trees can often be grown out of their preferred zone, as long as similar conditions are provided or met. For example, figs can be grown in subtropical, warm temperate and cool climate zones; citrus in warm temperate and cool climates. The following is a general indication of what grows where (check in-store for self-pollinating varieties).
Start your own backyard orchard by picking up a fruit tree or two from your local Bunnings store.