A Permaculture guide to growing fruit trees organically. Even on a small urban block you can grow your own food!
We cover fruit tree water requirements, how to choose the right varieties of fruit trees that will bear fruit in your situation, mix fruit tree and multi variety fruit trees, as well as tips on planting, pruning, and fruit tree care of for urban and small farms.
Growing Fruit - Fruit Tree Varieties to Grow
Though you will find this general information very useful, especially when it comes to knowing WHAT to ask your local nursery, much of the specific recommendations I offer here are for people who live in Perth, Western Australia.
I do this because making recommendations to suit every part of the world is beyond the scope of this page, and also because this website is a resource for Perth people who aspire to become self sufficient in their food needs as preparation for the effect on our society of
Mix fruit tree varieties – diversity rules!
Diversifying your orchard will boost its productivity.
Fruit trees vary in their resistance or susceptibility to diseases, extreme weather conditions and pests. So by having a mixture of varieties, if some types are badly affected in a particular year, you can rely on others that aren’t.
Fruit tree varieties bear fruit at different times. For home fruit growing, you are better off having a continuous supply of fruit with early, middle and late season fruiters, rather than a big glut of fruit all at once.
Growing Fruit - Pests and Parrots
Many gardeners in Australia put fruit growing into the 'too hard' basket because of pests such as the fruit fly, and birds.
There are two straightforward solutions:
• Keep your trees small, so you can cover the fruit, or even the whole tree, thus dealing with the bird problem as well.
• Only grow fruits that are not attacked.
Apricots, nectarines and peaches are highly vulnerable to fruit fly, whereas most plums, citrus and other fruit trees are not.
Parrots will decimate pears when the fruit is barely formed, but leave citrus and olives largely alone.
Grow fruit trees is not the same as producing fruit!
I have often heard people complain “My apple tree won’t bear.”
Unfortunately, just because a particular variety of fruit tree is available at your local nursery doesn’t automatically mean it will fruit in your local climate.
Particular fruit trees are suited to their own particular climatic conditions. Some varieties, for example, require a minimum amount of chilling to stimulate the formation of fruit bearing buds. So if you live in a warm coastal area, such as Perth, they may grow beautifully but never fruit.
Another important factor in growing fruit is pollination.
Some fruit tree varieties simply will not set fruit unless there is another specific variety present within bee visiting distance to ensure successful pollination. Others are either partly or fully self fertile or self pollinating.
Growing Fruit - Chilling Requirements
Chilling is generally measured as the number of hours temperature is less than 7 degrees Celcius in a particular location.
Deciduous fruit trees need a certain amount of cold (chill) during winter in order to break dormancy and start flowering and growing in spring. The amount of chilling they need is classified as low, medium or high.
If trees get insufficient winter chill they may experience delayed and uneven flower and leaf bud development. This in turn can cause a reduced crop, smaller fruit size, uneven size distribution, a long harvest period, poor fruit quality and the development of vigorous shoots.
In Western Australia there is a range of climates for growing fruit, from temperate to subtropical.
The temperate fruit-growing region of the South-West provides sufficient chill for a range of medium and high chill varieties. The more recent introduction of low and very low chill varieties has extended production into warmer areas such as the Swan Coastal Plain and even to subtropical Carnarvon.
You can work out the degree of chilling in your area by using this reckoner.
Growing Fruit - Pollinator Relationships
For your trees to set fruit properly, their pollination requirements must be met. With limited space, look for cultivars that are self-fertile i.e. do not need cross-pollination or consider ‘Duo’ and 'Trio' plantings or a multi-grafted tree.
A Varieties List for Perth, Western Australia
Here is a guide to common fruit tree varieties that have particular pollination or chilling needs.
People on the Perth coastal plain should only be growing fruit trees of low chill varieties.
Those in Perth hills could go for medium chill varieties.
If you live outside of Perth, contact your local department of Agriculture or reputable nursery for advice pertinent to your area.
Medium chill conditions are also needed for successfully growing fruit from most Almonds, Chestnuts, Kiwi fruit, Olive and Walnut varieties.
For a comprehensive guide to suitable growing regions for a wide variety of fruit and nut trees visit the West Australian Nut and Tree Crop Association guide here.
Growing Fruit - Multi Variety Fruit Tree Types
Don’t have much space to grow fruit? Here are some space saving ideas you can try:
• Dwarf rootstocks.
• Multi graft fruit trees take care of pollination needs plus provide a range of flavours to be enjoyed from the one tree.
• Plant 2 or 3 fruit trees that pollinate each other in the same hole.
• Container growing can be a good if you take very good care of the trees’ water and food needs, use a large pot or planter bag (at least 20 liters) with excellent soil, and repot every 2 years after trimming the roots.
• Growing fruit trees flat along a wall or fence. Espalier training is explained below.
The Fruit Tree and How to Grow It
The Role of the Fruit Tree in Permaculture
As for any element in a Permaculture system, we consider what it needs and what it yields. The aim is to get as many functions or yields from each element – such as a fruit tree – as possible, while meeting all its needs from within the Permaculture system.
Fruit Tree Yields:
• Shade (and winter sunlight, if deciduous)
Could you cool your home by planting trees on the east and west? Or create lovely summer shade in a courtyard with a deciduous tree that will lose its leaves in winter and allow the sunshine in?
A fast growing fruit shade tree such as the Mulberry or vine such as the Grape are some examples.
• Fallen fruit
Fallen fruit is food for something! Rather than leave it to breed pests, why not run fruit loving stock? Geese, ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, or even pigs if you have a large scale orchard, are all possibilities.
Yes, fruit trees harbour pests. So you need pest eaters. Encourage wild birds into your garden by putting in a bird bath and planting native bird attracting shrubs around. Chickens and Guinea Fowl will happily eat fruit fly maggots and codling moth caterpillars, so why not let them?
• Growing Fruit
Well, this is why you planted them, after all. So ensure timely harvesting and good storage practices so all that lovely fruit doesn’t go to waste.
Most prunings (except ones with white sap, like figs) are relished by livestock, can be chopped up and added to your compost heap, and can even be used to make wine (hey, you can even make wine out of grass clippings!). If you are growing something exotic, please check that its foliage isn’t poisonous first!
Straight sticks can be dried out and used to stake tomatoes, beans and peas.
And bung some into pots to grow more fruit trees for your local fair or to trade with friends.
• Screening/wind break – depending on variety
Olive trees are a great wind break and are fire retardant. Closely planted fruit trees furnish a fabulous screen. You can even grow a living fence.
Fruit Tree Needs:
Any livestock that uses your trees yields, will pay back the favor in their manure, with little effort on your part.
Use heavy mulching to limit soil water loss and dessication. Paper, straw, rocks, daggy wool, hair, and even old carpet – they can all be used as mulch. Use whatever is handy.
Most fruit trees will do fine on greywater from your shower or laundry (if you choose a low salt, low phosphate washing liquid). You can also plant them downslope of a swale.
that will harness rainfall and concentrate it
Your animals will happily weed your trees for you, and provide you with bonus eggs, meat, milk or fleece as well.
Plant your fruit trees to intercept sunlight where you don’t want it, or where you can spare it.
Nearly all fruit and nut trees need good drainage. Poor drainage leads to reduced vigour, root disease, waterlogging and tree death. Stone fruit trees prefer sandy loams, but any well-drained soil without heavy clay or rock within one metre of the surface is acceptable. If your soil is shallow, heavy and low lying, hill it up into mounds and plant on that.
• Microclimates for Growing Fruit
When you step under a shady tree on a hot day, you are stepping into a different microclimate. As you start to see the world with Permaculture eyes, you’ll discover many microclimates even within a relatively small area.
As you can see from the chilling graph above, different locations within the same area vary in the amount of chilling they experience.
A sunny North facing slope (South facing if you are living in the northern hemisphere) will be warm compared to other places and is good for growing fruit from regions warmer than yours.
Rocks or walls on such sites will store daytime heat and radiate it out again at night, creating a warmer microclimate suited to sub tropical varieties. Dams, similarly, will store heat and reflect sunlight to warm and moderate the climate of their surrounds.
Frost tends to collect in low parts of the landscape. Vegetation can create more comfortable, sheltered zones on your property.
• Soil for Growing Fruit
If you aspire to be a successful home gardener, you must learn more about soil. Go here to find out more.
Fruit Tree Water Requirements
The amount of water needed by fruit trees depends on a few factors:
• The type of fruit tree
Different types of trees have different water requirements. For example, subtropical varieties such as avocados and citrus need more water than stone fruit, which need more than olives.
• The temperature and rainfall in your area
When it rains you may not need to water. And if you live in a hot, dry climate, you’ll need to water more than if you live in a warm, wet one.
• The evaporation in your area
Temperature and wind combine to create evaporation – the more evaporation there is, the more you’ll need to water!
• How efficiently the trees are watered
Drip irrigation under 3 inches of mulch will make your water go a lot further than sprinkler irrigating on bare soil.
• How well the soil retains moisture
Water applied to light soils – such as coarse sands – rapidly drains away and is lost. So trees in such soils need watering more often (i.e. divide the amount of water they need into more doses). Heavier soils, such as loams and clays, retain water much better so will effectively hold heavier, less frequent water applications.
And soils high in organic material and humus hold more water than they otherwise would. Thus adding compost or worm castings to light soils will improve their water holding capacity.
The yearly water needs the calculator gave us were:
This water use for growing fruit calculation is for a production orchard scenario. With heavy mulching to prevent evaporation, these water rates could be cut by more than half.
Planting Your Young Fruit Trees
Fruit tree fall planting is fine, but many people recommend waiting until the days are starting to warm a little at the end of winter.
Here’s a good (though a little long) video showing tree planting. Remember as you are digging the hole, to keep the darker, richer topsoil separate.
Mix the topsoil with a bucket of compost and use to it to refill your hole. Also note the importance of pampering your young fruit tree with mulch, and watering in well after planting.
Care and Spraying Fruit Tree
How to take care fruit tree.
Fruit Tree Pruning Instructions
When pruning use good sharp tools positioned to cut the limb cleanly away without leaving a stub. Disinfect regularly, particularly after pruning a diseased tree.
It is sensible that a growing fruit tree be pruned regularly for several reasons:
• To allow air and sunlight to penetrate the canopy. Removing branches inside the shape of the tree and those that cross over others achieves this.
• To remove dying wood, so saving the tree’s energy reserves.
• To keep the tree at an accessible height. You should be able to reach all parts of the tree from the ground.
• To maintain the desired shape and size for small gardens, espalier plantings, and to allow netting to keep out birds or insects.• To thin out fruiting buds so that the fruit forms larger and boughs are not broken by being overburdened.
As shown in this video, summer pruning, when the tree is at maximum vitality, is often recommended as it reduces the risk of disease gaining a foothold through the pruning wounds, and is ideal for thinning fruit set.
Winter pruning offers good visibility and allows a more meticulous approach, as shown here:
The art of espalier is a system for growing fruit trees in a flat plane such as against a wall, thus greatly reducing the space taken. Suitable varieties include apples, pears, plums, peaches and figs.
Here’s a really good video to show you how:
Fruit Tree Spraying
We don’t advocate using pesticides on your fruit trees. Better to use biological and organic control methods, or net your trees or fruit.
But there are some organic sprays that can be very usefully applied to growing fruit trees successfully.
In biodynamics, a “homeopathic” preparation is used to increase the force of sunlight in the tree. It is good for trees affected by fungal disease.
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