Once you have selected the types of fruit and which varieties to grow, you need to choose where to plant them. It should have enough sunshine (at least 6 hours of full sun, and preferably 8 or more), and be close to a source of water and your daily outdoor activity areas.
You may have limited choices on where you can plant your fruit garden. Just be aware to avoid planting in frost pockets, if possible. Cold air flows downhill just like water, and can collect in small valleys or just uphill of buildings, hedgerows, or solid fences. These are areas that you will notice pockets of frost forming first, before the rest of your yard.
Also, before you plant your garden, decide how you are going to protect your plants from pests such as rabbits and deer, and install the protection first. My sister and I decided to use a combination of deer and rabbit fencing in our backyard to protect our compact mini fruit garden.
Raised Beds and Soil
If you have chosen to use raised beds, select what material you will use to frame the beds. I chose less expensive permanent concrete blocks that I can sit on, but if I was planting a mini fruit garden in the front yard, I would probably choose the more decorative retaining wall blocks instead. If you only plan to raise the bed 3-4 inches, you could instead just gently mound the soil for your bed and keep it well mulched.
I try to make sure my mini fruit garden has a 10-12 inch depth of good quality topsoil, counting both the depth of the original topsoil in your yard plus the height of the raised bed on top of it. I would use real soil in these fruit beds, instead of the artificial growing mix sometimes used in vegetable garden beds. Real soil is permanent, and, over time, the artificial mix will decompose and shrink too much.
I have sometimes taken topsoil from a different part of my property to add to my raised beds. Other times, if I just needed to create slightly raised gentle mounds, I would take topsoil from my pathways between my beds. Two years ago, I purchased topsoil for my latest raised bed gardens. Be careful when you buy soil, though, as companies will sometimes try to sell poor quality subsoil as topsoil.
If possible, I would go ahead and have your soil tested for fertility and pH levels before planting. In my county, the soils are often deficient in phosphorus. I mix ground phosphate rock into the soil before planting, as that nutrient doesn’t travel far in the soil. If your soil is too acidic (low pH), it would be good to mix lime into the soil at this time, too. If your soil is too high in pH, add sulfur before planting instead. Otherwise, most fertilizers can just be mixed into the surface of the garden bed when needed.
Spending $10 for a soil test report is a good investment. Most county Cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing services. When you send the soil sample, you can tell them you will be planting fruit trees or berry bushes, and the report will tell you exactly what nutrients you will need to add for the best health of your plants and how much you should add.
A common mistake is to add any fertilizer or too much fertilizer to your mini fruit garden when it is not really needed. Fruit trees don’t need the same high degree of fertility that your vegetable garden needs. Too much fertilizer can cause the trees to grow too quickly and or delay fruiting. It can even make your trees more susceptible to winter injury.
One other issue to check for are invasive grasses or weeds in the area you plan to put your garden. Some of these plants are extremely difficult to control, and you really don’t want to risk them invading your permanent fruit beds.
My worst pest is quack grass. It spreads quickly by underground rhizomes (as much as 3-4 feet in one year), and it releases a compound into the soil that suppresses the growth of other plants. You can’t kill it by tilling it a couple of times like most grass, as every single chopped up piece of root will just grow into another plant. Quack grass photo
I once tried blocking quack grass with 2 layers of cardboard topped with 4 inches of coarse sawdust, and the grass grew right through it within 3 months. I’ve seen these rhizomes pierce through a full-grown potato and heavy 6-mil black plastic, and grow up through 8 inches of soil in a raised bed.
I’m a dedicated organic gardener, but this is the one time I’ll use a herbicide like Round-Up to clear my garden site before planting. Unfortunately, due to my disability, I can’t spend a year-long program of weekly hoeing or hand-weeding to organically kill this plant.
Building the Beds
Wooden frames are easy to build, and they can just be set on top of the ground and filled with soil. When I had our concrete beds installed, I had the grass sod removed around the perimeter of the bed. This allowed the base of the blocks to be set a couple of inches below the soil surface, which helps keep the weight of the raised soil inside the bed from shifting the blocks out-of-place.
It’s a good idea to drape a heavy, commercial-grade weed barrier on the inside of the blocks, to keep the soil from sifting out between them. I had that problem with my first retaining wall project. DO NOT put the weed barrier on top of the ground under the soil in the garden beds. You want your plants to sink their roots deep into the ground. Because I planned on sitting on these concrete block walls, I set solid cap blocks on top.
I chose to use fencing t-posts to support the trellises for my espalier trees and grapevines. I created the trellises from sturdy livestock panels. Although this may not be the most attractive support system, this combination is affordable, very quick and easy to install, doesn’t need any fancy bracing, and should last 15-20 years.
Some people choose to stretch wire between wooden posts or metal galvanized posts. This usually requires larger posts, better bracing, and more maintenance, but it can be more attractive.
Planting Trees and Bushes
Dave Wilson Nursery in California offers a great series of short videos on how to plant your fruit trees. Most of the information also applies to bushes, though the first pruning may be different. I highly recommend viewing them:
This series also describes how to plant trees for growing fruiting hedges, espalier trees, miniature trees, group plantings, and more. Just be aware that many of the varieties they recommend are best suited for California. Also, be sure to not let the roots of your bare root trees dry out while you’re busy preparing the beds and digging the holes. After planting, water the trees and shrubs thoroughly. And then mulch them well, but don’t pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree.
For a written description on how to plant fruit trees, see this site: Planting Your Backyard Orchard
The first year or two, while I’m waiting for the trees to grow and start producing fruit, I’ll sometimes plant other crops in the same bed. In this bed, I planted one watermelon plant in between the two young espalier apple trees in this 3′ x 16′ bed. It produced three huge delicious melons.
The Importance of Using Labels
Take my word for it, you will want to keep track of both the variety and rootstock of each fruiting plant that you have. It’s extremely important to attach permanent metal labels to your berry plants and fruit trees as soon as you plant them. I’ve made the mistake of putting it off too many times to count, and have seriously regretted it every time.
Plastic labels break off or fade over time, often very quickly. Labels written with “permanent” markers usually fade into invisibility within just one summer. You think you’ll never forget which variety you planted, but trust me – you will! Right now, I have an awesome variety of blueberry in my garden, and I badly want to buy more bushes of it, but I have no idea which variety it is! Don’t make my mistake.
Use metal labels (this is critical!), with wire (not string) to attach it to your plants or the trellis next to them. Write both the fruit variety and the rootstock variety, if available. One time, I had planted two rows of cherry rootstock that I planned on grafting, as I didn’t know which type would survive best on my site. One row died off completely, and the other survived just fine. BUT I didn’t use a metal label, the plastic label disappeared, and I ended up never knowing the name of the variety that survived!
Hang the label well above soil level, so it doesn’t get buried in the mulch. But you also don’t want it to disappear within leafy branches, so I usually put it down low, hanging from a lower branch within sight. If the tree is an espalier on a trellis, I usually attach it to the trellis instead. Branches grow a lot faster than you think, so don’t tie in on tight.
Leave a generous gap between the wire and the branch – and check it every year to see if it needs loosening or moving. It’s very easy to damage or kill a branch by girdling it with a tight wire. Fortunately, I haven’t done that – but it’s gotten pretty close a few times.
If you can’t afford or don’t want to pay for commercial metal tags, you can easily use aluminum pie pans. Just cut out a label-sized piece, punch a hole in it to attach a wire, and use a ball point pen to firmly write the information. Either way, you want it fairly deeply indented into the metal, not just a light scratch.
Next Page: Berries and Grapes