Urban Food Garden


When planting fruit and nut trees many gardeners simply go down to their local nursery and choose what they want to plant on the spot with little forethought as to the trees that best suit their needs and their garden’s environment. While this can work fine it can lead to poor choices being made.  This section poses several questions gardeners should ask themselves before buying any fruit and nut trees. 

What fruit do you like to eat?

There is no sense in planting food trees if you or your family don’t like the taste of the fruit and nuts that the trees produce. For example, if you don’t like eating apples then it isn’t a good idea to plant apple trees.  But even if you do like eating apples then it is worth noting that the taste and texture of different apple varieties can vary greatly. If possible it is a good idea to taste the varieties of apple (or any other type of fruit) that you are intending to plant.

what purposes do you want the fruit for?

Fruit varieties, especially apples, pears and peaches, can be categorized into three types:-

  1. FRESH:  Best eaten fresh. If cooked or preserved this type of fruit usually discolours and/or becomes mushy and tasteless.
  2. COOKED: Retains good colour and texture when cooked or preserved but usually does not taste nice eaten fresh.
  3. MULTI PURPOSE: Can be eaten fresh or preserved.

If you only want to grow fruit to eat fresh you are best to have just a few small espaliered and/or multi grafted trees providing small amounts of fresh fruit  over an extended period.  If you also want to preserve fruit for eating out of season you might want to plant more than one tree of a single variety.  That way you will get a lot of fruit all at once, which is ideal for preserving. 

Pears from my Pyvert Miniature pear tree. While Pyvert pears make excellent bottling pears they are not that good eaten fresh.  Pear trees like this are best grown when you specifically want pears for bottling.

A Fowlers preserving unit used to preserve surplus fruit and berries.    By preserving your surplus it is possible to handle more fruit trees than if you were only growing  fruit to be eaten fresh.  For more information on Fowlers preserving units see THE FOWLERS PRESERVING SYSTEM section.

What are the pollination requirements?

All fruit trees need to be pollinated to produce mature fruit. They can be grouped into three pollination categories.


  1. SELF POLLINATED: Produces fruit without the need to be cross pollinated with pollen from trees of a similar variety.  The pollen from its own flowers performing the successful pollination.

  2. PARTIALLY SELF POLLINATED: Will produce fruit without cross pollination from trees of a compatible variety, however yields will be greater if cross pollination occurs.

  3. CROSS POLLINATED: Needs pollen from a similar tree variety to produce fertile fruit. 

    Note that cross pollination does not mean having two trees of precisely the same variety in order to produce fruit, in fact they often have heavier crops when cross pollinated with slightly different varieties of the same fruit tree.  Good books on growing fruit, many mail order fruit tree websites and well labelled fruit trees on sale at nurseries will list compatible pollination tree groups, usually in the form of group numbers or letters.  For example Pakenham’s Triumph (Groups 2,8 & 9) is not compatible as a pollinator with Winter Nelis (Group 3) but is compatible with Beurre-Bosc (Groups 2,1 & 4) as both Pakenham’s Triumph and Beurre-Bosc are in the group 2 pear tree category.  Some fruit trees have a larger cross pollination list than others.  To maximise pollination it pays to pick trees that have wide cross pollination capability.

Of course, when living in an urban environment,  it is possible to plant a single fruit tree that requires cross pollination and produce a perfectly good crop.  That is because of the likelihood that people living near  you would have planted fruit trees with compatible pollination characteristics to your tree.  But this is a hit and miss affair, to ensure that your fruit trees produce the best possible crop it is a good idea to plant more than one fruit tree with compatible pollination characteristics.

What are the water requirements?

Few people have enough water to fully irrigate their entire garden. What your annual rainfall is, the evaporation rate and whether you have sandy or clay soils (trees in sandy soils need more water) are all factors that influence how big the water shortfall is.

The amount of water fruit trees need to produce good fruit varies greatly depending on the type of fruit tree.  Almonds, figs and olives are the most drought tolerant. Apples, cherries, apricots, pears and plums are somewhat drought tolerant. Nectarines, peaches and citrus need a good supply of water to survive.  To maximise fruit production it is a good idea to have a mix of trees with higher and lower water requirements and have trees with similar water needs grouped together for easier watering. This process of grouping trees according to their water needs is called Hydra Zoning.  For more information see the HYDRA ZONING section.

The size of the tree also makes a difference. A small, espaliered apple tree will need much less water than a full sized apple tree.

Are the trees suitable for your climate?

The best food trees to plant are the ones that do well in your area.  A good place to get advice about what grows best is at a local reputable nursery.  Asking experienced gardeners in the neighbourhood can also yield good advice.  They often have a better understanding of the local climate, which can lead to some surprising advice as to what does and does not thrive in your area.

How much time is required to manage each tree?

All fruit trees require some time to be spent on them to maintain them properly, IE pruning branches, harvesting and processing the fruit. But some fruit trees need more time spent on them than others. Below are some fruit tree characteristics to watch out for as they increase the amount of time you will have to spend on each tree to produce a successful crop.

Trees that require thinning of fruit

Some fruit trees set large numbers of fruit that, if left to mature, will either produce lots of overly small fruit or add so much weight to the tree’s branches that there is a risk of some of the branches breaking under the strain.  To avoid this you must do what is called “thinning”, which is the hand removal of up to half of the immature fruit before they get too large.  This is tedious extra work that can be avoided if you choose fruit tree varieties that don’t require thinning.

Apple trees that are prone to codling moth attack

Codling moths lay eggs on the buds of flowering apple trees that hatch into caterpillars which live inside the growing fruit before boring their way out as the apple matures.  Apple trees have varying susceptibility to codling moth attack.  For instance the apples on my Jack Hum crab apple tree are never damaged by codling moth caterpillars, the apples on my Granny Smith trees will typically suffer between approximately 15 to 30% damage while the apples on my Ballerina tree usually suffer between 30 to 60% damage.  By choosing varieties of apples that are less susceptible to codling moth attacks it is possible  to minimise the amount of spraying required to control codling moths.

Trees that need to be sprayed for peach leaf curl

Almost all peach and nectarine trees are vulnerable to Peach Leaf Curl to some extent but some varieties get it so badly that they will not produce fruit unless sprayed each Winter with a fungicide such as Bordeaux mix.  For this reason I would avoid planting any peach or nectarine tree that shows poor resistance to Peach Leaf Curl.

LEFT: Leaves on an Elberta peach tree showing significant signs of Peach Leaf Curl damage.                                                         

RIGHT: Leaves from a clingstone peach tree showing no signs of Peach Leaf Curl.  This peach tree was grown from a peach seed originating from a peach tree of unknown origin that consistently showed high resistance to Peach Leaf Curl.  If you want to grow peaches it pays to seek out varieties that are more resistant to Peach Leaf Curl.

Trees with fruit that birds like to eat

Birds eating fruit on trees is an occupational hazard, so much so that most fruit trees need to be netted at harvest time to protect the crop. But some fruit trees are more at risk than others to bird attack.  For example, here in Ballarat, cherries are very susceptible to bird attack, apples, pears and Nashi pears are somewhat susceptible, while birds usually leave feijoas and citrus fruit alone. Having at least some fruit trees that do not need to be netted to protect the fruit from birds will reduce the amount of time spent netting fruit trees.  Fruit trees that are highly susceptible to bird attack are best grown as small, espaliered trees as they are easier to cover with bird netting.  

Netting fruit trees is time consuming.  To cut down on your workload it pays to have at least some fruit trees (such as citrus trees) that do not need to be netted.

How much space is each tree going to need?

Many fruit and nut trees can be grown in pots or as small espaliered trees, even pruned into hedgerows.  Especially if they are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.  You will be surprised how little space is needed.  Others, such as walnut trees, do better as larger trees and therefore need more space.  Whatever you end up planting, make sure you calculate the space that is needed for the size and type of trees you want to grow before you buy your trees.

What other uses are the trees for?

While the main aim of having fruit trees is to produce food for you to eat it is not the only reason for planting them.  They can also be used as shade for both people and animals as well as providing protection for trees susceptible to wind and frost damage.  For details on other uses of fruit trees see the FRUIT TREE FUNCTIONS section.