As we move into the winter months here in Australia, it’s a great time to start planning and design your backyard food forest so you are ready to go in spring. Further, winter is a time when you can buy bare root trees, which are cheaper than stock that has been potted on. With this in mind I thought that I would start to offer some ideas to people in the temperate regions as to what sort of plants they could incorporate into their backyard food forest gardens and the different functions they can fill. I grew up in a house with a forest garden in Canberra and have been working in horticulture and ecology for the last eight years so I thought I would share some of the information I’ve gathered to members of the permaculture community.
When designing a food forest it is a good idea to start from the top. Most people have the goal of producing food and since the trees that make up the forest canopy use the most light, water and nutrients, it makes sense that these trees are also the ones that will produce the fruit. Luckily in Canberra there is a huge range of fruit trees that we can grow in a forest garden that will keep us stuffed with fruit. These five are in no particular order, and it was hard enough only choosing five.
There really isn’t much that I can say about apples that they don’t already say for themselves. The power of the apple is such that when I lived in Hawaii (home of unlimited tropical fruit) the supermarkets all stocked apples so that the tourists and migrants to the tropics could still eat the popular fruit. More than that, it’s a fruit that stores for ages when it’s fresh and even longer when it’s dry. Cornell university in New York even has a whole department dedicated to pomology, the study of the apple. Pears, quince and nashi also fit into this category and are equally great for the backyard.
There are countless varieties of apple, with all colours under the sun and that produce at different times. This means in Canberra with a few trees (or even fewer multi-graft trees) you can have apples that will produce through the summer and autumn. Blemished fruits are easily converted into juice, cider or fruit leather and the trees are tough enough to grow even on marginal soil (but some nice well fed soil is better).
The author with an apple. Don’t worry, this isn’t snow white.
There are heaps of great heritage varieties if you poke around to find them. There are some great orchards at Batlow with interesting varieties and also lots of orchards in Tasmania and Melbourne that will send you scions for grafting or sell you grafted trees. You should select at least two varieties to ensure good pollination but you could also grow a crab apple in the shrub layer to fill this role. She’ll be apples.
Really, any of the stone-fruit (peach, cherry, plum, nectarine) could have been in this top five list but I have a real love of plums. Plums also tend, in my experience, to be easier to cultivate and will produce no matter the conditions. Compared to something link cherries, which spit when it’s too wet and under-produce when it’s too dry or peaches, which stand out to the birds and seem to suffer more insect pest, plums are where it’s at for stone fruit in my books.
Plums do so well in Canberra that many of the street trees in our central suburbs are ornamental plums (prunus cerisefa) which produce an edible fruit in summer. I used to stuff myself with these during summer holidays and any that were left over we stewed and froze to eat plum crumble all year round. Other great varieties include the Damson’s and greengages and there are lots of varieties that originated in France that are excellent trees for making dried plums — prunes — which you can keep all winter.
Again, this selection is biased from my childhood. Growing up, the neighbours had a huge fig tree which was always full of fruit and we would head through the back fence and fill up baskets of juicy black figs. It was a close race between fig and mulberry for inclusion into this list. They are in the same family, Moraceae, and are drought resistant and frost resistant and grow incredibly fast. However, the mulberry tree grows much larger than most fig trees, meaning it doesn’t fit as well in a back yard. Also, the mulberries are more difficult to harvest and stain your clothes.
Figs are easy to grow from cuttings but you need to make sure that you develop their root systems before you plant them out or they will become stunted in your garden. Figs are great to make into jams and preserves and also are a real treat dried. There is a huge diversity of figs as well. The Rare Fruit Society of South Australia rescued Australia’s gene bank of figs when the state government decided to bulldoze an experimental orchard, so get in contact with them if you’d like cuttings. Figs require water in summer to get good fruit and also require a tiny wasp to pollinate them. Also, the leaves can be used as tea to help regulate insulin response.
Lemon trees thrive in most Canberra gardens if they have either protection from the frost or some early morning shade. With shade in the morning the leaves warm up slowly and don’t suffer frost damage, similar to hypothermia in humans. So, in the spirit of a Forest Garden, you can use frost hardy pioneers to generate a shady morning micro-climate for your lemon tree. Once the tree is established the frost shouldn’t be a problem. This tenderness aside, fresh lemons are to die for. The lemon tree at my family home has been producing for the 25 years that we’ve lived there and presumably a few years before that too. We often get two crops off the tree and the lemons can stay on the tree over summer, being picked when we’re making salad or drinking coronas. They’re also invaluable when the cold and flu season sets in each winter. Lemons can also be preserved in pickles and the rind is used in baking.
Olive trees grow exceptionally well in Canberra and once you get the hang of it the olives are extremely easy to preserve. Being evergreen and dense they can make a great hedge and are also a possible fruit tree for out the front where you don’t want all the fruits of your labour pinched.
Olives are extremely long lived trees. They reach peak production after 500 years and will live for 1000 years. They’re a great choice in areas when you want to create some protection from the sun and wind for other species in the food forest. Choose a table olive variety for easy preservation or if you’re extremely adventurous try pressing some oil from the fruit. Olive also made it over the line for the top five (knocking out apricot) because the leaves are medicinal when used as a tea and great for surviving the winter cold season.
So there you have it. Five outstanding fruit trees among the many possible for the temperate backyard edible forest garden. I hope this makes it easy for you to make decisions if you have limited space.
Do you have experience with these or others that you think should have made the list? Please share it with us in the comments.