At this time of year, the occasional burst of sunshine is enough to create a general rush to garden centres to buy fruit trees and plants. Before you join in, just stop and do a little planning first.
The first step is working out what crops will grow in your micro-climate. The easiest way to work this out is to go for a walk and see what fruit trees are growing and fruiting well for your neighbours.
Now turn your attention to where you will grow them. Almost without exception, fruit crops need a warm, sunny, sheltered position to produce at their best. To make your micro-climate more suitable for marginal crops, consider techniques such as planting against a house for warmth, on a northern slope for more sun, or on the sheltered side of a hedge or fence away from cold southerly or destructive storm winds.
Consider also the soil. Level ground or ground that slopes to the north is best for growing fruit trees. Sloping ground usually drains better, which is very important on heavy soils, but steep slopes make pruning, mulching and picking the crops harder. In this case, terracing your orchard may help. On level ground, where the drainage is poor, mounding up the soil before planting can help. Consider the flow of cold air also, which operates the same way as water drainage. Therefore, cold sensitive crops should be planted near the top of a slope, while crops that need more winter chilling can be planted near the bottom, where the cold air will pool.
Whether it is one tree or a whole orchard, enough space needs to be left so each tree can grow to an optimum size, without excessively shading its neighbour. Plan to have at least half a metre between the outer edge of each tree at full size; this allows you to prune, spray and pick without having to fight your way through. Where space is limited, look to plant smaller crops, like tamarillo, guava, currants, blueberries, strawberries, mandarins and feijoas. Or use space-saving techniques such as dwarf varieties, growing in pots, or training crops onto espaliers, fences or pergolas.
Aside from these small crops, don’t plant too many of one variety; you will be surprised how much fruit even one tree can provide. Better to have a range of crops that will fruit in all seasons of the year. However, if you have a large family and a large garden, you could plant several varieties of each crop – an early, a middle and a late producer will spread the harvest period. Plant smaller growing crops on the northern side of the garden, where they are less likely to be shaded by their bigger companions. Plant trees of the same group together. For example, having all your deciduous trees in one area will help with pollination, but also with spraying for pests and diseases. Similarly, having the cold sensitive plants in one area is useful when rushing around with bolts of frost cloth at dusk. Vining plants such as grapes and passionfruit are ideal for bordering the orchard on a fenceline or trellis, while crops such as macadamia and feijoa make excellent wind-resistant hedges. And there you have a basic planting plan – happy planting!