PHOTO: Stella Otto
June 27, 2016

I recently got the opportunity to chat with Stella Otto, author of The Backyard Orchardist (Ottographics, 2015), about the benefits of a family orchard. Fruit-producing plants are among the most divine selections for any homestead or farm, and Otto is, as you might have guessed, passionate about them.

Now, let’s be honest here. Even if we live on a farm, when it comes to our own gardens, some years we’re on it while others we’re just not. Some seasons come and go without me ever doing much in the garden, and other years, I’m out there all the time, working hard to bring in the healthful harvest to my children’s bellies. If you’re in a slump year, don’t get yourself down. According to Otto, a backyard orchard has a lot of appeal for everyone—even someone who isn’t excited by their garden this year.

Why Plant Fruit Trees?

“The pleasure of a fresh juicy peach or ripe, crunchy apple just can’t be beat!” Otto says. “Not only is their taste so satisfying, they’re so healthy for you too.”

I don’t want to mislead you by indicating that orchards aren’t a lot of work, but remember, you’ll reap the rewards for years to come.

“From the one time investment in your home orchard, you are likely to reap harvests for 15 to 50 years and in some instances even more!” Otto continues.

Let’s consider her wise words.

First of all, fresh fruit is just about the easiest healthy parent sell on the planet: Fruit tastes good, and kids love it. The dishes you can create with fresh fruits are always pleasing and so much healthier when prepared with fresh, local ingredients—and you can’t get any fresher or more local than just outside your door.

Second, may I ask you, how many times do you plant an apple tree? Once, right? (Well, if all goes well and it lives, but you’re smart and you’ll use lots of good books like Stella’s to help you learn all you need to know about the proper way to plant an apple tree.) Now, may I ask how many zucchini seeds you’ve planted in your lifetime? Why so many? Because you have to replant zucchini every year, that’s why! A fruit tree is a gift that keeps on giving for years—with proper maintenance, of course.
“Like any endeavor worth pursuing, the fruit garden will take some attention and effort.,” Otto says. “However, it really does not take any more effort than a vegetable or flower garden. As long as you monitor the garden regularly—a few minutes a day, a few times a week—and take action to stay on top of developing problems (mainly diseases and pests), you will be well rewarded.

“Of course, we can’t control Mother Nature, but if you select the right fruit for the location and use techniques that keep the plants strong—keep weed competition down, control pests and diseases early, prune annually, supply water and nutrients—your fruit plants will reward you bountifully.”

Planning The Orchard As A Family

If you already have an orchard or even a few fruit trees on your property, then you need to decide if you want to work with what you have or take them out and start over. Our last homestead had two 25-year-old apples trees that were riddled with fireblight and other problems. We made the (painful) decision to take them down and replace them with newer varieties better suited to the backyard grower for their disease and pest resistance. The cherry trees, however, we kept because they still had at least a few more years of life left in them and were performing beautifully.

Otto suggests making orchard planning a family affair, and I agree.

“Children can be included in the home orchard from planning to picking—just choose activities appropriate for their age and attention span,” she says. “You can start with planning: draw a map of your yard (somewhat to scale if possible). Show existing structures (house, shed, patio, swing set, etc.). Pencil in areas where you would like to plant new fruit trees or berry bushes. Make selecting varieties to plant a family activity by looking up selections in a nursery catalog or online site. Specialty, fruit-oriented nurseries will usually have the best and often the most unusual offerings. Then the kids can get physical, marking and digging the planting holes, helping trim the newly planted trees, watering them, and doing much of the follow-up care mentioned earlier.”

Just like planning their own gardens, having a creative stake in the orchard planning will help them to dream of the days when they have peach juice running down their chins and having their cheeks pucker with summer plums.

Children’s Activities In The Orchard

It’s not just in the planning where the kids can get in on the action. For a lot of farm and homestead parents, a large part of the reason we live the lifestyle we do is so that our kids learn the value and meaning of work. An orchard is perfect for just that. Here are some ways Otto recommends your children can help out:

  • hang pest deterrents, like bars of soap or ribbons of flicker tape
  • make mason bee houses to encourage pollinators
  • paint tree trunks with white latex paint to prevent injury from the southwest sun reflecting off snow
  • install spiral rodent guards
  • build a scarecrow—the more flapping and moving parts to deter birds the better
  • harvest fruit
  • press cider or make apple sauce

In the early spring, one of my children is sure to be assigned the task of following me around our small orchard, hollering out instructions from Otto’s book while I prune and making sure I don’t lose the book in all piles of branches and sticks. My oldest is getting handy enough with pruners that she is often found helping me shape the trees for both their health and our ease of picking come harvest time.

Fruit In The Children’s Garden

Often, if your children are lucky enough to have their own garden, the space is small. To make the most of that area, you can learn to espalier fruit trees.

“These trees are usually trained to a series of wires on a trellis along a flat surface, such as a building wall—just be sure they’ll get six or more hours of sunlight,” Otto says. “Dwarf apples, pears and peaches are the most commonly used fruit for these very decorative garden elements.”

This presents a unique opportunity for your kids to team up with you on a farm project.

“First they can choose a decorative shape they’d like to create. (There are many ideas online.),” Otto says. “Then kids can help gently bend and hold the branches in place while an adult makes the necessary pruning cuts and secures the branches to the trellis. Most espalier are not extremely tall, and the fruit is very easy to reach, so children can easily harvest or pick a snack from the tree without adult help.”

A Tip For Short Attention Span

Kids are hard workers, but they enjoy seeing results as quickly as possible. (Don’t we all?) If all you have space for are some berry bushes or grapes, look on the bright side and realize that those come into production, usually, within the first three years. That’s fast for fruit!

If you’re looking for a speedy producing fruit tree, Otto suggest looking for fruit trees that bear fruit early on in life.

“Peaches, which often bear in their third growing season, are a great choice,” she says. “Some of the more dwarf apples, and there are a broad range of these, also bear in their third or fourth season.”

See, no excuses left for not getting out there to plan and plant those fruit trees this year! There’s simply something for everyone in the family orchard.


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