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It's time to sort out the real backyard gardeners and foodies from the "fair weather tomato growers". Yes I know the weather outside is frightful, but there's no better time to get your very own fruit trees in the ground…
Deciduous fruit trees are at their most dormant stage right now. This means they can be removed from the ground, bundled up and kept in moist saw dust by your local nursery. But it's a relatively small window we have to get planting. After August you'll notice buds starting to swell indicating the tree is out of its winter slumber and preparing for Spring. This drastically increases the chances of transplant shock and is best avoided.
Bare rooted trees are relatively small and it's easy to forget how big they may eventually grow. Most fruit trees will get to around 4m x 4m by the time they're 20 years old so if that doesn't appeal check out if there's a dwarf variety available. Additionally you want to make sure you plan for the lateral (sideways) growth of the tree. It's often you'll see a garden path made redundant because the once small fruit tree now has an established vase shape and threatens to bump the head of anyone passing nearby! Of course you could just whip up an organic helmut…
Soil preparation and planting
I always dig holes for my new bare-rooted fruit trees a week or so before I plant them. This allows me to see if the water will drain freely or whether there's going to be an ongoing issue of root rot etc. Simply fill your hole up with water and note how long it takes to drain. If the water hasn't subsided by a day then you can either mix in some gypsum with the soil or build up a hill above the original surface. Gypsum won't work on all clays (it's not just adding sand, it actually causes a chemical reaction with certain clays that breaks them up) so it's worth re-filling the hole with water again to check drainage.
Also worth noting that in recent years our increased rainfall means you have to be more mindful of drainage than 5 years ago. Make your hole a little deeper than it has to be and about twice the width of the roots of your new tree. You can tell the original depth the tree was planted at by the different colour on the trunk/stem i.e. the below surface stem will be darker. DON"T PUT ANY FERTILISER IN THE HOLE! Your tree has gone through quite a shock with a large amount of its fine roots removed. The new root growth will not take kindly to any fertiliser so resist the temptation to give your new tree a thriving start by putting a shovel load of chook manure in the hole with it! Wait until spring when you can apply some organic fertiliser on the surface and let it gradually reach the root zone.
As the roots have been trimmed in bare rooted trees, you need to take of about a third of the above ground growth to compensate. This is fairly easy, although many nurseries will do this for you when the pack your trees. Keep in mind the final tree shape you're after as this first heavy prune will decide whether you keep a main central leader (pyramid) or promote the lateral growth (vase).
Avoid staking unless your tree is really exposed and simply don't buy it if it doesn't look robust! Most fruiting trees won't give you fruit for at least two years so as the saying goes - the best time to plant a tree was 5 years ago!
Backyard Harvest's Top Five bare rooted recommendations
Ultimately your tree choice comes down to personal fruit and nut preferences. The five I've listed will fit in most compact urban yards and either pollinate themselves or rely on one of the others. If you're renting don't forget you can also pop them in large pots.
Surely the king of stone fruits, most of us have fond memories of apricots you could smell before you could taste. I grew up near Mildura where a massive apricot tree used to produce fruit by the bucket load every summer and gave me an early appreciation of home-grown fruit. Moorpark is a variety not favoured by the commercial growers as it just doesn't travel well. It's just too bloody succulent! So it's not just nostalgia that made the apricots of your childhood taste better - they were most likely a backyard cultivar that never made it anywhere near a supermarket.
Also known as the peach that's gone a bit nutty, the almond is a great way to show your kids how nuts actually grow. Make sure you ask for a self pollinating variety.
Apple (dwarf Granny Smith)
You know there actually was a granny Smith. About 130 years ago she threw a crate of rotting apples by a creek bed like magic some of the seeds germinated and morphed into the world's best cooking apple. Nice one Granny.
Apple (dwarf Gala)
Like the dwarf Granny Smith, this Gala will grow to about 2.5m x 2.5m keeping the fruit within reach. Of course if you've got the space go for a full sized ones as they are truly beautiful trees.
There's few things that top picking a ripe peach straight from the tree and eating it. Commercial peaches have to be picked way before they're ripe so it's rare to buy one that can go close to matching the home grown experience.
Fig (Black Genoa)
Perhaps one of the most underrated fruits in Australia. During the last drought I saw Fig trees happily producing fruit using virtually no water while eucalypts a few blocks away turned up there toes and died. Beautiful shade trees, great for kids to climb and why pay $40kg for organic figs when you can grow them in your backyard!?
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