One thing you’ll notice if you try to do the bulk of your shopping from Austin’s local farms and co-ops: there’s not much fruit at the markets. Each season brings just one or two locally grown fruits, and they sell out fast. Right now we’re seeing small melons, figs, Texas persimmons and Asian pears. Here at Yard to Market, our yard-scale growers usually eat all the fruit they can grow, with none left over for the market. One notable exception was a two-week bonanza of the best peaches EVER which we gleefully sold out of in minutes flat at the farmers’ market this May. And that’s the other thing- because fruit is a bit harder to find at the market, it sells!
To learn more about how to grow enough fruit to sweeten up my kitchen and still have some left to sell, I recently attended a one-day workshop on growing fruit, presented by Monte Nesbitt form the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. There was some great information in his presentation, and I thought I’d share some tips here for how to make your home fruit-growing operation a success. For more detailed info on any particular fruit, the Extension Service has lots of fact sheets as well as individual fruit experts. You can find info and contact details here.
Tips for Central Texas Fruit Production (adapted from Monte Nesbitt’s Presentation of 9/24/14)
- Choose the right kind of fruit for our region. Some types of fruit do just great here in Central Texas, and others are better suited to different soils and climates. It doesn’t mean you CANT grow them here, but they may be more trouble than they’re worth. The trouble with Austin is that it gets super hot in the summer, but it also gets all the way down to 15 every few winters, so tropical (banana and avocado) and Mediterranean (olive and orange) plants have a rough time. Here’s a quick list of common table fruits that do well here. I’ve included links to the AgriLife fact sheets for your convenience: Blackberries, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Figs, Satsuma Mandarin, Meyer Lemon. And don’t forget about these highly recommended but less familiar native and adapted fruits: jujubes, farkleberries (!), Texas persimmons, Asian persimmons, pawpaw, loquat & prickly pear.
- Choose the right kind of fruit for your yard and lifestyle
Step 1. Evaluate your soil and water drainage
Most fruit trees do best in loamy clay, which holds water well and has plenty of organic material in the soil, but also drains successfully. If your soil is very sandy, you can add compost and even garden soil to improve its ability to hold water and nutrients. If your soil is dense clay, consider creating a berm with looser soil that you bring in or mix. Fruit trees hate having wet feet, so avoid planting in ditches or anywhere that water will sit for more than a few hours after a big rain.
Step 2. Determine how many plants you have space and time for
Some plants like pears require a pollinizer- another variety of pear nearby so that flowers will be pollinated and the tree can make fruit, so if you have room for an orchard those could be a good choice for you. Others like most citrus and blackberries have “perfect” flowers that can fertilize themselves, so gardeners with room for only one or two plants might prefer those. The better adapted the plant to our climate, the less maintenance it will need over its lifetime. If you want to grow apples, you’ll be spending lots of time babying the plants both in the cold and the heat.
- Get the weeds out of there! Monte repeatedly made the point that good weeding can increase fruit tree vitality by up to 70%. Clearing to the drip line of your sapling isn’t enough: even young trees may have root zones that stretch twelve to fifteen feet away from their trunk. New plantings need a 5 foot weed-free zone around their base, and larger trees may need up to 8 feet. Use mulch to minimize water loss from bare soil.
- Fruit trees produce more when you water and fertilize. Much like our vegetable gardens, a fruit tree in full production mode needs around 1 inch of water per square foot of root space. In dry periods, and especially during blooming and once fruit has set, water will make the difference between big juicy fruit and small piddly ones.
- If it’s not giving you lots of delicious fruit after three or four years, don’t be afraid to replace it with something new! Fruit trees have short lives. They’re not going to be an heirloom to pass down to your children even in the best of circumstances. If you’re just getting a few mealy pears from your tree and it’s year 5, try to pinpoint what went wrong, then learn from your mistakes and plant something new!