Growing Fruit in the Backyard

WARNING: CONSUMING FRUIT CAUSES… GOOD HEALTH!

Fruit is a great alternative to sugary snacks… it’s naturally sweet, and provides loads of nutritional benefits.  What many folks don’t know is that we can grow fruit right here in our urban space.  You don’t need acres of land (though that would help if you wanted apples or peaches) — a few yards of space is all it takes for a variety of backyard fruits.  Northern Virginia is in Zone 7,  which means our climate works well for most non-tropical fruits (tropical plants will die with the first frost).  Think strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, etc.  The trick to growing fruit in our urban gardens is the same trick we use for all our plants:  grow vertically, and get lots of sun!

Here’s a sample of fruit that can be grown in our urban farms — we’re growing all of these in our Sprout home garden this season:

  • Blueberries.   Blueberries are a bushy plant, so you don’t need trellises to support them.  What you do need is acidic soil (blueberries thrive in soil with a pH of 4.5 – 5.5), so do a soil test and add soil acidifier before you plant your bushes.  (I use Espoma products for all my soil ammendments — they’re organic and proven effective in my garden.  Bonus:  the soil acidifier will also turn your hydrangeas a deep blue.)
 blueberries
 We planted three varieties of blueberry bushes in our garden, so they can cross-pollinate and produce more fruit.  If you only have space for one blueberry plant, be sure it’s a self-pollinating variety.

 

  • Raspberries.  Raspberries are a vining plant, and they will spread like wildfire, so be careful where you plant them.  I use a simple teepee trellis to support them as they grow.
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As the raspberry vines grow, train them along a trellis to keep them supported. 

 

  • Grapes.   We hadn’t thought it would be possible to grow grapes in our urban space, but we planted a vine last year just for grins.  Grapes generally take 3-4 years to begin producing fruit, so we were pleasantly surprised when our vines began producing this season (so our vine was likely 2 years old when we purchased it).   Grape vines should be trained along horizontal wires — be sure the wire is strong enough to support many bunches of fruit.  And while you’re waiting for your fruit to ripen, remember that grape leaves make a great wrap for mediterranean recipes.
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Our backyard vineyard is well on its way.  If we squint hard enough, we can almost imagine we’re sitting on a veranda in Italy!

 

  • Strawberries.  This is our third year of strawberry plants, and they’re producing more and larger berries than ever before.  This is particularly rewarding (and surprising), given the foot of snow they hibernated under this winter.  We sometimes battle with our local chipmunk family for these berries, so when we beat them to the feast, it’s a treat!  We eat them straight off the vines, or chop them up for our favorite summer recipe:  Strawberry Cilantro Salsa.
son strawberry
My son is proud of our hard work and excited to eat the fruits of our labor.

 

  • Melons.  Melons tend to take up a lot of space, so growing vertically is a great option for urban farmers.  Just be sure to use strong trellises, and tie up your fruits with little slings (stockings or ripped up t-shirts work well) to make little fruit hammocks to support them as they hang.  We’ve had success with cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon here in our Arlington garden.  The fruit tends to be smaller than what you’d find in the grocery store, but we consider that a good thing, because it’s evidence that it’s organic and not pumped full of fruit steroids!

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Cantaloupes ripen along our trellis.  In a few weeks they’ll need supports to keep them from pulling down or dropping off the vines.

 

  • Pineapple.  Ok, so we said tropical fruits don’t grow in our Zone 7, but we’re trying a couple anyway — it’s too hard to resist!  The key to growing tropical fruits in our zone is to plant them in a container that can be moved indoors before the first frost (and to have an indoor space big enough to accommodate them).  You can grow a pineapple by planting its top, though be prepared to be patient, as it will take up to 2 years to produce one fruit.  We took the easy route and bought a 2 year old plant for our garden.  Pineapples only produce one fruit per plant, so we’ll eat this one later this summer, and use the suckers it produces to replant for next season.
pineapple

It’s a rare treat to have tropical plants like this pineapple growing in our backyard. 

 

    • Banana.  Yes, another tropical plant — another experiment!  We won’t be able to move this one indoors, given its large size, so we opted for a hardy variety that can withstand freezing temperatures.  This one is a Dwarf Japanese Banana plant, which should survive our snowy winters, and (hopefully!) not grow beyond our space.  Within a couple years it will produce fruit that is supposedly inedible, but I’m sure a certain little person in our family will put that to the test.  We’re not focused on the fruit, though, because we primarily chose this plant for its asthetics — we love bringing the look of the tropics to our garden, and this is one of the only palm plants that will survive in our region.

 

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This dwarf banana tree (the tall palm-y one) brings a little of the tropics to our urban farm.

 

  • Lemons.  Last fall we visited Monticello, and we were awed by the Lemon trees growing in Jefferson’s Southeast Piazza (aka, greenhouse).   The trees were small enough to fit into this average-sized room, and yet they were abundant with fruit — at least 30 lemons on each tree.

monticello lemons

Jefferson’s lemon tree in his Monticello greenhouse was the inspiration for our lemon tree dreams.

We had visions of growing our own lemon trees, and so we’re starting from scratch — we purchased our own little Dwarf Meyer Lemon, and boy is it small!  But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?  We figure we’ll have some great lemons in about ten years.  :)

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Our Dwarf Meyer Lemon plant (right) is tiny now — we’ll transfer it to larger pots as it grows, and if all goes well, we’ll have fruit in a few years. 

So as you can see, growing fruit in our urban spaces is not only possible, but quite simple.  With some good vertical supports and lots of sun, you can be well on your way to a backyard fruit fest!

Happy (urban) farming!

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