These days, quite a lot of Americans are looking for ways to save money on groceries while at the same time gaining quality control over their own food supply.
Home vegetable gardens are coming back in a big way, and many people are relearning traditional domestic arts like cooking, canning, drying, freezing, and other time-honored methods of food preparation and preservation.
Planting trees and shrubs that are attractive and that also produce edible fruits or nuts has become quite popular. Home orchards are all the rage is certain parts of the west coast, but even a New Yorker with little more than a patio or rooftop can get in on the game.
And, it’s not as hard as you think.
True, some fruit-bearing trees are very labor-intensive. Apples generally fall into this category.
While I would never discourage anyone from planting an apple tree (I plan on planting two this spring myself), if you long for home grown apples you need to know that you will also be collecting lots of home-use pesticides and fungicides, and you will be pruning regularly and carefully in order to insure a good crop and a healthy tree.
If you don’t go for the pesticides, know that you will be cutting little worms out of most of your little apples. But don’t let that stop you. By all means plant an apple tree.
Come on, how can you not plant at least one apple tree? (Actually, you have to plant two, but that’s another hub altogether.) Some people swear by organic methods. Give it a try.
Once you plant that classic apple tree and quickly give up on babying it, you can turn your attention to fruit and nut trees that are truly easy to grow and beautiful to behold. What follows is a list of ten trees and shrubs you might not have considered without a little prodding.
You don’t have to run right out and buy all ten (although you can). Plant one or two this fall and see how you feel next fall. I predict that once you get started down this road, you will become a real fan and eventually, a homegrown horticulturalist.
#1 The Paw Paw Tree
The Paw Paw is a small tree native to Indiana, the state where I was born. They are easy to grow, resistant to pests and most plant diseases, and grow to a height of around 15 to 18 feet at maturity.
The leaves are broad and tropical-looking. The rounded oblong fruits come on in late summer/early autumn and have a banana-like texture and smell. Paw paws can withstand winter temperatures of up to -25 degrees F. and will grow in almost any soil.
In order to produce fruit, you do need two of them. Paw paws are fun to grow if you have children, because they are exotic and weird looking when they fruit, but you probably won’t need more than two.
A family can only eat so many paw paws, no matter how interesting they are. If you live in an area where they grow wild, make sure you have permission to remove them before just digging them up and taking a few home.
#2 The American Hazelnut
American Hazelnuts are small deciduous trees that grow to a maximum height of 20 feet or so. Hazelnuts are extremely winter-hardly and will grow in almost any soil, although they do not like to be waterlogged.
The leaves are broad and almond shaped with serrated edges and turn deep yellow to burnt orange in autumn. In early February Hazels get little yellow catkins on them (which later will turn into nuts), making them one of the few plants that actually bloom in the snow. Hazelnuts, also called filberts, are easy to crack open and grow quite prolificly.
They can be roasted in a shallow pan in the oven, or chopped and browned in butter for use in baking and as a topping for meat or fish.
Highly nutritious, they require very little in the way of prepartation or care, and keep well.
#3 The Almond Tree
Almond trees grow best in hot, dry climates, but they are hardy in all but the most northern U.S. states. If you live in a state with regular rainfall or summer humidity, you may want to spray your almond trees with an antifungal agent to keep the foiliage attractive and insure a good crop.
Almonds are highly nutritious and can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into a nut butter. The almond tree has narrow leaves and clouds of white blossoms in the spring.
They are prone to deadwood and need to be cleaned up in late winter or early spring, carefully removing all spent twigs and branches so as not to invite pests or disease.
Some varieties are self-pollinating and some are not, so make sure which kind you are dealing with before purchasing your plant.
#4 The American Persimmon Tree
Persimmons are smallish bright orange fruits that appear in autumn after the foliage has dropped off. This makes the persimmon tree worth cultivating if for no other reason than its decorative value, but in fact, the fruits are highly nutritious as well as attractive.
Persimmon trees come in American and Asian varieties. The Asian persimmon produces larger fruits with a firmer texture similar to that of an apple or a pear.
The American persimmon produces smaller plum-sized fruits that have to be ripened to a soft consistency to be eaten, otherwise they are very bitter/tart due to their high tannin content (tannin is the substance that makes red wine ‘dry’).
American persimmons are much easier to grow, very resistant to diseases and pests, and will tolerate extremely cold winters.
Persimmons are so nutritious and attractive that it is odd how few of them are seem in the home landscape. They require little care and are quite lovely.
#5 The Damson Plum
All plums are easy to grow and require a minimum in the way of spraying, pruning, and general care, but damson plums are especially prolific and heavy with fruit.
The damson plum is a very ancient fruit tree, with evidence of its cultivation going as far back as the 1rst century B.C. in Damascus, Syria. Damsons are deep purple, small, tart, and very rich in taste.
They are generally used to make jams and jellies but are delicious by themselves as well. In humid areas of the country, use a fungicidal spray to prevent the fruit from molding before it reaches maturity.
Damsons are self-fertile, meaning you can grow a single tree and still see fruit production.
I had a red-leafed variety of plum in my backyard several houses ago, and it was astonishing to see the fruits come on and disappear in the same day–they were favorites of birds and animals, so I never got a single one into my mouth due the darling little hogs.
The wild American plum that grows along our driveway in Michigan fruits prolifically though, enough for birds and people both.
#6 The Serviceberry or Juneberry Tree
Also known as the American Amelanchier, the Serviceberry is gaining popularity as a landscape ornamental because of the delicate, copious white blossoms that come on in late spring.
The Serviceberry is a native American understory tree, meaning it grows naturally in woodlands under larger trees with other small flowering trees like dogwoods and ironwoods.
With a maximum height of about 25 feet, the Serviceberry has a gracefully shape that fits in well in a Japanese garden. Few people realize that the Serviceberry’s deep blue fruits are edible and nutritious.
Looking and tasting much like blueberries (but with a larger stone), the fruit is most prolific when the tree gets full sun.
You will have to fight the birds for it, but even if you get only a harvest or two for yourself, the tree is worth growing for its beauty alone. And it will attract all manner of lovely birds to your yard, especially if you position a birdbath nearby.
#7 The American Elderberry
The Elderberry is actually a large shrub, native to North American woodlands, that bears huge clusters of tiny white blossoms in late spring that turn to clusters of dark blue to purple berries in late summer/early fall.
Elderberries grow wild in the midwest and the north in woodland areas and along roadsides in outlying areas, but you can also find cultivars in garden centers that are domesticated for better fruit production or various decorative qualities.
My grandmother and mother used to make elderberry wine each year: A fairly simple process that involved picking lots of berry clusters and then fermenting them in a stone crock in the basement with plenty of sugar, then skimming out the pulp and bottling the remaining liquid.
Elderberries are also good made into jams and jellies. My partner fries the white blossoms in butter after dipping them in a little flour, which tastes pretty good, but then, anything battered and fried in butter tastes pretty good. (Around here, people like to do that with squash blossoms too.)
The elderberry shrub is very hardy and may need to be pruned occasionally to keep it attractive. Do NOT prune it into a little cube every year–that’s just sick.
Instead, cut out deadwood in very early spring and cut back lightly in late fall if necessary.
#8 The Asian Pear Tree
Asian pears are dwarf fruit trees (meaning their maximum height is under 25 feet) that bear round apple-shaped fruits in late fall that are crisp in texture and have a pear-like flavor.
Asian pears keep very well, especially the late-fruiting varieties, and are winter hardy to -25 degrees F. They are resistant to disease and pests, and most varieties are self-pollinating, which means you can grow just one and still have fruit.
Asian pears are beginning to show up in supermarkets because they are good to eat and easy to ship. This tree is a good choice as a first fruit tree: They don’t take up a lot of space, are easy to care for, and you can eat the fruit all winter long if it is stored in a cool dry place.
#9 The Currant
Currants are small berries that ripen in mid-spring on a large, native American shrub that is bushy and attractive in its own right. Currants come in many colors, from white to pink, to deep red, to bluish-purple, and grow in clusters of tiny fruits.
Currants are delicious eaten raw, baked into pies or muffins, or made into jams or jellies. They can be easily dried without any special equipment, either by laying them atop cheesecloth in the sun or baking them at a very low temperature in the oven.
The dried fruits can be stored in tightly lidded jars and used the same way you might use raisins or prunes. Currants are very easy to grow and quite prolific. If you live in a humid part of the country, look for mildew-resistant varieties.
#10 Columnar Apples
Look, I know you want an apple tree, don’t even try to tell me you don’t. But if you are short on time and space, here’s an option you might really like: An apple cultivated to produce fruit without branches, the columnar apple.
You can even grow it in a container or your patio or roof. The columnar apple comes in many different varieties, and because it grows no taller than six feet, if you decide to get into the spraying fetish it won’t be such an ordeal–three carefully-labeled empty windex bottles will do it, just make sure you keep them in a locked cabinet where kids can’t get at them.
Another option if you don’t have an actual yard is to choose miniature fruit trees, which are container fruit trees that grow no larger than six feet (the columnar apple is actually a specialty miniature), and are suitable for large containers.
Miniature fruit trees are available in almost every imaginable variety. If you live in a perpetually warm climate, you can even find container oranges and lemons.
Whatever You Do, Have Fun!
Once you discover how many fruits and nuts can be easily grown at home by almost anybody, you will start to think differently about your landscape.
Many a person has picked up a single berry bush only a whim only to end up eventually filling every square inch of dirt with a landscape edible.
The truth is, we waste a lot of space on grass and flowers only, space that could be easily shared with plants that make food for us without a lot of intense effort, and are attractive while doing it.
It just isn’t true that you need an acre or even half an acre. Whatever your space restrictions, you will find something you can grow in the space you have. Once you try it and have a little success, you will never see your landscape the same way again.