Backyard Food Forest

Interest in growing our own food has been on the rise since Michelle Obama planted the largest vegetable garden in White House history back in 2009 (which the current first lady, Melania Trump has vowed to continue). Plots of tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs sprang up in back, side and even front yards and people reveled in the satisfaction of farming and the superior flavor of home-grown vegetables. Fruit, too, has a place in a Minnesota garden and while there are plenty of hardy varieties available they do require more space and commitment than vegetables. Maybe that’s why there’s increasing interest in what’s being called “food forests“, where edible plants, berries, fruit and nut trees are planted on public lands and free for the picking. Kind of an extension of the community garden idea except food forests are much more self-sustaining and the tending they do require is usually handled by volunteers. A group is trying to develop one in Minneapolis where the Hiawatha Golf Course currently stands. It’s an ideal location because the course is built on a wetland and has lots of sun and open space. Stay tuned for to see if that happens. In the meantime, if you want to establish your own private food forest and go beyond vegetables you may want to consider planting fruit.

Paige Pelini of Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis says she sells “a lot” of fruit trees and bushes and has seen a huge increase over the past five years in the number of homeowners who want to grow their own food, whether it’s a pot of herbs or an all edible backyard. She recommends and sells currant, raspberry, blueberry and strawberries bushes, plus grape and kiwi vines. Plum, apple, tart cherry and pear trees are also reliable and even apricots and peaches are options for those brave enough risk losing early spring blooms to a late frost. Some plants are more attractive than others, i.e., pear and cherry trees have an elegant shape and lovely white flowers in spring but some such as hazelnuts can be gangly and wild. Here are some other things to keep in mind when considering growing fruit:


Decent soil, lots of sun, regular watering and spacing of about 20 feet are all you need to grow fruit trees. Bushes require the same save the spacing. Blueberries are a little more particular and need more acidic soil.


Fruit development requires pollination so a bee-friendly yard is best. In addition, some fruits need pollinator buddies or pollenizers which is a different cultivar of the same fruit, i..e, a Parker pear tree needs a pollenizer such as Patten pear tree.  In other words, you need to plant at least two trees to produce fruit. In general pears, plums and cherries also require a pollenizer.  Apples too because but they’re so plentiful in the Twin Cities (think pink spring crab apple trees) you don’t usually need to plant more than one—chances are there’s another apple tree nearby.


Pears, plums and sour cherries have few pests or disease so are easy to grow organically. Apples are more difficult as they tend to have more pests and diseases.


In addition to watering, fruit trees benefit from an annual post-harvest pruning for shape and to preserve an open canopy. When young, some may require staking.


You want to choose types that are hardy for zone 4, which covers most of Minnesota.  You can’t go wrong with University of Minnesota developed varieties. They have plums, tart cherries, apricots, pears and, of course, apples (superstar Honeycrisp continues to be in demand).


Some trees such as cherries and plums can produce within a year or two but others such as pears can take up to ten years. Most homeowners don’t mind waiting as the foliage, shape and bark are beautiful especially for cherry and pear trees. Harvest ranges from early summer for cherries to late September for pears and apples. The bounty can be abundant so be prepared to share, freeze or use when they ripen.

by Laurie Junker

Photo courtesy of Mary Alden


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