Yard space in America is disappearing. From 1999-2014, the average size lot in America shrank from 9,600 to 8,600 square feet. During that same period, the average size home increased from 2,100 to 2,600 square feet.
You might think that an orchard would be the furthest thing from the mind of a gardener with limited space. Rick Akers, however, will have you thinking otherwise. On a pie shaped lot in Long Beach — at University Park Estates, south of Cal State Long Beach, to be exact — that is less than 7000 square feet in size, including a 2,000 square foot house and garage, Akers has a backyard that includes sixteen fruit trees and a large koi pond with an impressive waterfall. His front yard is devoted to vegetables.
I have nothing against a lawn. People should be free to do what they wish with their yard or garden space. Lawns provide benefits since they trap pollutants, cool the air on hot days, provide a play area for the kids, absorb noise in urban areas, provide visibility to enhance home security, reduce run-off from rainfall, serve as fire breaks in wilderness areas and, if a wildfire should approach, are ideal staging areas for fire fighting trucks and other equipment. There are claims that keeping a lawn is not friendly to the environment yet organic lawn maintenance, without use of toxic chemicals, is now feasible and by selecting certain types of grasses, such as kikuyu, no more than two weekly waterings are needed to keep a lawn in good shape.
The problem with lawns — if you are a plant lover — is that they limit your options and do not attract wildlife, except for those raccoons that dig in lawns to search for grubs. And if you want to enjoy eating what you grow, you still have to plant fruit trees, grapevines, bramble berries, or vegetables since tasty lawn grasses, to the best of my knowledge, are not yet available, unless you happen to come from ovine or bovine stock.
Akers has the benefit of a mild, semi-tropical climate based on the success of his ‘Mexican’ or key lime tree which is highly cold sensitive and yet has produced good crops in his backyard orchard. This is the same lime that is used by bartenders. His ‘Bearss’ lime, which is more cold hardy than key lime and may be planted as far north as Granada Hills, is also growing well. Akers notes that his limes are partially shaded by an orchid tree (Bauhinia sp.).
After five years in the ground, his low chill peach variety had its best season ever this year, despite receiving only half of the day’s sun. His seven year old ‘Hass’ avocado tree, 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide, also produced a good crop, despite having its sun diminished by a nearby Valencia orange tree as well as a redwood tree. He does have a problem keeping squirrels from poaching his avocado fruit.
Akers’ ‘Meyer’ lemon, a compact tree at 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, is doing well as is his Washington navel, which was planted in the 1960‘s and is still producing respectable crops.
Aker’s other fruit bearers include a prolific loquat tree, a dwarf grapefruit tree, a Thompson seedless grapevine, a pomegranate tree, two mango trees, a strawberry guava tree that self sows, and plantains. His front yard vegetable cornucopia is overflowing with peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, strawberrries, green beans, and loofah. Last but not least, Akers’ parkway is burgeoning with wildflowers, milkweeds, and succulents.
One of the techniques Akers has utilized to maximize his growing area is to plant two apple trees (‘Ana’ and ‘Fuji’) in one hole and two tangerine trees (‘Satsuma’ and ‘Gold Nugget’) in another. Aside from saving space, there are two reasons for planting two varieties of a particular fruit tree in the same hole. First, most fruit trees bear more heavily when they are cross-pollinated by a different variety. Second, by planting two varieties together, you can lengthen the harvest season and enjoy your chosen fruit fresh-off-the-tree for an extended period of time.
You may wonder why self-sterility (the need for cross-pollination to bear fruit), to one degree or another, is a common occurrence among fruit trees. Looking at the big picture, self-sterility is actually advantageous since the fruit of self-sterile varieties and, more importantly, the seeds inside them, will only be produced from a combination of genes, a mix provided by cross-pollination with another parent tree. Self-fertile trees, on the other hand, although they bear fruit and seeds without the assistance of another parent tree, will have a limited gene pool to draw upon, meaning they are less adaptable to different environments. Should a sudden environmental change occur, there is a better chance that some of the seeds inside fruit of a cross-pollinated tree will include traits that can tolerate the environmental change — such as extreme temperatures or less rainfall, for example — than seeds inside the fruit of self-pollinated trees.
Getting back to Mr. Akers’ orchard, he planted his apples and tangerines three years ago and only the ‘Ana’ apple has produced fruit thus far. This is not an unusual occurrence. You may pick out a tree at the nursery with several juicy fruit hanging from it but then, after it is planted in your garden, you might not see it produce more than a few fruit, or no fruit at all, for several years or more. This period of adjustment is known as “acclimation.”
At the nursery, your tree thrived under perfect conditions — plenty of sun and a constant fertilizer feed. Most gardens are graced with less than ideal sun exposure and fertilization is provided annually or, in the best case, two or three times a year. At production nurseries or growing grounds, fertilizer is mixed in with the irrigation water so that every time you water, you fertilize, too, or a dry, pelletized slow release fertilizer is always in place on the soil surface. If you do not spoil your trees in this way, with fertilizer available to them on a near constant basis, you may not see fruit for a number of years after planting. Even under the best of circumstances, however, your soil and climate will differ from what your tree was accustomed to before it entered the confines of your garden and it may take some time before it feels at home and begins to bear fruit.
The reason Akers got a good crop from his ‘Ana’ apple and zero crop from his ‘Fuji’ has to do, at least in part, with the chilling requirement of each tree and the mild winter that Long Beach, along with the greater Los Angeles area in general, experienced this year. Between November 1 (2016) and February 28 (2017), the period during which annual chilling hours are calculated, Long Beach logged only 180 chilling hours. Note: chilling hours are the number of hours that the temperature drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This was fine by ‘Ana,’ that needs only 100 chilling hours to bear a crop. ‘Fuji’ apples, however, require 300 hours to produce fruit and less that two-thirds of this requirement was met this year.
Mr. Akers reports that his ‘Satsuma’ tangerine is growing more vigorously than his ‘Gold Nugget.’ Trees that are incompatible in terms of their growth rate are probably not the best match for being planted in the same hole since one tree may eventually overtake the space and shade the less vigorous tree so that, in the end, you get fruit from the more vigorous tree alone.. Only time will tell. Incidentally, the yield of both ‘Satsuma’ and ‘Gold Nugget’ tangerine trees is not enhanced by cross-pollination.
Tip of the Week: Describing his loofah, Akers says “this is a fun one.” Looking like it was created from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, there is nothing quite as quirky as a loofah among our
Southern California garden fare. Loofah (Luffa sp.) is related to cucumbers and may be eaten when it is young and 5-6 inches long although as its grows it becomes fibrous and unpalatable, eventually reaching up to two feet in length. After harvest, the mature fruit may be peeled, dried, and used as a sponge. Loofah needs a tall trellis, 6-10 feet high, to maximize its growth potential.
After using the sponge, make sure it dries out thoroughly since bacteria that accumulate in its pores can proliferate if the sponge is left, for example, in a moist shower closet, bringing on skin infections with further use.