Your guide to fantastic fruit trees for every climate
A decade ago, during a summer holiday in France, I was walking through a village in the Loire valley and, being horticulturally nosy, I became engrossed with what was being grown in the back gardens.
Looking over several walls and fences, I was fascinated by how many gardens were planted with fruit trees, especially ornamental ones such as cherry, plum, apple and pear. Several years later, during a trip to Vietnam, I discovered a similar use of fruit trees grown around homes. While the trees in the warm climate gardens of Vietnam were very different from those in temperate France, the use of productive trees, such as mango, citrus and pawpaw, indicated that growing food at home was an important part of Asian culture.
With the exception of a lemon or banana growing near the back fence, few Australian suburban backyards include fruit trees. This was not always the case. Historical records tell us that from European settlement until the middle of the last century, Australian gardens, like the French, often included several fruit trees. These plants began to disappear with the take-up of the motor car. Cheap motor transport saw the arrival of cheaply available fruit in shops, and changing fashions in garden design saw patios, swimming pools and garages take up valuable backyard space. With the recent interest in growing vegetables, it seems appropriate to encourage the planting of fruit trees in our gardens again.
While those with large properties can easily establish orchards, this is not possible for most urban gardeners, who have limitations on space. With restricted room, more thought is needed to select suitable trees for your soil and climate. The choice of what fruit tree is limited not only by your fruit preference — why grow a fruit you don’t want to eat? — but especially by climate. So the following selections are based on the three general climate types found in Australia.
Cold climate (Hobart and Canberra)
If you live in an area that gets frost in winter, there’s still a wide choice of suitable fruit trees. Most fruit trees that grow well in cold climates are deciduous, an evolutionary adaptation to protect sensitive plant tissue from cold winters. Many of the productive trees from this category are members of the large rose family (Rosaceae), a group that includes apples, pears, cherries, plums and almonds (and which are known as pome fruits). Although these plants cope fairly well in hot weather as long as there is regular water, they have evolved to require cold weather to stimulate flowering — the essential precondition to fruit production.
Pome and stone fruits and other cold-climate delicacies
There are many fabulous cultivars of apple available for the home gardener. Rather than grow the commonly available types found in the shops, why not try growing a less common variety such as Cox Orange Pippin, Gravenstein or Pomme de Neige.
As well as standard eating apples, Australian gardens of the past often included a cooking apple tree; these massive fruits were usually used for making apple pies. Although difficult to source, the cooking apple cultivars Willie Sharpe and Ballarat warrant inclusion in your garden for their spectacular size. Another under-used fruit is the crabapple.
While all apples have beautiful spring blossoms, the crabs have the most spectacular flowering of any fruit tree and are often grown just for this attribute. Crabapples produce lots of small fruit that’s generally too tart to eat but is the best apple for making jelly. While crabapple jelly is often available in markets and specialist shops, it’s usually just plain apple jelly as few commercial growers bother growing the tree.
Why not grow your own to make the best organic jelly, which can be served with lamb or used to glaze fruit tarts. But beware some ornamental crabs are sterile and don’t produce fruit. I have found that the best crab varieties for fruit production are Golden Hornet and Gorgeous.
There are many pests and diseases that affect apples and other fruit trees, so it’s best to refer to a specialist pest and disease identification book such as Judy McMaugh’s garden classic, What Garden Pest or Disease is That? One common complaint from home growers is that apples fail to bear fruit after the blossoms wither. The simple answer is either that late frost damaged the flowers or the apple did not have another close flowering tree to cross pollinate with. While we cannot prevent frost, we can plant a similar variety of apple nearby. The best all-round pollinator is the old American-raised apple cultivar Jonathan.
As well as apples, old gardens often had at least one pear tree and surviving trees often bear fruit well into old age. Like apples, most pears need cross-pollination to successfully bear fruit, but one popular variety in Australia that doesn’t need cross-pollination is Williams; the added advantage of choosing this variety is it can cope well with our hot summers.
Plums, almonds and cherries can also be grown in gardens but require more attention to pests and diseases. There are many other productive trees suitable for cold winter areas. Fleming’s Nurseries are the best known local grower of deciduous trees and have an informative website at www.flemings.com.au.
Other cool climate fruit and nut trees worth considering include the persimmon, pistachio, quince and walnut.
Warm temperate (Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth)
While apples and pears can be grown in frost-free areas, the chances of good fruit production are slim and the plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Rather than battle to grow a plant unsuitable for your region, try to grow fruit trees that perform better in the warm temperate climate.
These include figs, citrus and olives. While citrus is dealt with in detail elsewhere in this issue, olives (Olea europaea) are suitable selections for both cool and warm temperate climates. Olives grow best in climates and soils similar to those found around the Mediterranean Sea, a region of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers, conditions often found in southern Western Australia, South Australia and inland parts of southeastern Australia.
Once a proud symbol of Mediterranean cultural heritage, in recent years these low-water-requirement trees have become increasingly popular in Australian suburban gardens. Recommended olive varieties for warm climates are Verdale and Barouni, while for frosty winter areas Sevillano and Mission are best. Another Mediterranean/Middle Eastern favourite, the pomegranate is a hardy plant and its seeds are a luscious addition to salads.
The edible fig (Ficus carica) is another tree that enjoys a similar climate to olives and, as with olives, there are varieties suitable for warm temperate and cold climates. Most nurseries sell edible figs in winter and spring, but a word of caution: try to avoid plants without cultivar names as you may end up with an unproductive tree. For warm winter areas, the best cultivar is Brown Turkey, while for colder spots try White Genoa. Birds are the major pest for fig growers, so for a good crop you need to net your tree when the fruit begins to develop.
A close relative of the fig is the mulberry (Morus spp). Many of us have happy memories of feasting on mulberry fruits as children and having dark-stained fingers for the rest of the day. Mulberries are very easy trees to grow and it amazes me that they are not used more often in gardens; as well as providing spring fruit, these deciduous medium-sized trees give plenty of summer shade. Of the many species of Morus the most suitable varieties are Downings Everbearing and, in cooler areas, Hicks Fancy. As with the olive, make sure to select named varieties.
Macadamia is a native tree that produces fabulous, delicate cream flowers before making their world-famous nuts. Macadamias are members of the protea family and, like their showy cousins, the grevilleas, banksias and proteas, they are sensitive to high levels of phosphates in the soil. It’s best therefore to use a native plant food rather than a potentially toxic standard fertiliser mixture. Macadamias can be grown in most parts of Australia, but in southern cooler winter areas they require plenty of sun. Of the two species, Macadamia tetraphylla is hardier to frost.
I remember as a child in the 1960s being introduced to the avocado (Persea Americana) as the “avocado pear”. While a similar shape to the cool-climate pear, this South American subtropical fruit has been made a welcome guest in Australia over recent decades. Now established mainly in northern NSW and southern Queensland, it can be grown in all but the coldest spots as long as there is reliable water and good free-draining soil. Avocadoes can grow to massive sizes so are unsuitable for small gardens.
Despite this, there are a few small-growing varieties that are worth considering for smaller yards, such as Rincon and Wurtz. If you have room, you can’t beat the popular varieties Fuerte and Hass. One of the joys of the avocado is the plant has few pests — even fruit fly has trouble piercing the thick skin. The one soil disease that can be a problem is Phytophthora. To beat this disease, select grafted plants certified free of Phytophthora fungus.
One unusual way of using edible shrubby plants is to make them into hedges. Lemon, prickly pear (Opuntia) and feijoa are three very different fruiting plants that create good hedges and make fine natural fences around vegetable gardens.
Tropical and subtropical climates (Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin)
For those living in the north of Australia, apples, pears and cool-climate stonefruit are out of the question. Citrus, olives, avocado and macadamia grow well up north, but the unchallenged stars of the tropical and subtropical species are the pawpaw, mango and banana. Apart from the these well-known fruits, other interesting trees worth trying include the lychee and longan.
The pawpaw (Carica papaya) demands warm conditions to produce fruit, so should not be considered for temperate sites in the south. Also known as papaya, these palm-like plants demand good soil and wind protection. The mango (Mangifera indica) is one of the most prolific fruits grown in the tropics and can be grown as far south as Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. This tree can grow to great heights but requires a frost-free position in full sun. Mangoes require a dry winter and spring and summer rainfall to produce fruit. Popular varieties are Kensington Pride, Nam Doc Mai and Van Dyke.
A native of South East Asia, the banana (Musa spp) is grown in many warm-climate gardens and is suitable for medium-sized suburban gardens. One of the most inbred food plants in the world, the banana has lost its ability to produce seed, so plants are often based on clones. Because of inbreeding, the plant is susceptible to many diseases and there are few varieties available.
In Australia, the Cavendish is the most popular variety available in fruit shops, but in an attempt to prevent the spread of fungal diseases, it is now illegal to grow in home gardens. For home gardeners, the smaller-fruiting Lady Finger is the best choice available. These plants are easy to grow and many people prefer the taste to the commercially available Cavendish.
Lady Finger plants can be bought from nurseries or can be divided from new shoots appearing on established plants. Bananas are greedy plants and enjoy a high-potassium fertiliser to help produce abundant fruit. Make sure you keep weeds away from the base of the plant to promote active growth in your banana.
Another fruit that does well in the subtropics is the lychee (Litchi chinensis). This plant is widely cultivated in southern China, where it becomes a short-trunked tree with a spreading crown. Lychee prefer humid climates with high rainfall, but can be grown successfully in warm parts of New South Wales. Named varieties vary from early- to late-season fruiting trees. The seeds — known in Chinese as “chicken tongue” — vary in size, and the edible sweet, white portion marginally varies in taste. A good variety for southern Queensland and northern New South Wales is Wai Chai. This slow-growing cultivar makes a low-growing tree, so is suitable for smaller gardens.
A close Chinese relative of the lychee is the longan (Dimocarpus longan). The longan — or “dragon eye” — is a tree that produces clusters of brown fruit similar in size to ping-pong balls. Although not as popular as lychee, longan trees are far more ornamental in habit than their Chinese cousins and make ideal home orchard plants. The tree has a spreading crown and attractive, corky bark. Longan varieties worth trying include Kohala, Dang and Haew.
We’ve only touched on the possibilities available to home gardeners keen to include fruit trees in their gardens. With some thought and specialist advice from local nursery folk, you will easily find a tree that will make your garden more interesting and self-sufficient. Ornamental as well as productive, fruit and nut trees should be the first choice to plant. Perhaps in time, tourists will favourably comment on Australia’s love affair with fruit trees in garden design instead of our love of clipped lawns and paved driveways.
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