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Kids Gardening: Fruits & Nuts by Malcolm Campbell

As a lad of 10 years of age I was given my first fruit tree to manage in my father's well tended garden. It was a large lemon tree near the chook run, that didn't grow anything under it, but it was mine. It was also the easiest way to get onto the shed roof by climbing that lemon tree, which gave great views of all the neighbouring gardens and lanes. I soon realised that old Mr Nettlebeck in the next street had lots of almond trees but his arthritis prevented him from knocking them in February, so the Galahs ate most of them and what they missed, the mice got.

While retrieving a football from his garden one day I asked him about his fruit and nut trees and he quickly confessed that it disappointed him greatly that he couldn't look after them anymore.  I offered to pick the fruit and knock the almonds and he was very quick to offer me half of the crop. I only did that for one year, because he died the following year, but I've often marvelled at the enormous loss of fruit that takes place in home gardens because it never gets picked.

So kids if you think that waiting three or four years is an eternity before you harvest the fruit from your trees, think about asking a neighbour to pick their's for them in return for some of the crop. You'd be really surprised at most folk's generosity! Where I live, lemons are regarded as hardly worth picking because they are so abundant, with one in nearly every house. Although they are abundant and have heavy crops most of the year, they still cost 40 to 50 cents each at the green grocer and supermarket! Apricots mostly ripen around Christmas time when lots of folk go away on holidays, so they usually only feed the little silver eye birds and blackbirds or just plonk to the ground to be slowly nibbled away at by the ants. Try making a deal with people with fruit trees. Offer to pick their apricots, peaches or nectarines and freeze them, so they can have some when they return, or get Mum and Dad or Pop and Gran to help you make dried fruit. They are really yummy and they keep for years. Your local Primary Industries or Agriculture office will have a fact sheet to help your parents dry these lovely fruits. If you live in the tropics you might be able to dry mango, papaya or banana, if you have so much of them that you can't eat it all.

One of the hardest things about growing fruit and nut trees that even adults have difficulty with, is that they have some funny habits. All fruit trees are different. If you want to grow plums you need two of them or else you don't get much fruit. Same goes for most almonds, cherries, apples and pears. That's because they need pollen from another variety of the same fruit before their flowers will become fertilised and so grow into edible fruit. Other fruits like nectarines, peaches, apricots and figs can pollinate their own fruit. Then there are even self pollinating fruits that need another tree of the same kind near by or else they don't set much fruit. This is true of the self pollinating almond 'All-in-One' and the 'Stella' cherry although 'Stella' actually takes pollen from most other cherries as well. Pears are a weird mob too, but very few gardeners ever learn all of these rules. They have a book they refer to when they buy fruit trees or they rely on the advice they are given by their nursery where they get their plants. I use a book written by Dawn Fleming, who has a large fruit tree nursery in the Dandenongs in Victoria. It's a catalogue of the plants they sell and it's called "Deciduous Fruit and Ornamental Trees". It has some of the best advice in print about fruit trees and especially their need to have another one nearby, so you get lots of fruit. Put it on you birthday wish list for Gramps, Mum and Dad or a relative whom you don't see too often. They will instantly appreciate how important such a good book is to any budding young fruit tree enthusiast.

There was a time when most fruit trees that lost their leaves in winter, where sold as open-rooted trees. That means their young saplings were dug up in winter when they were without leaves and resting or dormant and sold. Now days lots more are potted up and sold all year round rather than just in winter. That's because in winter you might not feel like buying and planting a new fruit tree, but when you see them flowering, you might think "Yes I'd like to eat peaches for play-school this summer". Do kids still have "play-school" or is it "recess" or just a break at 11am when you eat your morning snack? Whatever you call it, a big juicy peach tastes great at that time of day.

Easily grown fruit and nut trees.

Citrus trees, which is what all the oranges and lemons are called, are pretty easily grown in most areas of Australia and even in the tropics there are special kinds that do well. By saying they do well, we mean they grow easily and set lots of fruit. It doesn't mean that they don't get any pests and diseases though or that you can plant them and forget them. Citrus are pretty demanding little trees. They need a frost free area. I only know of the Tangelo that seems able to stand up to a frost without getting terribly burnt. The burning leaves that follow a heavy frost is caused by the water in the leaves first expanding as it freezes with the cold, them as the sun warms the leaves latter in the day they wilt and die. Hardy old lemons like the 'Lisbon' lemon usually recover with lots of new young leaves that shoot out from the stems, but it takes a while before they set lots of fruit again. In the more humid areas the 'Lisbon Prior' is a better variety. The 'Washington Navel' orange is a favourite tree in the hot dry areas, with winter rainfall, because its fruit grows big and juicy as well as being easily peeled. It makes lovely juice in the winter and spring when they are plentiful, but you can't store the juice for long.

Still that's not a problem if they are growing right in your back garden. The mandarin is also very easily peeled and 'Hickson' is a variety that grows well along the east coast from Sydney to at least Brisbane, where many oranges find that it's too humid to grow well. A citrus that is not well known but keenly sought after as fresh leaves in Thai restaurants is the 'Kaffir Lime'. It has funny crinkly fruit that are seldom eaten but if you live in a warm humid area it will grow lots of leaves that are used to flavour Thai soups. I'd reckon any kid could make a living out of selling them to good Thai restaurants, where they mostly have to rely on using imported dried leaves. trees, which is what all the oranges and lemons are called, are pretty easily grown in most areas of Australia and even in the tropics there are special kinds that do well. By saying they do well, we mean they grow easily and set lots of fruit. It doesn't mean that they don't get any pests and diseases though or that you can plant them and forget them. Citrus are pretty demanding little trees. They need a frost free area. I only know of the Tangelo that seems able to stand up to a frost without getting terribly burnt. The burning leaves that follow a heavy frost is caused by the water in the leaves first expanding as it freezes with the cold, them as the sun warms the leaves latter in the day they wilt and die. Hardy old lemons like the 'Lisbon' lemon usually recover with lots of new young leaves that shoot out from the stems, but it takes a while before they set lots of fruit again. In the more humid areas the 'Lisbon Prior' is a better variety. The 'Washington Navel' orange is a favourite tree in the hot dry areas, with winter rainfall, because its fruit grows big and juicy as well as being easily peeled. It makes lovely juice in the winter and spring when they are plentiful, but you can't store the juice for long.

Still that's not a problem if they are growing right in your back garden. The mandarin is also very easily peeled and 'Hickson' is a variety that grows well along the east coast from Sydney to at least Brisbane, where many oranges find that it's too humid to grow well. A citrus that is not well known but keenly sought after as fresh leaves in Thai restaurants is the 'Kaffir Lime'. It has funny crinkly fruit that are seldom eaten but if you live in a warm humid area it will grow lots of leaves that are used to flavour Thai soups. I'd reckon any kid could make a living out of selling them to good Thai restaurants, where they mostly have to rely on using imported dried leaves.

Plums are probably one of the easiest grown fruit trees I know. They loose their leaves in winter, but they can stand the frost in really cold areas. They set their fruit along the mature wood or older stems and if you don't know anything about pruning then they still have plenty of fruit. Of course if you learn to prune they will set more, but gee.... there is a limit to how many plums you can eat! They need to be grown in pairs unless your neighbour has one of their mates that is needed for them to set fruit. In my area of Adelaide, the blood red fruit of the 'Satsuma' plum is popular, because it stains your teeth so you look like Dracula when you eat them. It has to be grown with a 'Santa Rosa' plum, which although it's a red plum, has yellow flesh and it's not as much fun eating it, but it is tasty. Plums make great sauce and of course they can be stewed as well as eaten fresh.

Peaches and nectarines are pretty easy to grow also if you live in a mild area where they thrive. As with most fruit trees there are varieties that have been bred to grow best in certain areas, where the climate favours them, so it's best to ask your local nursery or Primary Industries office what are the best kinds. There are some great new varieties of dwarf peach called 'Pixzee'™ and a dwarf nectarine called 'Nectazee'™ that I'm growing in pots because they are so small. The dwarf fruit trees in general are grafted onto a root of a tree that doesn't grow as big as the usual varieties, but the best thing is that they still have lots of big fruit. With growing fruit trees in pots you must water them regularly and I use a dripper system with an automatic timer on the tap. Every couple of weeks they are watered with rainwater by hand, because our water in Adelaide can be pretty salty in summer and that burns the leaves. While you can't get rid of the salty deposits by doing that, it is important just after a young tree has been planted to water with rainwater if you can spare some, because then they get a nice mild water for their new roots. As they get older, they are able to cope with quite salty soils anyhow, but if it gets too saline, you will notice the leaf margins on the older leaves will burn brown and get very brittle.

Apples and pears are everyone's favourite fruit for the colder areas, where a frost is pretty likely. My tastiest favourite is a variety called 'Gala', which has the squelchiest yellow fruit of any apple I've tasted. Apples need to be grown in pairs to get their fruit set, but 'Gala' has lots of other apples that will give it a good fruit set, such as the green 'Granny Smith', a shiny big red apple called 'Red Spur', another big red called 'Red Fuji', as well as the popular 'Red Delicious' and a late setting 'Pink Lady' and 'Lady Williams' which still has its fruit hanging in late autumn, when most of its leaves have fallen. Everyone has their favourite apple, but any apple left to sun ripen on the tree, tastes great! As for pears I reckon kids love the juicy Nashi varieties best. There are lots of funny named ones, but 'Nijisseiki' is easily grown and sets more fruit than most folk can eat. It also needs a pollinator to set fruit, but since the popular 'Williams' or 'Bartlett' pear is suitable, you don't usually need to plant an extra pear, because there is a good chance one of your neighbours will have one growing near by anyhow. are everyone's favourite fruit for the colder areas, where a frost is pretty likely. My tastiest favourite is a variety called 'Gala', which has the squelchiest yellow fruit of any apple I've tasted. Apples need to be grown in pairs to get their fruit set, but 'Gala' has lots of other apples that will give it a good fruit set, such as the green 'Granny Smith', a shiny big red apple called 'Red Spur', another big red called 'Red Fuji', as well as the popular 'Red Delicious' and a late setting 'Pink Lady' and 'Lady Williams' which still has its fruit hanging in late autumn, when most of its leaves have fallen. Everyone has their favourite apple, but any apple left to sun ripen on the tree, tastes great! As for pears I reckon kids love the juicy Nashi varieties best. There are lots of funny named ones, but 'Nijisseiki' is easily grown and sets more fruit than most folk can eat. It also needs a pollinator to set fruit, but since the popular 'Williams' or 'Bartlett' pear is suitable, you don't usually need to plant an extra pear, because there is a good chance one of your neighbours will have one growing near by anyhow.

Figs are pretty easy to grow and worth a try if you can't afford to buy a tree. They are easily grown by cutting off a short side shoot about 300-400mm long in winter. Then leave it out in the open air to let the white milky sap dry out or it will rot off when you plant it. When dried, dig a hole about two thirds the depth of the cutting and bury it, leaving one third sticking out. It's that easy. They also set fruit even when growing in a large pot. Even a small pot has them setting fruit in the first year. If only growing all fruit trees was this easy!

Looking after your trees.

What ever fruit or nut tree you do choose to grow will need to be planted with great care. First of all spend some time digging a hole much bigger than the plant you have bought. If your plant is in a 200mm pot, spend some time digging up the soil at least twice the depth of the pot and at least half a metre all around the pot. Locate the tree in a sunny spot, because hardly any fruit trees grow well in the shade. If you are going to plant several, don't plant them too close together. A tree that will grow to 4 metres in height will spread at least the same distance eventually, so give it room. The exception is that some trees like apples can be planted two different varieties in the same hole. When you plant make sure the soil level finishes up at the same level that it was in the pot. Fertilising your tree at planting time is not all that important. It is of course when the tree starts to grow, but while its dormant or without leaves, it isn't feeding at all. Water your tree thoroughly even if the ground is damp. That's so the soil can fill in the air gaps around the roots. Don't be afraid to stamp your foot around the roots after it's planted to firm the soil. No need to go crazy, but make sure the soil is quite compacted. You will get lots of advice in a few years about pruning, but as soon as the tree is planted it is best to cut it back a little. Only a quarter of its total shape though. Pruning is tricky and some folk never master it, so don't get too concerned about it just yet. In a few years you can study some books on it and ask around at your local nursery. When your tree is growing away in spring, it's a good idea to plant some companion plants, that will help keep your tree free of some insects that would love to make a meal of your tree or trees. Nasturtiums are smelly but have pretty flowers that help keep the caterpillars and bugs away. The nasturtium flowers can also be eaten in salads, but try the yellow ones first. The red flowers are quite chilli hot! When the weather starts to warm up you will need to mulch your new trees. The mulch can be pea straw or well rotted compost, but it helps keep the soil cool from the sun and slows down the loss of water in the soil. The worms in the soil will also graze up through the soil to nibble at it too. As for the usual sprays that some orchardists use on their fruit trees, you won't need to use those, but if you can borrow someone's spray equipment and apply a copper oxychloride during winter you will have less fungal diseases in summer. It's not a very toxic substance, but even so, best to let some more experienced folk apply it for you. Don't worry about a few blemishes on your fruit. They taste just as good as the perfect fruit you see at the super market, only they won't have had anywhere near as much spray added to them to keep them that way.

Selecting the right tree.

By visiting your local horticultural and agricultural shows as well as nurseries you will see what is available for your area. As a kid I used to ask my neighbours what such and a such a fruit tasted like and they usually gave me some to try. I have to confess that as an adult I still do and most gardeners are only too happy to share their pride and produce with other interested gardeners.

While you will have to wait for seven years to pick pistachios, most of the fruit I've mentioned here at least have some fruit in their first or second year, but if it's carobs that take your fancy, it might be a 20 year wait! Eventually you will be rewarded and there is simply nothing to compare with eating fruit from a tree that you've planted yourself. No matter what age you are, it never loses its appeal.

Further reading

Fleming's Deciduous Fruit and Ornamental Trees, by Dawn Fleming, published by Fleming's Monbulk Nurseries Pty Ltd, Monbulk Vic., 1992 (03) 756 6105, rrp $29.95., by Dawn Fleming, published by Fleming's Monbulk Nurseries Pty Ltd, Monbulk Vic., 1992 (03) 756 6105, rrp $29.95.

Balhannah Nurseries Fruit Catalogue, 40 pages illustrated catalogue available from Box 174 Balhannah SA 5242, phone (08) 8388 4244. 40 pages illustrated catalogue available from Box 174 Balhannah SA 5242, phone (08) 8388 4244.