Growing fruit trees is an ancient tradition that has been making a comeback in recent years in the hearts of Italians. Whether it’s a real orchard or just a few trees in the garden at home, the goal is always to cultivate organic fruit. The taste, aroma, and quality of nutritional elements have no equal in fruits grown with organic techniques. In most cases, those we find on supermarket shelves are cultivated using conventional methods, meaning they use harmful chemical pesticides. For this reason, those fortunate enough to own a small piece of land can’t wait to get involved in organic fruit tree cultivation.
This article aims to be a small guide to get to know the countless species that can be cultivated. It is essential to know the main precautions to take in order to care for an organic orchard.
The Mixed Organic Orchard
Our farming grandparents, to make the most of the available space, created the mixed orchard, which was a more or less extensive area where various types of trees coexisted. This choice had several advantages:
- There was always fresh fruit available for family consumption;
- The risks of a negative season for one or more crops were offset by abundant harvests from other cultivars;
- Biodiversity was promoted in a completely natural way.
The mixed orchard is what many today call a food forest. It is a space where fruit production meets the needs of self-consumption without exerting pressure on the natural environment. In professional fruit growing, the trend is toward highly specialized plantings, which carries high risks. For example, consider a citrus grove affected by a virosis like citrus tristeza; in a short time, years of work can be ruined.
In a family orchard, a mix of fruit species becomes an almost obligatory choice. Available spaces are often limited, and it doesn’t make sense to dedicate all energy to a single tree species. By consulting the seasonal fruit calendar, it becomes clear how advantageous it is to have fresh produce available throughout the year.
Which Fruit Trees to Grow
The choice of which fruit trees to cultivate in our organic orchard starts with knowing the different tree species.
The Classic Distinction
In agronomy, the classic distinction is between drupes and pomes. Drupes refer to trees that produce drupe fruit, and the main ones are:
Pomes, on the other hand, encompass plants that ripen into pome fruits. The most well-known ones include:
- common medlar
- Japanese medlar
As you can see, these are the most common fruit trees in Italy, with a significant presence in global fruit farming. Numerous varieties of these cultivars exist. Nurseries offer the most commercial ones, resulting from selections made over time. Fortunately, in our countryside, there are local ecotypes that can be rediscovered and valued with some research. A clear example is apple varieties: alongside well-known groupings like Gala, Golden, Red Delicious, and Fuji, we have important Italian autochthonous varieties like the famous Annurca apple or Abundance.
Beloved Fruit Trees
Alongside drupes and pomes, categories that include the most important commercially grown fruit trees, there are many others that can be grown in the family orchard. They are probably the most beloved fruit trees by hobbyists and should not be missing in a mixed orchard. In our opinion, these include:
All of the above species are hardier and therefore less problematic to care for. These trees can be easily grown by anyone, even beginners.
Ancient Fruit Plants
In recent years, ancient fruit plants have been rediscovered. These are minor species that had a great tradition in peasant life. They are small-sized trees, perfect for cultivation in a small orchard or simply in the garden.
Among these wonderful plants, we remember:
Not all fruit plants can be grown everywhere. Some species have specific climatic requirements, but these can be used to your advantage. For example, those living in the hills or mountains can try growing berries. These are very hardy cultivars that yield small, delicious fruits. They require little care and are less susceptible to pest attacks, making them suitable for cultivation by anyone. The most well-known berries include:
Fruit Trees in Pots
You may not always have land or space available to cultivate large fruit trees. However, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your passion. An alternative is to cultivate fruit plants in pots, using species that are well-suited for container gardening. For example, small citrus trees like:
Cultivating in pots also has the advantage, during colder periods, of being able to move the plants to sheltered locations. Citrus trees are grown in specialized orchards only in southern regions, but container gardening overcomes this limitation. Another plant perfect for limited cultivation, for example, on a balcony or terrace, is the beloved strawberry.
Large Fruit Trees
If you have ample space available, you can plant large fruit trees. These are very generous tree species, but they can be grown in hilly areas with adequate space. Some of the trees with these characteristics include:p;
These trees are often grown in steep terrain, making it easier to optimize space.
Among the fruit trees that can be grown organically in the family orchard, there are also exotic species. These are cultivars that have recently been introduced into our regions, almost exclusively in the southern ones. These fruit trees require high temperatures to survive. We believe that with the ongoing climate changes, these cultivars will have more and more space. The main ones are:
- finger lime
- dragon fruit
- mountain banana (exception to warm climate)
Organic Techniques for Orchard Cultivation
Creating a family orchard from scratch is not easy, but it can be done with the right precautions. Of course, you need to know the fruit tree you want to plant. Once you’ve chosen the trees, you can proceed with orchard establishment. First, you need to understand what type of soil you have and its chemical characteristics (the pH). The soil should then be properly prepared, and in this regard, there are two methods. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s advisable to carry out comprehensive soil cultivation, including thorough plowing followed by deep fertilization. If, on the other hand, your soil is already occupied by fruit trees and you simply want to plant new trees, you should plan for individual planting. For annual bottom fertilization, the best organic amendments that can be used in organic farming are:
- well-rotted manure from organic farms
- domestic or industrial compost
- worm humus
- ground lupines (for citrus and acid-loving plants)
Once the orchard is established, the issue of how to manage the soil always arises. Everyone wants to see their plot clean, free from weeds, especially because tree crops suffer from weed competition. Therefore, an option is to work the soil frequently by hoeing. However, this is not always possible and cost-effective. Continuous soil cultivation comes with costs (equipment, time, labor), reduces biodiversity, and impairs fertility. In sloping terrain, cultivation causes erosion and loss of soil. The alternative for proper soil management in an organic orchard is cover cropping. This involves sowing herbaceous plants among the fruit trees, enriching the soil and preserving biodiversity, while also promoting the presence of beneficial insects. Mowing these plants also provides organic fertilization.
Fruit trees are typically propagated by grafting. This important botanical technique, however, is not simple and not within everyone’s reach. Therefore, it is easier to purchase young grafted plants from a nursery. But you must be extremely cautious when making the purchase. Unfortunately, infected nursery material, meaning already diseased trees, can often be found on the market. A reputable nursery should provide you with healthy, certified young trees free from diseases and viruses. So, find a trustworthy nursery that won’t try to sell you unhealthy plants. This trust-based relationship, it may sound trivial, is fundamental to the success of any organic cultivation.
Floral biology differs for each fruit tree. Fruit species have two types of pollination:
- self-pollination (autogamous), which occurs when pollen goes directly from the anther of a flower to the stigma of the same flower (hermaphroditic flowers). These plants are called autogamous;
- cross-pollination (heterogamous), which is when pollen goes from the anther of one flower to the stigma of a flower on another plant of the same species. In this case, these are allogamous plants.
Pollen transfer is usually carried out by:
- bees and other pollinating insects (entomophilous pollination)
- wind (anemophilous pollination).
To encourage pollination, even in the case of self-pollinating plants, it’s advisable not to have single specimens of the same botanical species. It’s always better to have multiple plants of different varieties. This is especially necessary for crops like kiwi or hazelnut, which require a pollinator male to produce fruits. Often, people wonder, “Why does my fruit tree produce many flowers but no fruit?” The answer in most cases is simple: “Lack of pollination.”
Fruit Tree Pruning
Among the cultural practices, pruning is undoubtedly the most important for fruit trees. However, each tree species has different requirements, especially depending on the training system chosen. We have dedicated several articles to pruning on our blog, including those for:
Pests and Diseases of Fruit Trees
Biological pest and disease control is the most critical aspect of orchard cultivation. Unfortunately, there are increasingly more pests and diseases affecting fruit trees. Controlling them is not always straightforward. Consider the damage caused by the brown marmorated stink bug, an alien species to our ecosystem, which is becoming a real nightmare for both professional and amateur fruit growers. To understand how to deal with fruit tree pests and diseases, you need proper in-depth knowledge. In this context, we provide a list of the main pests and diseases of tree fruit crops.
- green stink bugs and brown marmorated stink bugs
- various species of scale insects
- black vine weevil
- Japanese beetle
- major >peach tree pests
- red belted clearwing
- yellow clearwing
- woolly apple aphid
- codling moth
- fig scale
- oriental fruit fly
- black cherry aphid
- fruit fly
- citrus leafminer
- pepper weevil
- peach leaf curl
- brown rot of stone fruits
- apple and pear scab
- fire blight
- citrus canker
- citrus mold