Monday, January 7, 2008

Schoolyard Orchard Culture

In late December I had the pleasure of meeting with master gardeners John Berchielli and Caroline, caretaker of the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center near Sacramento. Here, master gardeners have been experimenting with strategies for growing fruit in small urban plots. These are the true scientists of what Common Vision refers to as Schoolyard Orchard Culture—the art of planting many trees close together to maximize number of fruit varieties and number of months that fruit is available in the limited space of the schoolyard. Schoolyard Orchard Culture uses maintenance strategies that keep the trees low to the ground for ladder-free student harvesting and easier caretaking.

The good folks at Dave Wilson Nurseries (donors to the Fruit Tree Tour) have pioneered these techniques and here at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center they have been testing them for the past decade. I came to talk to the experts on what will work best at schools across California. Here are some of the strategies that Fruit Tree Tour will be employing on this year’s tour:

Multiple Plantings (3-in-a-Hole): By planting three or four trees only feet from each other, we can, in the space of one full-sized tree, can have a peace, a nectarine, a plum, and an apricot. Or we can have three varieties of peach that ripen in May, August, and September, which means more months of students eating peaches for snacks instead of Doritos.

Espalier: Many schools have narrow patches of earth next to fence lines. In fact, for many schools this is the only pieces of dirt on the campus. Espalier is a technique that encourages lengthwise growth with little width. The effect is a fence or wall of fruit.

Cocktail Trees: Another strategy to maximize the schoolyard fruit varieties is the creation of cocktail trees. By grafting (> what is grafting) several varieties on one tree students can feast on apples from July until December on the same tree! One of the trees at Fair Oaks had over 50 varieties on one tree!

Caroline and the other caretakers of the center were excited to see their years of science going out to serve the public school children of California. They graciously invited me to cut scion wood from the trees in their orchard in order to graft cocktail trees at the each of the schools! Some May Apricots and September Pluots will certainly help to inspire the youth to choose nature’s sweetest candy, available every recess, free of charge!

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