Several branches with dozens of red and green cherries

The Orchard in My Backyard: Urban Fruit Plants

I first saw the trees in the depth of winter, when snow covered everything. They looked like normal, small, trees on a normal, small, city lot. I was excited by the nature surrounding the house I was going to live in, and by the potential of what I could harvest from these trees, vines, and shrubs.

 

When we moved in to the house, the trees were blooming. First the the pair of trees in the front, covered with white flowers which snowed down and covered the ground. These were plum trees, though so old and overgrown that they’d stopped growing fruits. Next bloomed the trio of trees in the backyard, flanking the tiny pond. These turned out to be sour cherry trees, which produced an alarming amount of fruit in a very short time – tart and vibrant red. A fourth cherry tree, of a different variety, still hasn’t fruited, but reliably sprouts pink-tinged blooms in early spring. A thicket of aronia shrubs under the eaves had dainty little pink centers in their white blooms, and their big clusters of purple-black fruits made birds happy long into winter. Two twining grape vines covered the chain link fence and the pergola, yielding a gorgeous crop of green and red grapes. A stand of raspberries took up a corner of the yard, growing somewhat wild.

 

These plants became the start of my little backyard orchard, and we’ve all grown together. I learned how to prune the old plum trees from a friend, who came over a couple years in a row to show me which limbs should be removed (often doing the sawing himself) – and even grafted on some new plum varieties onto the old tree. Last year we grew finally grew enough to share a few plums with others (besides the squirrels, who get most of them).

The cherry trees are another story entirely, as their branches are chock-full of clumps of cherries, which all ripen within a single week, needing to be picked that very moment, or they’d carpet the ground with rotting cherry flesh. I dutifully went out and harvested for hours at a time, then started the long process of washing, plucking, and pitting the pretty little gems. At this point… what? They’re nice to eat a few on their own, but pretty tart, and they don’t keep in the fridge very well. My sister came to the rescue, making dozens of jars of delightful jelly that we shared with our family as Christmas gifts. The next year, I was more prepared. I recruited help in the picking, distributed the jelly to my near-neighbors, learned how to make a sour cherry vișinată, explored lots of dessert recipes, and purchased a robust cherry pitter. It’s become a bit of a summer event, as my neighbors come over to pick their fill and the birds briefly flee the trees. I highly recommend these productive and low-maintenance trees, and are great for community building – as shown in Janne’s story of her cherry tree event.

There’s not a lot of space (or sunlight) left in my yard, but we’ve made room for some new serviceberries which should fruit in a couple years. We’ve converted almost all of the lawn to prairie plants, woodland ephemerals, and “bee lawn” – but left some space for wild strawberries to spread. The resilient and ever-present hostas are delicious when picked young and sauteed. There’s a horseradish plant tucked in the margins, and maybe a rhubarb soon. This summer we have a couple crops of runner beans ripening, and a lemon tree sojourning on the patio for the summer. I have ambitious plans to take out some non-native and boring shrubs, and replace them with a pair of hazelnut bushes from our recent Climate Committee Food Tree Event. It’ll be great to add a crop of nuts to the backyard orchard.

 

 

Jenny Werness

About Jenny Werness

Jenny is a carfree, bicycling, tree-loving St. Paul resident, with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Our rapidly changing climate should be of utmost concern to all of us. Board of Directors of streets.mn, 2019-2021; Climate Committee Founding Member; Editor-in-Chief.

10 thoughts on “The Orchard in My Backyard: Urban Fruit Plants

  1. Hannah PritchardHannah PritchardModerator  

    “Somewhat wild” is a very kind description of raspberry bushes.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      Haha too true!! My yard is full of “extra wild” plants, so I think they contain the raspberry bushes somewhat. It’s a competition between grape vines, raspberry bushes, walking onions, ditch lilies, creeping charlie, and creeping bellflowers in that corner.

  2. Pat Thompson

    I recently read up on pruning black raspberries… mine were very prolific this year. I hope that the pruning instructions are helpful, and I will be more relentless in maintaining the edges when I see them either reseeding or trying to root down. But yes – fruit trees and shrubs (and nuts) for us and the animals. Sour cherry coordination and community building can be its own post!

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      I’m hoping some of the bird-sown berry bushes are black raspberries! I grew up on a farm, so they just grew in wild thickets everywhere… I’d never considered pruning them. I’ll have to add that to my to do list 🙂

      Janne’s post on her cherry trees is my favorite example of sour cherry – related community building. I’d love to see more stories!

      1. Janne

        Thanks for the shout out! The front yard tree is aging, and I’ve planted a new one in the only available space in preparation for the day it’s no longer producing which will come far too soon I suspect. I’m especially excited because my chestnut crab apple and three of my grape varieties are all very productive this year, too!

        1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

          Wow, planning ahead! That’s awesome. What do you do with all of your grapes? We’ve made jelly before, and my mom enjoys eating them on their own, but I still end up with so many grapes.

  3. Joe in St. Paul

    I can the sour cherries for pie and cobbler. I agree–it is overwhelming when the cherries ripen and demand attention, but it’s a great way to make some new friends. I also make a cherry-black raspberry jam. My cherry trees seem to be on an “every other year” cycle. I have had good luck underplanting fruit trees with asparagus.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      You’re so right, it’s a great way to make friends – both to share the cherry picking and to share the cherry creations! Planting asparagus underneath is a great idea, I might take out one of the innumerable hydrangeas and try asparagus next year. Thank you!

  4. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

    We have a sour cherry and plum in our front! We had a similar experience when we first moved in of discovering what the trees needed (although I think one of our neighbors chickens tried to tell us from its perch in the plum tree). We are slowly figuring out how to prune, and we keep debating what to put under the trees instead of the defiant creeping charlie and crab grass.

    We didn’t get to a lot of our cherries, but two cardinals ate some of them when they were starting to go and had a half drunken romance stumbling through the branches like two young kids stumbling back to their apartment after an especially good date.

    Drunk cardinals are fun, they sing loud and tip big on big tabs.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      Pruning is an on-going adventure! I killed our crabgrass/creeping charlie lawn with some cardboard and mulch. Now I have some woodland perennials that are doing pretty well, and strawberries on the sunnier side. Also a lot of violets.

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