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Gardening: Branch out with trees for an edible landscape

Published April 10, 2013 11:19 am

Planting trees • Apples and peaches are fine — but almonds or a figs may be the more interesting options for Utah gardens.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When planting a new tree this spring, think beyond shade, privacy and ornamental value. Nut and fruit trees can provide all of those as well as great-tasting food.

You may not think of Utah as a nut-growing state, but several species of hazelnuts and almonds grow well in our high-dessert climate and are suited to the home garden in terms of their size and productivity.

As for fruit trees, you can always grow old standbys like peach, apple, cherry, apricot and plum. But why not try something unexpected — such as figs and quince.

Here's a little bit more information about these four unique tree offerings.

Hazelnuts/Filberts • In Utah, hazelnut plants are most often grown as large shrubs, but can also be trained to grow as small trees. Either way, the bushy growth and interesting form make them an eye-catching addition to the home landscape. Both American hazels and beaked hazels grow well in our climate, and are more likely to consistently produce nuts than other types. When grown as shrubs, hazels usually take on a rounded shape and can grow up to 15 feet high and wide.

For the first two years, they will need regular, deep watering to offset Utah's minimal summer rainfall. Once established, however, they require deep watering only one or two times a month. They're even susceptible to rot if the roots stay too wet. The plants spread by suckers (stems that grow from the plant's base), which can be removed to prevent them from forming a dense thicket. Hazels need cross-pollination to produce nuts, and planting two different varieties of the same species will ensure good production.

Almonds • Almond trees, medium-sized relatives of the peach, are stately trees with shiny green foliage and pink spring blossoms. They can grow to 20–30 feet and provide ample shade at full size. However, because almond trees take up so much room at maturity, selecting an appropriate planting site is crucial. If property is likely to be damaged by falling nuts, spreading roots, or a large leafy canopy, select a site that is farther from homes and driveways, and always be mindful of power lines and other city infrastructure. These trees need warm soil, full sun, good drainage and a long summer to produce mature nuts. Almond trees prefer to grow in slightly acidic soil (6.0–7.0 pH), so if a soil test indicates that your soil is too alkaline, amend it with peat or another acidifier in the spring. Almonds are native to the Mediterranean region of the Middle East, but there are many cold-hardy varieties that grow well in the region.

Almond trees are the earliest-blooming deciduous trees, which means that gardens frequently bitten by late frost (such as those with apricot trees that rarely or never fruit) aren't good candidates — at least if harvesting nuts is your goal. However, they can still be planted as ornamentals.

Although almond trees may be more productive when planted with a companion tree, self-pollinating varieties make planting in pairs unnecessary.

Figs • Fig trees are often thought of as warm-climate trees, but there are a few cold-hardy varieties that are suited to our fairly harsh winters including "Chicago Hardy," "Celeste" and "Brown Turkey." These varieties may require winter protection, especially in areas with high wind chill. Temperatures 10 to 20 degrees below zero will kill figs to the ground, but their roots will often remain viable, sending up new growth in the spring and fruiting in the summer. However, particularly vicious, prolonged cold spells will kill them outright. Mature fig trees grow to be 8–15 feet tall, a size dubbed "dwarf" for other kinds of fruit trees; their fruits are bell-shaped, variable in size and brown, purple, green, yellow or black in color. As they grow, fig trees send out numerous branches that appear muscular and twisted, often spreading wider than the trees are tall. If space is a concern, fig trees are a compact option that can fill a delicious niche in the edible landscape—just choose a spot that has full sun and freely draining soil. Fairly drought-tolerant once they're established, figs will survive in alkaline soil but, like almonds, prefer soil that is slightly acidic, so remember to test and amend your soil in the spring.

Quince • Quince, a native of Persia, is one of only a few fruit trees that is truly self-pollinating. A slow grower, it has a crooked, architectural growth habit, with low gnarled branches and grayish mottled bark that adds visual interest during the drab winter months. Once grown in gardens throughout the United States, the quince deserves to be seriously considered for inclusion in the 21st-century landscape. The quince is a small (12–20 feet), spring-flowering, highly productive tree that is closely related to the apple and pear; its fruit looks like a bright-yellow cross between the two. Quince need a long growing season to fully ripen.