Planting a tree is an act of faith: faith that a dead looking stick will eventually tower above you laden with greenery; faith that you'll remember to water and feed it - or someone else will; faith that there will be people in ten, twenty or a hundred years time who'll cherish it and perhaps even give a few seconds of thanks to the person who first put that tiny sapling in the ground.
After a quarter of a century the mulberry trees decided to whoosh upwards after a good year of rain, and kept whooshing in the following two good years.
Trees are often extremely good at growing without human intervention, which is why you so often find seedling apple trees growing by the side of the road, usually miraculously laden with excellent apples, despite the conventional wisdom that seedlings don't fruit or won't fruit well, and that apples need to be pruned every year to get good crops.
Many fruit trees will even grow back from their roots if the tops die in a drought or even after a bushfire. (You'll get rootstock though, not whatever was grafted onto it.) Others will need coaxing to get through the first few years, then once they've put down decent roots, will tough it out through frost and drought.
The miracle mulberries
I planted a dozen mulberry trees more than a quarter of a century ago. They died in the drought soon after. The ground remained treeless, the groundcovers nibbled by wallabies, wombats and 'roos. I was up there about three years ago, and there were no trees to be seen then.
Then this year I wandered up - and found twelve mulberry trees, taller than I am, all laden with excellent fruit, just about to ripen. They just all decided to whoosh upwards after a good year of rain, and kept whooshing in the successive two good years. There's an unexpected plum near our front gate that has done exactly the same thing - vanished for a good quarter century and now with plums almost as big as my fist.
That is the beauty of trees. They're tough. Get them established and many will still be here in a hundred years' time. Others will slowly yellow for lack of tucker, but it will still take several years to bump them off and a good mulch and feed during that time will often revive them.
Fruit trees are one of life's great insurance policies. Take a year or two off with two broken legs and a hip replacement, and your trees will be waiting for you. (And the birds and wallabies will get fat on the fruit you didn't get to eat.)
Encourage those roots to go down, into the cool and moisture of the subsoil, as fast as possible, not spread out near the surface.
How to give a tree the best start
- Dig a deep hole, as deep as you can, but just wide enough for the roots. You want to encourage those roots to go down, into the cool and moisture of the subsoil, as fast as possible, not spread out near the surface. In very dry areas, or if you get cyclones or tornadoes or other high winds, cut the bottom out of a wide bucket or old drum and, place that at the top of the hole, so the roots don't get a chance to go outwards.
- Plant one or two metre-long pieces of wide polypipe at the edge of the hole at the same time, just poking out of the soil. Water the tree by pouring water down this, so it gets to the roots below, soaks down, and once again, encourages them down. This will also keep the soil moist for longer.
- Mulch. (Which every garden writer keeps saying, and few gardeners do). Then mulch some more. Feed on top of the mulch, at least once a year till the tree is four or five years old, and once or twice a year if it's a heavy cropper and you're removing the fruit. (If the birds or fruit bats eat it, they'll leave their droppings in exchange for the nutrients they're taking).
- A plastic tree guard will protect from both frost and wind, and reduce drying out too. They can be used over and over, and really make a difference to a tree's early survival.
- We put wire tree guards over all our young trees, to keep off wallabies, and prune off the lower branches till they are above wallaby reach. We then reuse the tree guard elsewhere. It's cheaper than fencing a whole orchard, and much safer - a canny wallaby can always find a way through a wombat hole or become an Olympic standard jumper, managing to get over even a two-metre fence. (Or maybe they can learn to levitate.)
As I get older more and more of my diet seems to consist of tree fruit, especially nuts: a raw almond-based muesli for breakfast (I once swore I'd never waste calories on muesli for breakfast, but that was before I made my own, a long way from processed soggies). I use more nut flour than wheat or corn flour, too, replacing flour completely with ground nuts in slices where the dough doesn't have to rise, or where firmly beaten egg whites provide the rising agent, strong enough to heft even ground nuts upwards, and using half nut and half wheat flour in pastry.
In a world where six tonnes of topsoil can be lost for one tonne of wheat, animals sweat in terror at abattoirs and asparagus flies from Peru to Sydney, growing your own protein makes sense. And if that protein comes from a nut tree in your back yard - well, going a bit nuts can be fun, productive and create shade in long hot summers.
Once established, nut trees are drought-tolerant. Most are very long-lived, as "very long-lived" translates to "grow huge roots that burrow deep into the earth and survive harsh climates".
There is a nut tree suitable for any garden and any climate. Just choose exactly how nutty you'd like to be. Nuts are a classic survival food. They can be stored for years - and certainly for at least until your trees crop again the following year.
The number of nut trees you need will vary depending on whether you rely on them for part of your protein, or whether you just want them for nibbling or to put into cakes. Two almonds (or a double-graft almond) and one other nut tree will be enough for most households - but once you've got the nuts they're never wasted. I would grow as many as you can accommodate. Try a hedge of hazelnuts in cold areas, or a trimmed hedge of macadamias in warmer spots.
Our nut calendar
- January: early almonds, macadamia (Macadamia tetraphylla, hard-shelled for cool to cold areas).
- February: macadamia, almond, early hazelnuts.
- March: almonds, early hazelnuts, pecan, bunya nuts.
- April: pistachio, bunya nuts, pecan, walnuts, pine nuts.
- May: pistachio, bunya nuts, pecan, walnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts.
- June – December: macadamias, other nuts that have been stored.
A raw nut-based muesli for breakfast is a long way from processed soggies.
Almond trees need full sun and a temperate climate - they don't like the tropics or late heavy frosts (which affect the blossom and prevent fruit set). You'll get a few almonds a year after planting a grafted tree and at least a bucketful after three to five years. Stick to self-pollinating almonds - cross-pollinators may not bloom together.
These can reach seven metres if grown by themselves - they are much smaller when planted thickly for a hedge (which also makes collecting the hazelnuts easier). Hazelnuts will tolerate cold to temperate climates. Seedlings can take many years to flower - grafting them onto suckers produces better results. Note: two compatible varieties are needed for pollination.
A fresh pecan is delicious, without the slightly bitter flavour of older nuts. These are enormous trees, but if you prune off the lower branches, you will have room for other plants below or you can prune them to a lower hedge shape. Knock off the ripe nuts with a long stick. Pecans need deep, fertile, moist soil. Don't grow them too near the house, in case the roots grow under the foundations.
For some reason few gardeners grow pistachios, which is a pity - they are both easy to grow and very beautiful, with gold autumn leaves and bright pink fruit cases when the nuts begin to form. Pistachio trees tolerate drought, frost and poor soil, although they grow better if they are watered and well mulched, but they hate humidity. Pistachios thrive wherever olives can grow. In good conditions the trees grow up to ten metres tall. You need at least one male to every six female pistachio trees.
Walnuts need deep, fertile soil and a cold to warm temperate climate. They can grow to be enormous but tolerate heavy pruning, so are great trees along a footpath. As well as the more common English walnuts, try black American walnuts too - they're not quite as meaty and have a different flavour. Again - don't grow walnuts too near the house, as the roots can be as enormous as the trees.
With care, avocado trees will grow anywhere in Australia.
These come from the Swiss, Italian or the Mexican stone pine, hardy trees that tolerate heat and cold as well as drought. The nuts come from the ripe pinecones - let them scatter when the cones drop off the tree. They are delicious when fresh - often store-bought ones are soft, stale or even rancid.
We grow Pinus edula, sometimes known as the Mexican stone pine but really from Colorado, and Pinus pinea, the Italian stone pine. The former grew fast; the latter grew slowly. It took about five years to get nuts from the first, and ten years to get nuts from the second (according to one text, the Italian should have cones long before the Mexican but trees don't read textbooks). Both were seedlings and both varieties are quite easy to obtain. Never grow pine nuts unless you have room for a LARGE pine tree. One hectare of pine trees may give between 400 and 2000 kilograms of nuts a year. You get about 50 to 100 nuts a cone at maturity. It takes about two years for cones to reach maturity - so don't knock them down when they first appear.
See also bunyas and macadamias in the Q and A column this month.
Other great self-sufficiency trees
The best trees are the ones that grow and crop stunningly in your area. The following are ones that a reasonably large hunk of the world's population relies on for a goodly amount of their tucker.....
Jackie goes on to describe other self-sufficiency trees, such as avocadoes.