Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury, with their farmhouses, fields, and orchards, were known for producing some of the tastiest fruit in 19th-century America, including the famous Roxbury russet apple still prized for taste and disease-resistance.
Today, with the fresh emphasis on local food and sustainability, experts say they are seeing a renewed interest in planting backyard orchards. For an investment of about $400 for a 10-tree orchard and a little time, urban and suburban dwellers can discover the joys of growing their own fruit — even in small backyards.
Pamela Thompson, head of programs at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, says the trend is being fueled by the emergence of new dwarf varieties of apples and the notion that compact orchards not only produce fruit but can also provide a layer of privacy between homes in denser neighborhoods.
“People in the city and suburbs are thinking more about where their food comes from and are trying their hands at gardening of all sorts.’’ Thompson says. “People are demanding a food system that is healthier, more accessible, equitable, and less wasteful. Urban orchards are one step toward community-grown produce that can be shared with all.’’
“Having grown up in Minnesota farming country, I need to be close to the land,” says gardener Steven Gag, gazing out over his well-manicured backyard in Roslindale. Four years ago, in a few hours, he and a neighbor planted an apple orchard of 10 trees about 20 feet long. His mini-orchard is bearing fruit — typically apple trees will be ready for picking after just a couple of years.
Gag’s backyard also includes a chicken coop with white hens strutting around, a woodpile, and lovely beds of perennials. Sixteen solar panels line the roof and Gag, a fit, retired nonprofit executive who heads up Roslindale Village Main Street, says the array generates enough energy that he and his wife are able to sell some of it back to their utility, NStar.
The Arnold Arboretum, in conjunction with the 22.5-acre Wakefield Estate in Milton, sponsors an annual single-day workshop in planting dwarf orchards, as does UMass Extension. Mark Smith, executive director of the Wakefield Charitable Trust, says that the first Wakefield Estate session in 2010 drew just “a couple of people,’’ but there were about 30 in attendance at this year’s event in March.
Site selection and preparation, Smith explains, requires picking a spot with full sun or as much as possible and well-drained soil. Minimum preparation to the land includes removing weeds, loosening soil in the planting trench, and adding lime. The best time for planting is usually from early spring, after the ground has thawed, through the end of May.
Rootstock can be purchased by mail order or a nursery that specializes in dwarf fruit trees. Good dwarf varieties of apples, Smith says, include Liberty, Goldrush, Galarina, Crimson Gala, and Topaz. Even four to 10 small trees can, within a few years, produce a bumper crop of fruit.
While it’s possible to plant other varieties of dwarf fruit trees, like pears, peaches, or plums, Smith says, the majority of people here seem most interested in apples.
Smith once headed up Farm Aid in Somerville. The national nonprofit, which has since moved its office to Cambridge, advocates local and family farming and sustainable agriculture. It was founded by singers Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp in the mid-1980s.
Along with Judy Lieberman, Smith also established in 2006 the Brookwood Community Farm, a working organic farm and education center in Milton and Canton.
In 2009, as director of the Wakefield Estate, which has been preserved as a learning and educational nonprofit arboretum adjacent to the Blue Hills, he installed a compact orchard of 45 trees — each three feet apart.
“The first year, we picked off all the blossoms to return energy to the trees,” Smith explains —
Although standard apple trees can reach the height of 40 feet, dwarf varieties created for the backyard urban or suburban gardener only reach a quarter of that size.
“We’ve had great luck with the Liberty apple,” Smith notes. He also advises would-be orchard growers to add a little fertilizer each year and to water their fruit trees with a soaker hose or drip irrigation. “If possible, plant your urban orchard on a north to south line and make sure you have five good hours of sunlight each day,” he says.
Pruning correctly and dealing with pests are of utmost importance in the first two or three years after planting apple trees. Smith says any branches that thicken to more than 50 percent of the diameter of the trunk should be pruned each spring. “Pruning my apple trees takes me 15 minutes a year,” notes Gag.
Deer and winter moths are quite common in Greater Boston and are menaces for dwarf backyard orchards. On the Wakefield Estate, which is in the Blue Hills, Smith and his staff installed a high deer fence, which in some suburban areas may or may not be necessary. As for winter moths, which “love to eat the blossoms,” Smith encourages planters to use Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, as a remedy as soon as worms appear. It’s a pesticide made from bacteria, as opposed to chemicals, and is allowed in certified organic agriculture. He counsels keeping Bt use to a minimum and only when necessary.
Staying organic is important to Gag, whose orchard includes gold and red Gala apples, which were ordered by mail as bareroot stock from Adams County Nursery in Pennsylvania. The small plants arrived dormant. He says he planted the orchard in 2010 in three hours — preparing the soil, digging holes for two fence posts, and stringing wire, which is necessary at first to support the trees, branches, and apples as they grow.
Smith says he knows some urban gardeners plant small orchards not only for the apples but also to block their view of apartment houses and three-deckers. The plantings are referred to as “fruiting walls.’’
Urban orchards on public property have also become of interest in Boston in recent years, according to the Arnold Arboretum’s Thompson. A now-defunct nonprofit called Earthworks started planting fruit trees in public places in the early 1990s.
Earthworks planted in a number of places in the city and closely managed about a dozen sites from the South End to Mattapan at locations such as public schools, the Shirley Eustis House, and Edward Everett Square.
According to Vidya Tikku, interim director of nonprofit Boston Natural Areas Network, her group and the Dorchester Historical Society’s Clapp Farm have also planted some fruit trees within the past five years.
Another organization, The Boston Tree Party, launched a campaign in 2011 through which 78 community groups each have planted and tend a pair of apple trees across 58 civic spaces such as schools, churches, and community gardens in Greater Boston, with an aim of finding ways to share the harvest.
Tikku estimates that there were around 40 public orchards in the city. Right now, she says, there’s no official oversight over many of those trees; a number are poorly maintained and there are no rules about who can take the food and how much of it.
But her group plans to work with the city’s food initiatives office with the goal of ensuring that there will be publicly accessible fruit and nut trees.
For most of the groups and individuals involved in compact orchards the issue of locally grown food looms large.
“In the early 1980s,” Smith explains, “New England orchards were being threatened first by industrial orchards in Washington state and the Pacific Northwest. Now most of our apples come from even farther away — from New Zealand and China.
“Why not grow and buy our apples in Dorchester and Southie, in Roslindale and Hyde Park, in Milton and Lincoln and Lynn?”
As for Gag, standing one sunny morning recently in his Boston backyard orchard surveying his apple trees about to burst into blossom, “This year I’m perfecting my apple pies. Have you ever tasted crust made with orange juice? It’s delicious.”
To learn more about backyard orchards visit the UMass Extension website (where gardeners can send soil samples to be tested) at www.extension.umass.edu/fruitadvisor and the Cornell University Extension website at www.gardening