Urban homesteader Christine Faith is one of those people who have made her backyard work for her. Not only does she have chickens, ducks, bees and koi fish, she has a grafted apple tree, which offers several varieties of apples, plus red and green table grapes, a plum tree and a weeping mulberry that produces fruit that is "so good," she said.
It's taken the Oregon native, who grew up on a farm, five years to bring her backyard up to snuff, and she's learned plenty of growing tips along the way.
One of the biggest is choosing plants in zone four of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
"Technically, we're zone five," Faith said, "but we have these freaky cold snaps."
If you plant a tree this summer, it might produce a couple of apples at the end of the season. However, it's much more likely you'll have to wait a year or two for your hard work to grow ripe on the tree, said Julie McIntyre, owner of Summerland Gardens.
Water the apple tree well initally, and water throughout the season, McIntyre said. "Hopefully you've amended the soil really well. And then stand back. You'll be making cobbler in a year."
Our late spring season is the biggest reason so many fruit trees, such as apricots and peaches, don't succeed here. Typically, May 15 is considered last frost, McIntyre said. Apricots bloom early in the season and a frost can nip those blossoms in the bud.
"If we have a great spring and no late frost, then we can get apricots," McIntyre said. "Every few years we can get them. This year they got nipped, I think."
The climate here is very variable, temperature-wise, said James Kulbeth, a local agriculturist and botanist. Unlike the town of Palisade, on the Western Slope, which produces those sought after peaches every year, we don't have the slope changes and the same type of air flow that prevents frost from killing trees and blossoms.
"Fruit likes it to not fake it out by freezing later after it's started to bloom," Kulbeth said.
Soil is another problem for local growers. It's generally tight clay, while most fruit trees prefer a sandy or gravelly loam made of sand, silt and clay. The Front Range is mostly derived from shale, Kulbeth said, though some people are lucky and have a loamy soil and high ground with good drainage. They live mostly in places around Security and Widefield and some sections in the northeast part of Colorado Springs.
Faith, who lives in the Ivywild neighborhood, has soil improvement down to a science. She relies on nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators.
Soil here is low in nitrogen, a vital component in growing anything. Nitrogen fixers are plants such as Siberian pea shrubs, which produce lentils, she said. Other good choices include autumn olive and sea buckthorn plants. Plant them around your fruit trees to get that much needed nitrogen down into the soil.
Dynamic accumulators are plants that gather nutrients and minerals from the soil through their roots, and store them in their leaves. The pH of our local soil is alkaline - bad news for those fruits, such as blueberries, that need an acidic environment to grow. Don't even think about those, Faith said.
Faith does what she calls a "chop and drop." She chops the leaves of the dynamic accumulators, such as comfrey and horseradish, and mulches them around plants.
She also suggests spreading organic material such as chicken manure on top of the soil.
Tips for better fruit growing
- Focus on fruit that grows in regions with similar climates, Faith said. Those include the dry, cold winter plants from Scandinavia, South Siberia and Northern China.
- The best berries to grow are strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and currants.
- It's best to plant in early spring, before the first of March, Kulbeth said, when trees are dormant and before buds get tender. However, if you get a good potted plant and are careful in planting it, you still can make the attempt. Just be careful of the buds - they break easily.
- Guess who else loves your fruit? The birds. Protecting your fruit trees and plants, especially red blossoms, which attract animal attention, is important. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees and trellises can be covered with netting.
- You don't want birds, but you do want bees, McIntyre said. Invest in bee-friendly plants such as sunflowers, lavender and zinnias. Even dandelions work. If you spray pesticides in your garden, don't do it when the flowers are open, which will devastate the bee population.
"They're the main pollinator," she said. "Without bees, there are no apples or peaches or fruit trees."
- Apples need to be cross-pollinated. If you plant one apple, you need to either plant another type of apple nearby, have a neighbor with an apple tree or get a grafted apple tree.
"One can be crabapple," McIntyre said. "Like in an orchard, they'll do 50 trees of the same kind, but right in the center, they'll have one different."
Good varieties for our area include Gala, Yellow Delicious and Pink Lady, Faith said.
- Faith recommends the book "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture" by Toby Hemenway. It delves into the science of planting and building strength into the growing system.
"The best time to plant a tree was years ago," said Kulbeth. "The next best time is today."
Manitou Springs Library Lecture Series with Christine Faith, 11 a.m., Manitou Art Center, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, free, ppld.org/whats-new/all?page=2.
May 31: Miniature Vineyards & Miniature Orchards
June 28: Aquaponics
July 26: Backyard Poultry
Faith's website: righttothrive.org