Fruit Trees in Chicago, and in your backyard [UPDATED 2017]

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WHERE ARE ALL THE FRUIT TREES?

A July 2010 article on the abundance of fruit trees in Chicago was entitled: “A Web Search Uncovers the City’s Fruit Trees, Both of Them.” The two trees, mulberry and crab-apple, look rather somber in the photo, perhaps conscious of their lack of neighbors. Why is this so, one might wonder? Is it that fruit didn’t exist on the barren plains of Illinois until we could usher it in by the truckload? Not exactly. Turns out that fruit-bearing trees exist in many urban landscapes, it’s just that The City has moreso viewed fruit as incompatible with sidewalks.

In Chicago’s case, the fruit issue is handled by heavily regulating the tree types planted along public boulevards. We wrote about CROP (Chicago Rarities Orchard Project) in our 2013 version of this post, a magical sounding initiative that promised rare varietals of native fruits right in the heart of Logan Square. While the project may be on a hiatus, you can bet we’ll be first in line when and if it opens. The bottom line is: you want to snag some fruit fresh from the branch in Chicago proper? You’ll have to grow it in your own backyard (or a community garden.

JOHN ESKANDARI: FRUIT TREE WRANGLER

“I’ve always had an affinity for the outdoors and humanity’s connection to it,” says Eskandari.

If you’re looking to plant fruit trees in Chicago, John Eskandari, certified arborist and landscape designer is the guy to ask. Eskandari has experience and wisdom galore: a long tenure purchasing trees and shrubs at Gethsemane and a current landscaping project at the mayor’s house. Plus, he planted the sensory gardens at The Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “John helped [the garden to life],” says Chief Marketing Officer at Hadley Joan Jaeger. “Through a thoughtful use of stone, water elements and vegetation which can be enjoyed through texture, scent and sound, he created a serene, fully accessible space that allows people with visual impairments and other disabilities to fully enjoy its beauty.”

A photo of the Hadley Institute’s gardens. Kind credits to the Hadley Institute for the photo.

Through practicing horticultural therapy techniques Eskandari helps veterans dealing with PTSD via exposure to nature. “I watch them transform from visiting nature preserves,” he says. And for the students lucky enough to have him as a teacher, he leads a 9-week introductory course sponsored by the Illinois Arborist Association for up and coming professionals in the industry to became certified arborists, as well as a sustainable garden course every other year at Chicago Botanic Gardens. Eskandari was gracious in sharing his tips, tricks and tremendous (and funny) insight for successfully growing seasonal fruit within walking distance.

Let’s get to the good stuff!

FROM AESTHETIC TO EDIBLE

The quest for edible garden knowledge has been on the rise of late, as people become more educated (and alarmed) about issues like global warming and monocultures, and the negative consequences they portend. “There has been a shift in the industry away from high input, purely aesthetic gardens,” Eskandari says. “I’ve been seeing more vegetable gardens and mini orchards in people’s yards and homes and I think it’s great.” People in the sustainable landscape design industry find that working with higher end clients influences the way of the trends. If there are tons of vibrant, non-native specie flowerbeds on the Gold Coast, you’ll see that pop up in all kinds of contexts, for example. Seeing more native-plant focused designs, has been creating an atmosphere where this “look” is associated with modern design, and becomes emulated throughout the city.

Beyond the desire to increase access to better tasting local fruits and vegetables, the industry is welcoming greater nuance on how to foster sustainable gardening practices, and rejecting the notion that just because a garden is local and green, it’s good for the environment. The even better news? This paradigm nudge—toward water conservation and native plantings—is a result of consumer demand. Home gardeners and growers want to learn about how to plant for posterity, not just attractiveness.

SUSTAINABLE GARDENING BEST PRACTICES
So what is the difference between a regular old garden and a sustainable one? Eskandari listed out the top practices that factor into maintaining a sustainable garden:

  • Water Usage: “We in the Great Lakes Region are abusive of water because we think it’s infinite,” Eskandari says. Choosing native plants generally reduces the volume and frequency of water needed.
  • Pesticide Use: Yes, we too hate the automatic conflation of the word chemical with evil. But seriously, you don’t want these chemicals all over your food or in the mouse your cat brings home as a prize. “The thing that kills me is that on many pesticides sprays it says ‘spray to the point of runoff’,” Eskandari emphasizes. “We’re literally marketing overspray, and all the residue is going into the ground.”
  • Soil Rejuvenation: “The soil is being destroyed. There are no organisms in it unless you apply them.” Eskandari encourages focusing on earthworm rejuvenation. Earthworms create humus, which is rich with the nutrients fruit trees and plants love. Their habitats and movements help aerate soil and create drainage. They are an edible garden’s best friend.’

“It’s ok to have insect damage and have your garden looking a little ravaged at times, because it’s feeding local wildlife,” Eskandari says. “[Going pesticide-free] requires a significant change in aesthetics.”

  • Reject Perfection: “We’ve whittled down the genes to such a narrow strain that it makes it realistically very tough to go pesticide free,” Eskandari says. A result of monocultures and the desire for uniform taste and appearance, most readily available seeds are copies of each other, not the result of two distinct parent plants forming a brand new, possibly pest resistant child. His advice? Instead of being determined to go pesticide-free AND keep all your crops, loosen the reins a little.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GROW

If you’re not a seasoned gardener but still have your sights set on some edible fruit in the next couple presidential terms, the first thing you’ll need to know before choosing a variety is your growing zone. Growing Zones represent varying areas of North America, divided by the most extreme temperatures generally sustained in that area. If shopping for plants, a zone range will let you know how likely a plant is going to survive the climate of the area you plan to grow it in. Chicago is typically Zone 6.

CAUSE YOU KNOW THAT YOU’RE TOXIC
“If you’re dealing with an urban situation, I would think long and hard about doing production if your property is 30, 40, 50 years old.” Eskandari cautions. He strongly recommends doing a little metaphorical digging into the history of your land before transferring any saplings.

“You just don’t know about pollutants, especially with children.” 

The unfortunate truth is that as lovely and natural as nature may look, you simply can’t be sure that toxic heavy metals or toxic chemical runoff isn’t fermenting in your foundation unless you get your soil tested and know the history of your lot. Eskandari himself had to pass on a gardening opportunity because he found out the new property in question once had a dry cleaner on it. A common chemical found in dry cleaning facilities, Perchloroethylene, is considered a toxic air pollutant by the EPA. If indeed your soil tests positive for some unwanted elements, all isn’t necessarily lost. “You could try and plant a cover crop for a year or two to see if it removes some of the toxins,” Eskandari says.

CAN YOUR TREE STAND ALONE?
Now that you’re sure your soil is a-ok, you’ll need to evaluate your fruit tree for its pollination needs. All fruit trees require pollination to produce fruit, but some trees are self fruitful, meaning their flowers contain both the the pistil and the stamen and they do not require another tree to produce fruit. Non self-fruitful trees will require another tree nearby to cross-pollinate and produce fruit. If you’ll need two trees, make sure you have the space for the trees to be far enough apart in your yard. A quick (but not exhaustive list) of self-fruitful and non- that can grow in Chicago below. *Please note that most of these have a few exceptions so check and double check with your nursery!*

Self Fruitful, Can Grow in Chicago

  • Nectarine
  • Peach
  • Sour Cherry
  • Raspberry and Blackberry bushes (a bush is just a small, weird looking tree, ok??)

Requires Cross-Pollination, Can Grow in Chicago

  • Apple
  • Pears and Asian Pears (most prefer to be cross-pollinated and will have a stronger and healthier yield)
  • Blueberry bushes
  • Plum
  • Sweet Cherry

THAT’S A LOTTA LOT
Speaking of cross pollinating, there’s the matter of lot size when choosing what tree is right for you. A full grown apple tree can not only take a decade to produce edible fruit, it can require around 35 feet of space between it and the next full sized tree. Luckily, for the urban backyard, there are a multitude of dwarf and semi-dwarf sized trees that not only bear fruit sooner and require less room, but can be planted closer together as well. While each tree will have different needs in terms of spacing, some factors to discuss with your nursery include sun access, root range, risks of fungus, and ideal distance to encourage cross pollination, if needed.

FINALLY: THE FRUIT
Fruit trees are an investment of time, patience and eager anticipation. So it should go without saying that you should pick a variety that you really like and are prepared to harvest for years to come. Additionally it’s a good time to research some creative incorporations for your fruit, whether its canning, pickling, baking into pies and cakes or just feeding to some neighborhood scavengers.

PLANTING FRUIT TREES IN CHICAGO

Here’s the good news: yes, you could grow a beautiful peach tree and a lovely raspberry bush right at the corner of Adams and Jackson. You could be enjoying persimmons all winter long with the best of ’em. But before we get planting, a couple things to consider:

BREAKING GROUND: BARE ROOT FRUIT TREES
The Spring, unsurprisingly, is the best time to plant a fruit tree simply because of availability. Eskandari favors bare root fruit trees (a young tree between 5 and 7 years old with all the soil rinsed off its roots—to reduce weight— and kept in a cold frame). “I like these because you have great root-to-soil contact. And the labor is easier because all the roots are right there,” says Eskandari. There’s a more immediate benefit too: most fruit trees will take at least a few years to start producing any fruit, so purchasing a bare root tree is sure to reward you much quicker.

DO’S & DONT’S WITH YOUNG TREES
“We always want to add something when we plant, or else we feel like bad gardeners,” Eskandari says. But sometimes less is more, and adding unnecessary stuff can be equivalent to smothering a child who’s just grasping some independence.

  • DO stake bare root trees. They don’t have a heavy root ball to weigh them down.
  • DO sweat them (wrap them in plastic and slightly elevate the temperature until the buds open, then put them in the ground, he says.
  • DO plant them on a little hill (or make one.) Trees leave a cavern where their roots are, so you’ll want a small hill so the tree doesn’t sink.
  • If planting a container tree, DO check the roots before bringing it home. Do they look healthy? Is there a foul odor?
  • DON’T over mulch, or pack it too close. “This can result in a blister, like if you left a bandaid on too long.”
  • DON’T apply fertilizer at the time of planting since it can burn the root system.
  • DON’T get too heartbroken (or defensive) if some of your fruit feeds local wildlife. “You have to take a hit,” Eskandari laughs. “I always tell people, wildlife was here first, and it’s fruit, so deal with it!”

WHAT FRUIT TREES TO PLANT

A non-exhaustive list brings you some suggestions for your fruit tree forays.

persimmon-700-web

PERSIMMON
Dollywood, Meader or Early Golden Persimmon are all American varieties, and thus better suited to Midwestern winters. It may require two trees for cross pollination. Persimmons are disease and pest-free, which might make for a good first project. Persimmon trees of the American variety ripen their fruit from September all the way through late December. If they are astringent, they will taste absolutely awful before translucent, soft and fully ripe. To experience this for yourself, pick up a Fuyu persimmon from the grocery store, and eat when firm; these are non-astringent. Brace yourself before biting into an unripe Hachiya, an astringent persimmon that is eaten when mushy and often incorporated into baked goods. To quickly ripen an astringent persimmon, place it in the freezer overnight.

TreePeachBelleGeorgia

PEACH
Typically thought of as a delicacy of the south, peach trees can be grown in Chicago with success. Peach trees have the advantage of producing fruit early, with first crops appearing after just 3–4 years. Try the Red Haven, or The Belle of Georgia, which typically doesn’t get taller than 12–14 Ft, keeping maintenance less intimidating.

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CHERRY
The Early Richmond Cherry is a self-pollinating tree that produces a heavy crop of sour cherries in about 3-5 years. It grows to be about 15-18 ft high. While generally too sour to eat straight off the tree, it is delicious in preserves and cooked in a variety of other ways.

http://www.centuryfarmorchards.com/images/kieffertree.jpg

PEAR
The Kieffer pear doesn’t ripen on the tree, which might be a good thing, actually, if you don’t want to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of pears come fall. The Kieffer is better known for being excellent baked and cooked, because of its hardness and sharp taste when not allowed the proper time to ripen. Leave in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks, until their skins turn yellowish and their flavors develop. Kieffers are pretty hardy, and are resistant to fire blight, a common affliction of pear trees. 

For more ideas on what to grow, check out “Bob Kurle’s recommended fruit and nut list”, courtesy of the Midwest Fruit Explorers. Bob is an experienced grower from Hinsdale, Illinois, and has compiled an informative list of what he believes to be the varieties most suited to Chicagoland (scroll to the bottom.)

THE FUTURE OF FRUIT TREES IN CHICAGO

Last time we did this post, we lamented the lack of fruit trees in our fair city. Eskandari would like that to change, too, and has some really lovely projects to that end. “Trying to connect young people with the outdoors is a huge problem right now,” he says. “People don’t know where their food comes from.” This clearly bothers him, as it bothers most of us who lament the compartmentalizing of food and agriculture away from city life, with growing dire consequences: monocultures, vulnerability to a narrow strain of pests and disease, lack of flavor traded in for fruit vanity, and of course the destruction and depletion of the natural world.

HONEY, I SHRUNK THE TREE
One of his recent projects is a mini orchard for a client, with clumping raspberries (“as opposed to rambling raspberries, which ramble all over the place and eat everything”) and mini peach trees. One issue with fruit trees in urban environments of course is the rotting fruit that may attract rodents and insects. Pint-sized peaches and ramekins of raspberries would at least reduce the size of the problem, even if it didn’t eliminate it, right?

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Another solution is to get more creative: beyond apples and pears, there are all kinds of fruit that can be utilized, that stand up to harsh climates just as well, if not better, than some common favorites. “The service berry tree produces a small cherry/blueberry –like fruit. It has a beautiful spring show, and birds love the fruit,” says Eskandari. “An old employee used to make jam out of it.” Another client of his used to consume Hawthorn fruit, which can have potent medicinal effects.

Eskandari’s approach to plants is simple and beautiful: Don’t use too much water. Make the most of what you have. Share with the animals, even human animals (he plants black currants on his parkway so that passerby can take a handful). His depth of knowledge is impressive, but accessible. And maybe best of all, he touts human effort over the rigid pursuit of perfection, whether it’s a purple peach with an oversized pit as in the vibrant Bonfire Peach tree on his parkway, a rabbit ravaged carrot patch, or buying the occasional imported fruit.

“I went to a party once, and I was handing out these nice blueberries that came from Chile,” recounts Eskandari. “This party guest turned them down, saying we were ‘basically eating jet fuel.’ Eskandari laughs, “I was just trying to be nice!”

Thanks John for chatting with us to make this post even more packed with information! John frequently does classes in the Chicagoland area, and also highly recommends the programming at Gethsemane. 

[Ed Note: This post originally appeared in 2013. It has been completely updated and edited for accuracy and relevance.]