Imagine, if you will, a circular garden space in spring. At its center, a small tree covered with blossoms. Bees and other pollinators eagerly burrow into the blooms and emerge to repeat the process all day, every day, for weeks. Surrounding the tree, at the outermost edge of this garden space, a hedge of blueberry bushes. Between the tree and the hedge, a covey of potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries. Peppering the ground, colorful borage, with its cucumber-flavored leaves and edible flowers, and equally edible Johnny-jump-ups. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Fruit cocktail gardens are designed to provide a variety of fresh and preservable fruits, all in one convenient location. Here’s how you can make it happen in your own yard.
Start with the basics
There is no sense installing all these plants if they won’t grow in your yard. Microclimate and Hardiness Zone must be taken into account, as with any garden design. You also need to know what is in your soil. Get your soil tested by a lab. It’s inexpensive. It’s important to the health of all your plants. And it makes the job of gardening much easier and more likely to succeed. You will also need to know your garden’s chilling hours. All this information will help you select plants suited to your yard.
The fruit cocktail theme
Themed gardens pull an area together with a shared concept. This makes plant selection and garden design a lot easier. The fruit cocktail garden theme starts with a fruit tree at its center, surrounds the area with a hedge or border, and fills the space with other fruit-bearing plants. You can also add artistic touches, such as statuary, a birdbath, or a nice bench. Let’s start with your tree.
Most modern fruit trees are two different trees grafted onto one another. Root stocks are selected for their ability to produce strong root systems and the aboveground portion is selected for fruit producing abilities, as well as pest and disease resistance. This is why planting seeds from your apple or that peach pit almost never works out the way you expect. This is especially true of apples.
Dwarf trees are an excellent choice for backyard gardens. Dwarf trees rarely grow larger than 10’ high and are easier to manage in the home landscape. When selecting a tree for your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to note the chilling hours. Trees are hardwired to go through seasonal changes before setting fruit. If winter temperatures are not cold enough, long enough, your tree will never produce fruit. At the other end of that spectrum, if you opt for a banana tree, you need to protect it from frost damage in winter. While you can select any fruit tree as the centerpiece of this garden, fruit cocktail trees are especially appropriate. Just be sure to use the proper planting depth, or your fruit tree will die within a few short and unproductive years.
What are fruit cocktail trees?
You may have seen them in garden catalogs. Also known as fruit salad trees and family trees, these mostly dwarf varieties are created by grafting scions, or pencil-thin twigs, from several trees onto a host tree. The scions and host must all be in the same genus for this to work. Popular examples include:
There are also family trees that provide several different varieties of the same fruit on one tree. You may have a single apple family tree that produces Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, and Honeycrisp, all on a single tree. The same can be done with practically any fruit tree species. One particularly impressive fruit cocktail tree produces 40 different fruits.
New York artist and professor, Sam Van Aken, creates trees with 40 different types of fruit growing on them. His Tree of 40 includes several varieties of stone fruits, all grafted onto a single tree.
Hedge or border?
The next step in designing your fruit cocktail garden is to select plants for the outer edge. You can create a hedge out of low-growing blueberries, a border with strawberry plants, or something else entirely. You might decide to encircle your fruit cocktail garden with melon or watermelon vines, a blackberry bramble, or delicious groundcherries. Watch out for those blackberries, though. They are tenacious and they will spread. Another possibility is small raised beds, for easy access and as a way to limit plants with invasive natures.
Other possibilities for your fruit cocktail garden
You can put those renegade blackberries into the miniature raised beds or attractive containers. Raspberries and currants can be grown the same way, just be sure to use containers large enough for mature root systems. Raspberry, blackberry, and currant roots spread out more than they dive. Containers need to be at least 20” deep and as wide as possible.
Be sure to mulch the spaces between the border, the tree, and the containers with aged compost or free arborist wood chips, providing several inches of bare ground between the mulch and the tree trunk. You can intersperse this area with herbs, such as greens and purple basil, and edible flowers, including carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), or primrose (Primula vulgaris).
As you design your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to consider the mature sizes of all the plants and their appearance throughout the seasons. You want your plants to have the space they need and you want your garden to look lovely year round.
Fruit cocktail gardens can stand alone or be incorporated into children’s gardens. Either way, you are going to love how delicious your new garden space can be!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!