With today being the first day of spring, I thought I would tell you about my balcony orchard.
When most of us think of orchards, we probably picture acres and acres of commercially cultivated fruit or nut trees, irrigated with massive pipe systems and managed from the seat of a tractor. In my old yard, I had several fruit and nut trees. I suppose that qualifies as an orchard, too. But now I live in a downtown Seattle apartment with a balcony, so my definition had to change a bit.
My balcony orchard currently consists of one tree. I bought it from Online Orchards. It’s a dwarf apple tree, but it has four different types of apple grafted onto the central stalk. That’s a good thing because most apple trees are not self-pollinating. This means they usually need a neighboring apple tree to produce fruit. I don’t think my balcony can handle two apple trees. I could be wrong. Anyway, with four different varieties on one tree, pollinators will be able to move pollen from one variety to another. Fruit should appear in a couple of years.
My balcony apple tree should produce Cortland, Gravenstein, Red Jonathan, and Winesap apples. Each branch started out as a scion that was grafted onto a horizontal shoot.
My apple tree may look like nothing more than a stick right now, but I hope to see lots of leafy stems and blossoms this time next year. Of course, I will have to remove all those pretty blossoms to encourage further root development the first time they appear. That’s okay, though. I should get 15 to 20 years of blossoms and fruit from my balcony tree if I take good care of it.
This particular tree is growing in a large self-watering container. It doesn’t actually water itself, so the name is misleading. If you aren’t familiar with these pots, they have a reservoir in the bottom topped with a grate. Potting soil goes on top of the grate. Eventually, plant roots will go through the grate to access the water. This helps avoid rotted roots and fungal disease. Over-watering is a common problem with containerized plants.
As for the rest of my balcony garden, the strawberry plants I got for free through freecycle seem to be thriving, but I’m not so sure about the blackberry cutting I took last week while out walking the dogs.
Time will tell. It always does.
Native plants are those that have evolved over thousands of years to grow where you are. They tend to be low-maintenance and naturally resistant to local pests and diseases. They are also part of an intricate web of interactions between insects, microorganisms, mammals, reptiles, and all the other life forms that ought to be living where you do.
Except that, very often, they’ve been pushed out by lawns, streets, and construction plant deals. We can’t yet expect the companies who build our homes to consider native plants. Maybe someday. Until that day comes, it is up to us to help return at least part of our landscapes to their natural state.
How to start adding natives
I started the process by allowing my lawn to become a meadow. This was after reading Linda King’s guest post, Gardening With Nature. The results were nothing short of delightful. First, nearly all the work was eliminated. Once my meadow was established, I didn’t have to water, weed, mow, or aerate it. I could just sit back and enjoy watching the butterflies, birds, and other critters who were attracted to my new offering.
Second, creating a meadow in my landscape let me see my space with a new perspective. Instead of an artificial collection of lines, colors, and textures, my garden design looked more natural and relaxed while still providing plenty of fresh groceries. For one thing, I added native currants and hazelnuts to my tomatoes and basil, which provided food for me, and my wildlife neighbors.
Native plant resources
Luckily for all of us, there are a growing number of native plant societies around the world. These organizations offer tons of information about the plants that should be where we are. In most cases, all you have to do is conduct an online search for your local group and then enter your zip code. From there, you are given a list of all the flowering plants, ground covers, shrubs, trees, and vines that are native to your region.
For example, having moved to Seattle, I searched online for “Seattle native plants”. I got 18 million results, including the Washington Native Plant Society and three native plant sellers. That was just on the first page. What I’m trying to say is that the resources are there for the taking. All you have to do is look.
Choosing your native plants
Once you’ve tracked down some resources, the fun begins. For me, plant selection is something akin to looking at toy catalogs as a kid just before Christmas. The possibilities were limitless and exciting. Of course, being significantly older now, I know that there are limits, such as sun exposure and soil health, but it’s still exciting.
Even if you simply add one native plant to your landscape, you will help reverse some of the damage done in the past. Add one native plant each year, or each season, and you will end up with a lovely landscape that appeals to a surprising number and variety of butterflies and other visitors.
What about those free plants?
If you buy native plants, I urge you to look for certified pest- and disease-free plants. And put them into quarantine before adding them to your landscape. Those simple precautions can save you from years of trouble.
But what if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on native plants but want to do your part?
In most cases, those plants are already in your neighborhood, struggling to survive amidst the concrete and traffic. Armed with a list of desirable native plants, a trowel, a few resealable plastic bags or containers, and a cooler, head out into your neighborhood to see what’s available nearby. You may also want to keep these tools handy in the trunk of your car, just in case.
If you happen to see a plant you really want, but it is in someone’s yard, knock on the door and ask for a cutting. You may be surprised at how many people will say yes. You may also discover a friend with mutual interests. If they say no, well, move on and continue your search elsewhere. Never take a plant from someone’s property without asking. [Someone once stole my entire almond crop. It was heartbreaking.]
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your immediate neighborhood, look on a map and see if there are any green belts or wild areas nearby. These are often safe harbors for many wild native plants, but there are some very important rules about taking plants from the wild:
Other sources for free plants include county government, local plant clubs, sites such as PlantSwap.org, and social media groups dedicated to responsible gardening.
I was walking my dogs the other day and collected a piece of wild blackberry cane.
The possibilities are still nearly endless…
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.