While farmers markets bring us fresh, local fruit in season, and grocery stores bring us everything else, nothing beats the taste – or the carbon footprint – of a freshly plucked fruit from the backyard.
Growing fruit in the backyard is easy, even for those without a green thumb. First things first, what do you like to eat? Locate a sunny spot in your yard, and let's get planning and planting.
Some fruits are tropical, and no matter how much you like oranges, it's not possible to grow them outdoors in Illinois. We are in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5b/6a, so make sure whatever fruits you choose can grow here.
Fruits grow on trees, bushes, vines, brambles and as small plants. After you choose your favorites, locate a sunny spot in your yard that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight daily. Typically, the more sun, the sweeter the fruit.
Many backyard growers prefer dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. The advantages of using smaller trees are that they tend to produce fruits sooner than standard-size trees, and they stay smaller so picking is easier. However, these smaller trees may need to be staked or supported and have a much shorter life span than standard trees, usually 10-15 years. If you have the space, a good compromise can be to plant dwarf trees for your children and standard trees for your grandchildren.
For those with very limited space, fruit trees can be espaliered, which is a pruning style that approximates a 2-D or "flat" tree. These are usually grown against a wall or fencing. Most fruit trees, vines and brambles benefit from a yearly pruning.
Fruit trees that grow well in Illinois include pear, apple, persimmon, serviceberry (Juneberry), plum, mulberry, apricot, cherry, peach, paw paw and nectarine.
Blueberries grow in acidic soil not found in Illinois, so amending the soil with something like pine needle mulch is necessary. Currants and gooseberries are not commonly eaten anymore, but grow well here. Goji berries may seem exotic, but grow well in our zone, as do honeyberries.
Fruit vines typically need to be supported with trellising. A trellis can be easily constructed using T-posts and heavy-gauge wire, but can be as elaborate and beautiful as desired. Grapes are the most common fruit vines, but hardy kiwi and passion fruits also grow here.
Brambles, or cane fruits, can be trellised for easy maintenance and picking, or be allowed to grow wild in a patch. Brambles multiply easily, some putting down roots from any contact with the soil, typically from the tips. Raspberries, black raspberries and blackberries are the most common brambles, though thornless cultivars are available.
Small plants like strawberries are one of the most delicious and easy fruits to grow. Ground cherries are not perennials, but tend to self-seed.
Any of these backyard fruits can enrich your life not only through the taste explosion, but also the health benefits. Americans on the whole do not eat enough fruit, and being able to snack while in the backyard supports our health.
The nice thing about perennial fruits is that they are planted once, given minimal yearly maintenance and produce fruits for years. The biggest commitment is financial. Fruit trees and plants can be sourced through local or online nurseries or big box stores. Plus, fruit trees and plants can be purchased using EBT funds, commonly known as food stamps, wherever EBT is accepted.
Backyard gardens aren't the only places fruits are being planted in Springfield. Michael Clark, founder of the nonprofit Ecofluent, is working hard to "help the community by providing sustainable food for easy access for anyone looking for a bite to eat."
Funds received from the Springfield Jaycees, Springfield Park District and more have enabled Clark to install trees at a variety of community gardens, including the Washington Middle School Community Garden, Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens and Motherland Community Garden Project, as well as schools such as Feitshans Elementary School and a number of local parks, including Jefferson, Comer Cox, Jaycees and more.
Clark encourages anyone interested in assisting Ecofluent in their mission to get in touch through Facebook as both volunteers and monetary donations are appreciated.
Neighborhoods are also getting in on the action. The Enos Park neighborhood has a community orchard that includes apples, pears, plums and mulberries. The Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens has established a free U-pick strawberry patch, as well as a plethora of other fruits. Both are free and open to the public in season.
For Clark, fruit trees are a part of the solution to food insecurity. "Sustainable agriculture is the main thing. We're trying to bring awareness to how many options there are for solutions to problems that burden us regularly in society."
Carey Smith grows apples, serviceberries and strawberries in her back yard and tends many more fruits at the Enos Park Neighborhood Garden.