Sowing the Seeds

My grandparents’ spread in Northeast Texas wasn’t big: less than an  acre, I guess. But to a little kid, it was a self-contained world of adventure. It had a vegetable garden, grape vines and fruit trees—apricot, apple and, my favorite, a big Bartlett pear. That pear tree was more than a source of food—it was a fort, a jungle gym, a magnet for wildlife and a living connection to the fables and stories
of far-off kingdoms that I loved to read.

My grandfather’s orchard wouldn’t fare well in South Louisiana. But there are plenty of fruit trees that thrive here, and a well-placed citrus or banana tree can be an attractive element in a city garden or patio—or, like my pear tree or the Japanese plum that Marianne Mumford grew up with, a totem in a child’s imagination.

Also known as loquat, the Japanese plum tree “was messy, but so much fun for a kid,” recalls Mumford, a landscape architect and part owner of Landscape Images. “I still love Japanese plums from a design sense. They get to be big trees, they don’t have any problems, and you get so much color from every stage of the fruit.” Not to mention flavor. One healthy tree can produce enough fruit to feed a family for the season, and then some. “To share something out of your garden is such a joy,” Mumford says.

dig it
Fall is a good time to start planning the installation of a fruit tree, or to buy small potted trees for the patio. It’s not a casual decision—most fruit trees require a little more attention, and they tend to dominate their surroundings, not fade into the background. “The most important thing is to pick a plant that has the right size and scale for the garden,” Mumford says. The ever-popular Satsuma, for example, is too big for the average courtyard, where a smaller citrus like kumquat or Meyer lemon would be more appropriate.

Figs, another fruit tree that does well in South Louisiana yards, also need room to spread. Like Japanese plums, they’re messy, which leads to perhaps the second most important thing about fruit trees: don’t plant it if you aren’t going to eat it. “I tell people, ‘plant something you like,’” says arborist Adrian Juttner of Adrian’s Tree Service. For Juttner, it’s citrus, several varieties of which he grows on a tract of land in Algiers. “They ripen at different times, and you can hold things like grapefruit on the tree for months, then process and freeze it to have all the juice you want for months after that.”

Juttner has developed a fungal spray that he uses twice a year to prevent white flies, a chronic problem for citrus trees, without harming beneficial insects. In the winter, he recommends burying the trunk up to the graft in mulch to prevent damage. “That way, even if it dies back it will still regenerate,” he says.

Other fruit trees that can survive south of Lake Pontchartrain include persimmons, pomegranates and tropical plants such as bananas and papayas. The latter are vulnerable to freezes, but can be planted in protected areas: near a sheltering wall, for example, or close to a house, where radiating heat can create a microclimate a few crucial degrees warmer than the soil and air in the rest of the garden. “I’ve even seen a mango tree or two growing like that,” Juttner says.

Many people think of the bananas that grow here as little more than weeds. But they are in fact quite good for eating, he says, fried plantain-style and dusted with sugar. Juttner uses his lemons to make a concentrate of lemon juice and honey—add sparkling water and ice, he says, “and you have something that’s healthy, delicious and you never have to buy soda again.”

cold comfort
Even though horticulturalists are constantly trying to develop heat-resistant varieties, it’s best to steer clear of fruit trees that need cold weather to be productive: peaches, plums, apricots and apples, for example. “We’re way too far south for that,” Juttner says.

The rewards, both visual and gustatory, make fruit trees worth the extra effort for many. “If you don’t keep them happy, well watered and organically fertilized, they can develop all sorts of problems,” Mumford says. “But if you can keep them happy, no stress in their lives, fruit trees make a wonderful addition to the garden.”

fruitful in new orleans
A list of fruit trees that will grow in the city and the surrounding area.
Japanese plum
Meyer lemon

not so fruitful choices
These fruit trees do not do well in New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Categories: LL_Home, NOHL_For the Garden