Over the last 12 years I have been on a journey into the plant world that has changed my life. Through my work as an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum I have been involved in a project called the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project. The goal of this project is to locate, propagate, and replant historically and horticulturally appropriate varieties of fruit trees brought to the Pimeria Alta region (southern Arizona and northern Sonora) by the first missionaries in the late 1600s. From Hopi country in northern Arizona to the tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico, the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project has become a vehicle to revive traditional agricultural knowledge of the region.
Growing up in a rural community near Magdalena, Sonora, I was in the mecca of traditional colonial agriculture in northern Mexico—I just didn’t know it. It turns out that my community and my parents not only held knowledge about the Mediterranean crops that arrived with the missionaries in the late 1600s but also had a tremendous wealth of traditional knowledge of the native flora. They were literally putting together the best of both worlds where humans have selected, managed, and harvested the fruits of their environment.
Let’s start with the well-known Chinese proverb: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.
So, let’s plant an edible tree garden today. At first, the concept of planting, caring for, and managing a backyard orchard can seem overwhelming. For me, that complexity of variables and infinite options are the reason I like to garden. Edible fruit tree knowledge is cumulative. First and foremost, start with what you like and what you want.
An important first step is getting to know your microclimate. Look around and see what fruit trees are growing in the neighborhood: what is thriving and what is not. Meet and talk to neighbors who seem to like gardening and get to know what they are doing. Get to know your piece of property. Identify what areas of your house are the hot spots, the cold spots, the windy spots, where the soil is drier or wetter, and where you can channel rainwater.
You want to choose a variety of edible fruit tree that makes sense to you and suits your needs. There are many reasons to like a tree. It could be for its shade, the flavor of its fruits, the fact that it’s a good barrier between you and your neighbors, or that it provides habitat for pollinators and birds, or because it’s an heirloom tree that has been in the family for a long time, or simply for its aesthetics.
Growing trees in your backyard is different from growing trees in a commercial orchard. You can make your own rules because it is your space and your trees. The main reason you see lots of space in commercial orchards is because they are designed for heavy equipment to drive through and harvest the crops as fast as possible to meet market demands. Basically, they are designed to produce as much quantity as possible of a single crop.
At home, however, you want to do exactly the opposite. Plant the trees as close together as you can. You only need enough space to walk by, and you can maximize the space and diversity of fruit trees instead of growing just one kind. If you have multiple trees, you can plant different varieties with different ripening seasons so you will have fruit at different times of the year and in quantities appropriate for you and your family, neighbors, and friends.
Another important aspect is the size of the trees. Shape them to a size that is convenient for you through pruning. Nurseries often sell dwarf or semidwarf trees, which is another way to control their height. One reason to minimize the height is to avoid the need to use a ladder when harvesting. However, here in Tucson, a tall shade tree can make the ladder worth it! If so, choose a standard size tree and prune to encourage upward growth.
Drip irrigation is highly recommended and mulching is a must. Mulch will reduce the ground temperature, optimize irrigation by decreasing evaporation, increase bioactivity in the soil, and lessen your need for commercial fertilizer. Mulch will also reduce weed activity in your garden. Fruit trees are a long-term commitment. As you increase your knowledge from year to year, your trees and garden will show the difference.
If irrigation is not your thing—most nonnative trees require a lot of water in Baja Arizona—then turn your attention to the native edible trees. Acquire a taste for their fruits, flowers, and pods by sampling from existing native edible trees. You’ll not only be gaining nourishment, you’ll also gain a taste of place. Start with prickly pear or cholla cactus, and expand into the numerous legumes with edible pods and flowers, such as mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood.
There is a great source of traditional knowledge for caring for our colonial heritage trees. There are many people in our region who are still keepers of these traditions and horticultural techniques. Most of them don’t have university degrees; they don’t use sophisticated equipment and state-of-the-art green houses to grow their trees. They rely on the skills their ancestors passed on to them, and their own experimentation. In many cases this process involves failure. Failure is a great way to learn.
A tree is a living organism, and taking care of a tree is like taking care of a pet. A green thumb is not about having a natural talent; it’s about having interest and paying attention on a continual basis, from planting to harvesting. And don’t forget to harvest! That’s what it’s all about. ✜
Jesús García is an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He teaches natural history and cultural programs throughout Baja Arizona. He has been director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project for more than 10 years and is a board member with the Friends of Tucson Birthplace at Mission Garden.