Choosing the right tree for my daydream...
August 2, 2012 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I want to plant a row of (ideally flowering fruit) trees in my sunny yard to create a romantic arbor under which to throw glorious dinner parties for my friends. Any suggestions for which trees to plant?

The image I have is of a dozen people sitting on mismatched wooden chairs, along a long table, made of doors resting on pedestals, mason jars of wild flowers, big bowls of salads, jugs of wine ... a Provence in the Summer scene. The whole party is under the dappled sunlight from a row of trees that spread out widely, creating a lovely arbor (but without an actual constructed arbor) so the sunlight filters through and the occasional flower petal drifts lazily down.

The trees would need to be the kind that, when appropriately trimmed, would have a trunk up to about 7 or 8 feet, and then spreading branches heading out probably 4-8 feet from each side of the trunk. These are the most important characteristics, as I've got largely ideal growing conditions otherwise.

I live in USDA zone 7, Sunset zone 4. The spot in the yard is south facing and unobstructed. The soil is healthy, loamy, well drained. There is plenty of water all year round, but it's quite sunny all summer. No deer, few pests, lots of birds, butterflies, and bats. The piece of land is lakeshore, so the air is always somewhat humid, and I can water the trees without significant environmental cost.

I'd love flowering or fruiting trees -- maybe cherry or apple, or something else. But I can't find much information about the actual shape of the tree that's possible with pruning. The shape has to be just right, so that my tall husband doesn't lose an eye each time he comes to the table. That really puts a damper on the romance of the scene, I think.
posted by Capri to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The problem with flowering fruit trees is that they generally flower in the spring, which leaves out blossoms floating down romantically during summer garden parties. They'd look really pretty in the spring, though, especially weeping cherries.

You might consider planting Wisterias, with or without an arbor. They bloom later and drape very romantically, and they grow here in zone 7. There are crepe myrtles too, of course, but I don't know that you can get the shape you're after with them.

We had grapes growing on an arbor when I was a kid and it was pretty much the scene you describe, minus the flower blossoms, so I have a certain fondness for them.
posted by carolinecrane at 8:58 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It'd take a few years, but wisteria can be trained into a tree and it'd have a bonus of not dropping fruit everywhere, which can attract yellowjackets and vermin. Not sure it'd get the height you're after, so you'd want some support for it. Another possible challenge in fruit trees will be harvesting the stuff - if you're limbing up to 7-8 feet, the fruit's going to be a little tough to get. There are also particular strategies for pruning.

Other good flowering trees: vitex and sourwood. Both also happen to be highly attractive to honeybees, so you'd want to consider that as well. Consider also flowering cherries(kwanzan or yoshino), but they're at their nicest during the Spring and fairly run-of-the-mill the rest of the time.

On preview - seconding crape myrtles as well. they can grow quite large and look best (IMHO) when left to grow more like trees and less like stunted driftwood in the winter, an offense I've seen referred to as 'crape murder'. Ours bloom all summer and create a great amount of shade, though they're completely bare in winter. They do tend to drop prodigious amounts of flower petals everywhere.

One tree I will warn you against is the Bradford Flowering Pear. They grow quick and look nice from a distance, but they smell terrible, drop crap all of the time, split in the slightest wind and are impossible to eradicate short of nuclear fission.
posted by jquinby at 9:03 AM on August 2, 2012

How much money do you have? Trees take a LONG time to get to the point that you're talking about and if you want that look instantly it will be spendy.

One thought is a grape arbor. They don't flower, but they do grow attractively over a trellis. Wisterias are also nice.

I have crepe myrtles, and they're pretty in the landscape, but I don't think I'd like those petals in my soup.

Another thought is the dreaded Bradford Pear tree. It's gorgeous in the spring with it's pretty flowers, and it leafs dense and verdant in the summer. It's a wonderful shade tree. It is a real pest though. The trunks entangle and are very weak, they are easily destroyed in strong rains and winds. I have three of them shading my driveway and I worry about them crashing into the garage. They are attractive though.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:04 AM on August 2, 2012

You're probably going to have to wait at least 10 years for your fruit trees to mature to the kind of size you're talking about. I bought a cherry tree a couple of years ago. It's less than 5 feet high, and the spread of the branches is about 2 feet from the trunk around the sides. I wouldn't expect the tree to have branches 8 feet from the trunk until it's maybe 20 feet high, and I don't expect that to happen in the next decade.

As carolinecrane says, blossom is a spring thing, and it's quite short-lived too.

I'd personally put some kind of wooden structure in place and then grow roses, clematis, or wisteria to cover it. You'll see fairly good results in just a couple of years, and a well-chosen mix of climbers will give you flowers from spring right through to late summer.
posted by pipeski at 9:04 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hm. There are ornamental apples which don't produce fruit stay rather small. We have a "spring snow" ornamental crab apple which (at least for us) has produced no fruit. The problem with a fruiting tree is it drops rotten fruit all over and creates a big mess and attracts bees and hornets to their rotting carcasses. So, I don't think you want a beautiful table and chairs and dining environment under those. Maybe put a fruiter at one end of this setting as something to look at? I think I'd choose a green plum tree (stays fairly small and green plums are amazingly delicious) or an asian pear. For a shade tree on the other end (wherever that may be -- probably on the Western end) I'd go with a fig -- big, beautiful leaves, yummy fruit. And in between, I might consider bamboo* or elms for the dappled shade and beautiful sound they make.

You could also build an arbor and run hops! Hops climb quick once the hot weather hits, create beautiful shade and you can make beer at the end -- a fantastic dinner party could be built around a hops harvest theme! When the heat of summer is over, cut them back to the ground.

*You can look in my question history for how people feel about bamboo. I'm scared to post back in that thread that we went ahead and planted it anyway. Professional installation from a professional bamboo nursery. It does require upkeep that you may not want. Though a few considered clumpers might be nice.
posted by amanda at 9:08 AM on August 2, 2012

Another possibility is Flowering Plums. We've got some here, and they're really gorgeous for about two weeks in the spring when they're in bloom.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:09 AM on August 2, 2012

Fruit trees can be high-maintenance during their fruiting season - you'll have clear up the ones that fall daily if you want to use the space underneath them for entertaining. And especially if you are planning to have multiple edible-fruit trees, you should recruit all your local friends/co-workers/pie lovers/canning enthusiasts in advance to take some of the bounty off your hands.
posted by expialidocious at 9:10 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Florida, fruit trees attract rodents. Something to know.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:14 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh. Sorry. You said "no arbor" but then I got all excited about hops!

As an architect type person, plot it out like a space. Draw up a plan and get your sun patterns on there and find your most important point (shade) and pick a plant there that you will buy as large as you can get. Then build off of there. I, personally, think you need a line of trees to define your entertaining space and they should not be low fruit trees. And when I wrote elm above, I meant Birch. And then pick a focal point tree -- something that flowers in the spring and has beautiful leaves in the fall.

Maybe your orchard or grapes arbor or semi-circle of fruit trees goes alongside your entertainment area?
posted by amanda at 9:23 AM on August 2, 2012

If you do plant fruit trees, a non-dwarf variety will definitely be the way to go. You could plant different varieties, so you have a staggered flowering season. A lot of nut trees are similar to what you are describing.

This is not what you are describing, but you could make an awesome romantic space. My little geeky gardening heart can't wait to get a bigger yard just to play with the idea! Anyway, you might get some idea of what is possible with manipulation.

If there is a halfway decent botanic garden somewhat close to you, they might be able to direct you to more avenues of information. A master gardener might be able to help, too.
posted by annsunny at 9:41 AM on August 2, 2012

We had grapes growing on an arbor when I was a kid and it was pretty much the scene you describe,

Our grape arbor ended up drawing crazy numbers of sweet-seeking wasps.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:05 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you have dogs or not, but if so be careful about pear and apple trees. The seeds contain a form of cyanide, and can be dangerous if your pet get a hold of them and decides to eat the entire fruit (which mine are prone to do if they find a pear from our neighbors tree, so I have to be constantly vigilant for fallen fruits)
posted by Quincy at 10:36 AM on August 2, 2012

Most fruiting trees are not going to be branching below 7 feet, because people like to be able to pick the fruit. If you are an experienced fruit tree pruner you could probably make this work on non-dwarfing rootstock, but as pipeski says, it's going to be many years before your vision happens. Fruit trees attract pests like squirrels and birds who will show up out of nowhere and eat all your fruit before it's ripe unless it is netted. Fruit trees also require regular spraying several times throughout the year (organic or otherwise), and this is difficult with tall trees. I would suggest fruiting or flowering vines, such as grapes, kiwis, or Akebia quinata on an arbor. You could also espalier fruit trees around the sides of your space, and grow flowering trees above. Espaliered trees are smaller and easier to care for, there is less fruit to pick/clean up, and they can be bought (where I live) at fruiting or near fruiting size.

Fruit trees are pretty much the highest maintenance plant you can put in your garden, so whatever you do, make it easy on yourself if you are taking care of them, ie plan for small and modest numbers. Grapes are beautiful on an arbor, and have a gorgeous Mediterranean aesthetic, plus fall color. I don't find them anywhere near as needy as fruit trees. If you prune your arbor grapes all wrong one year, you just don't get grapes for a season. If you prune fruit trees wrong you compromise their structure and set them up to lose branches or be more prone to disease. I cared for a garden with a grape arbor (2 varieties, a Thompson seedless and a Red), and 8 mature fruit trees, including a multi-fruit apple with a 25 foot spread. All we did for the grapes were the annual copper sprays, irrigated, pruned when they got unruly, and left them alone. There were lots of grapes every year and we ate lunch under the arbor.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:06 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I meant to put in that the whole point of an arbor is that height of plants is easily managed. However, with trees you would not plant them so close together that they would be over your table when they are young anyway. they will need full sun to flower or fruit and good circulation to avoid disease. expect to space the average dwarf flowering tree a minimum of 10 feet apart, and larger trees 20-30 feet. Personally, I would plant a small allee (a modern version) of trees if you don't want an arbor. This gives tall people a space to walk down, good exposure for trees, space for ladder-oriented maintenance, and will still have a sense of enclosure, especially if you arrange some pots of big rosemary and lavender around the "room".

There are lots of lovely flowering trees which you may be able to find high-headed at your local nursery. Many plums and pears (flowering and fruiting) have more of a vase-like structure rather than horizontal, but that form also means they have weak connections to the trunk and may need some expert pruning attention annually. Flowering crabapples come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:26 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

No one has brought up wasps, bees, flies, and rodents, so I will. My parents had one pear tree over the patio, and for most of July and August we had to make mad dashes outside to keep from being chased (they feed on fruit still attached to the tree, so even when we kept the patio cleaned of rotting fruit, we had to watch out). How about trumpet vine?
posted by katyh at 9:15 PM on August 2, 2012

One bad thing about crepe myrtle is that they tend to get aphids which equals sticky ground, definitely not something you would want to sit under.

When I was a kid, we had a large spreading mimosa tree that bloomed in summer and we had a table under it at which we often ate. The flowers did attract bees but the flowers were all on the top of the tree so the bees weren't near us. In fact, I have happy memories of listening to the bees buzzing overhead. Have you considered a single large tree with spreading branches?
posted by eleslie at 9:56 PM on August 2, 2012

Some observations from the field:
- Fruit bearing plants in general proximity to elegant garden parties is a risky mix. You'll need to consider the less-than-elegant bird shit beneath or near the trees when somethings in season and avoid parties at those times
- mentioned by oneirodynia, above, fruit bearing plants are small in stature and have been bred that way to make harvesting easier. They rarely make it to the age of majestic shade tree before biotic, or abiotic, problem takes them out. Not great trees for partying under in general.
- beware of placing the same types of plants in a row. It can be breathtaking in effect , but heartbreaking when you lose one as we tend to see a row of anything as a single plant. Losing one bush in a hedgerow kind of ruins the effect of the hedgerow.
- advice from my local cooperative extension agent when looking at reforesting a part of the property I maintain (golf course), was to look at adjacent wood lots to see what was doing well. Make a list of 5 or so that you like the look of (size, habit, etc) and plant those. They're likely native to your soil and climate. They'll have grown alongside the local insect and fungal community and can either weather the abuse or will have developed a resistance to it.
I think whatever you do decide on will look beautiful given enough time and care.
posted by greenskpr at 6:29 PM on August 7, 2012

Update: I planted three Mt. Fuji cherry trees. They're each 15-feet tall and although they haven't taken the umbrella shape I'm looking for, I am told that they will as they mature. They're already casting a lovely shadow over the area where the tables go. They make tiny little cherries, non-edible to humans, but the birds seem to like them. We haven't gotten any wasps or bees, and we generally don't get many bugs of any kind here in the PNW. They look beautiful even now that they've stopped flowering, and I'm quite pleased with the effect so far.

Thanks to all for the advice. It was very helpful.
posted by Capri at 2:56 PM on June 5, 2013

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