Italian gardens are generally characterised by elegant formal lines and strong structure, however, the use of fruit trees in Italian gardens cannot be overlooked. Since the early Arabic influence fruit trees have featured strongly in Italian gardens and later. Then, with the onset of the Roman Empire, new varieties of fruit trees came flooding into Italy from all over the world. These included many of the citrus fruits including lemons.
Lemons in Italian gardens
Lemons have always appeared in Italian gardens, either for culinary use, medicine or just for decoration. They require a sunny position, preferably with a wall or rock face behind them to retain even more heat. Given the correct dosage of heat from the sun they are relatively easy to maintain, the only snag being that they need to be housed during the winter if the garden is in an area affected by winter frosts.
The lemon is a plant that requires copious amounts of nitrogen for the thick green leaves and phosphorus for the fruit. This can be applied in the form of a granular NPK fertiliser or by using modern, specific liquid lemon fertilisers. In the organic Italian garden try using chicken manure that has been soaked for 10 days in a dustbin full of water. This makes a strong, effective and organic liquid fertiliser for lemon trees. Although this organic lemon feed is rather high in urea (a strong nitrate) it does possess some good phosphates and will aid fruiting.
Lemon trees require some light pruning of the older stems in the spring but be careful to not remove too many of the fruiting stems as they will need at least a year to re-grow and produce fruit again. Orange trees should be treated in a similar fashion in the Italian garden.
Later, after the discovery of the New World in the 15th Century many interesting new fruits appeared in Italy from the Americas. But some of these fruits, like avocados, can only survive in the very warmest parts of Italy such as Sicily.
The Quince (Cydonia oblonga)
The Quince (melocotogno in Italian) a cousin of the apple and pear tree, are easy to grow in Italian gardens and produce large, edible fruit. The Quince tree also provides a strong rootstock, on which many modern apple and pear varieties are now grafted.
Although the quince does have a rather straggly growth habit it is a somewhat symbolic Mediterranean fruit tree, as its historical links with Greece and the Middle-east are strong. It is also a slow, docile tree that will never cause you any major problems. Prune as you would an apple or pear, just lighter.
The Cherry tree (Prunus ssp.)
The cherry tree is a classic spring flowering tree of the Italian garden and its presence is always visually pleasing, not to mention the wonderful fruits that arrive in early summer. There are many types of both edible and ornamental cherry trees available for the Italian garden, however, by far the best is the Morello variety. A large Italian garden wouldn’t really be complete without one, however the cherry is a very problematic and slightly difficult tree to please in the Italian garden, surprisingly. The cherry is prone to fungus attack, which enters through pruning wounds or wind-damaged branches- making pruning the cherry tree a slightly complicated affair.
Pruning the cherry tree
The correct time to prune the Cherry tree is either in spring (too thin for fruiting) or, alternatively June, immediately after fruiting, this ensures that the fungus spores do not enter, as they are not in the air in this period. The cherry should NEVER be pruned during the winter because this is the period when the fungal spores are in the air. All of the members of the cherry (Prunus) family should be cared for in the same way; this includes peaches, apricots, almonds and any other fruit tree that carries the name Prunus. The Morello variety can also be trained as a fan against a sunny or even against a cold, north facing wall.
In the organic, ecological Italian garden some consideration should be given to garden birds and the wild, or ‘bird cherry’ (Prunus avium) will provide both flowers and great food for Italian garden birds.
The Fig tree is by far the easiest fruit tree to grow in the Italian garden and suits the ecological Italian garden perfectly, providing an abundance of food for both birds and humans. In the wild they prefer rocky hillsides in full sun but they will grow almost anywhere in full sun. They require no particular pruning or spraying but thinning the canopy will benefit the fruit and stop fungal attack. Branches should be removed back to the trunk or main stem in the winter to avoid sap loss. Try the black variety ‘Brown turkey’.
Most fruit trees will benefit from a spray of paraffin oil (olio bianco in Italian) in early spring in order to kill the eggs of parasites. Spraying your fruit trees every two weeks or so with a copper solution (rame in Italian) will help prevent fungal attack and is suitable for the organic Italian garden.
By Jonathan Radoford