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The edible backyard

By MAUREEN GILMER
DIY NetworkDo you shudder when your kids crave fast food over fruits and vegetables? Has Gameboy become preferable to active outdoor play? Maybe you fear that a virtual computer reality will separate your kids from an emotional connection to the earth. Problem is, between hours spent at the office and doing chores at home, you don’t have much time to emphasize the fundamentals of a healthy organic lifestyle.
If you’re lucky enough to have a home with a back yard, even a very small one, there’s a simple solution at hand. Nothing drives home this earth-to-lifestyle connection better than sharing homegrown edibles with your kids. But don’t feel you have to put in a time-consuming vegetable garden to do it. All you need is to landscape using trees, shrubs and vines that bear fruit.
Instead of a flowering accent tree, choose a cherry tree that flowers just as well as an ornamental, but with a bonus of fruit. Rather than ordinary foundation shrubs around the house, put in blueberry bushes. Instead of a barrier hedge, try a row of raspberries to flower and fruit year after year. In lieu of a shade-giving wisteria on the patio cover, consider seedless grapes.
For busy parents who want their kids to enjoy a healthy, hands-on organic experience, the Raintree Nursery Catalog in print or online is a real wish book (www.raintreenursery.com; 360-496-6400). This may be the most diverse selection of fruiting plants available from a single source today. The range is broad, including dozens of different apples, pears, peaches and cherries. There are even old-fashioned favorites from elderberry bushes to rare tropical bananas. Many of these varieties are difficult to find anywhere else, which is why adults find these plants so appealing. Now is the time to begin turning your purely ornamental yard into a sustainable fruitful one.
It’s possible for just about every home gardener to grow blueberries. They make a beautiful flowering foundation plant or informal hedge that bears a crop of juicy berries rich in antioxidants. Fresh blueberries in the morning cereal is now a real option for your kids.
Be sure to read carefully to select the perfect variety for your climate. In the north try Patriot Blueberry, which is hardy to USDA Zone 3. In the warmer south, try evergreen varieties of the Southern Highbush cultivars, Sunshine Blue and Misty. If you check the handy chart in the Raintree catalog, you’ll know which varieties bloom early, midseason and late. Plant from all three categories to extend yields over the longest possible season. Blueberries do particularly well in regions with acidic soils.
When you shop for traditional fruit trees such as apples, consider the ultimate size of the tree. The Raintree catalog includes a guide to rootstocks, so you can choose your favorite variety grafted to mature at proportions perfect for the space you have available. True dwarf trees produce full-sized fruit, but fit into a fraction of the space. Semi-dwarf is better for suburban yards, allowing you to reach all the fruit and fit more varieties in a limited area.
Rather than grow ordinary fruit you can find at the grocery store, consider unusual gourmet varieties that offer new flavors and ideas for creative dishes. Asian pears are young producers with fruit that is as crisp as an apple and as sweet as a pear. Seckel pears, known as the sugar pear, is the chef’s favorite for rich fruity deserts. White flesh peaches lose their melt-in-your-mouth sweetness just an hour after picking. Few people have ever experienced the incredible flavor of ripe white peaches eaten right off the tree.
Organic, chemical-free fruit is one of the best ways to live greener and more sustainably. But even more important is that backyard fruit trees bring the link of earth from plant to palate in young impressionable minds. And when kids do the picking while Mom or Dad cooks, there is no better quality time.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.)

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