Your first taste of a ripe pawpaw or persimmon can leave you hungry for more. That’s why Michael Judd is confident that he can persuade you to make room for several of these trees in your front yard — or even to surrender your lawn altogether.
Turning your yard into a meadow or blanketing it in an expanse of alternative ground covers aren’t the only ecologically viable options for replacing conventional grass.
Mr. Judd, an edible landscape designer and permaculturist, suggests you consider starting a homegrown food forest instead — perhaps a mix of easy-care, mostly native fruiting trees or shrubs and pollinator-attracting plant companions.
But if you’re not ready to go that far, he’s flexible: A narrow strip along the fence line will do. Or a sunny spot with enough room for two pawpaw trees (to insure cross-pollination) or a self-fruitful American persimmon, possible centerpieces of what permaculturists call a “guild,” joined by carefully chosen plants beneath.
“It’s the idea that you’re not leaving your poor little fruit tree in a sea of grass, with marauding weed-whackers and lawn mowers and a dinky little mulch ring,” he said. “You’re setting the stage for it to be sustainable.”
Such a planting — whether you’re starting a food forest or content with just one underplanted tree — is inspired by the vegetation layers of the forest ecosystem, Mr. Judd said. The tree canopy, middle layer of shrubs and vines, and the herbaceous one covering the ground all live, and work, together.
Some companion plants may be selected for their appeal to pollinating insects, like scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Legume family members like Baptisia australis may be chosen because they fix nitrogen in the soil. Or maybe the guild will have culinary herbs, for the gardener’s own pleasure.
“I encourage people to include the plants that would be most useful to them,” Mr. Judd said. “What will you go out and actually harvest and use?”
Whatever you grow in your beginning fruit patch, be advised: It may only whet your appetite.
Inspiration in a Changing Climate
At Long Creek, the 25-acre homestead in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Frederick, Md., that Mr. Judd shares with his wife and two young children, he is growing more than 30 pawpaw cultivars, for a total of about 100 trees.
In 2019, he wrote a book about them, “For the Love of Pawpaws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Pawpaws — from Seed to Table.” He has packaged a whole online course about them. And every September, he and his wife, Ashley, hold a pawpaw festival at their home. The seventh, held last year, attracted a capacity crowd of about 600.
There’s a lot to love about the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), whose native range includes parts of southern Ontario and the eastern United States, extending down into Florida and reaching as far west as southeastern Nebraska and eastern Texas. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 9.
The crazy, purple-red flowers are like “little dangling sort of Gothic roses,” Mr. Judd said. They appear along bare branches, before the leaves unfurl, and are pollinated by beetles and flies rather than bees.
Generous, tropical-looking foliage with potential yellow fall color is another attraction of this tree, which can grow to about 20 feet, although Mr. Judd prunes his to around eight, for ease of care and harvest.
Another plus: Through most of the tree’s native range, its leaves are the only host for the zebra swallowtail butterfly in its larval stage.
The fruit is the main story, of course, with “flavor profiles that can be described as vanilla, caramel, cotton candy, marshmallow, mango,” he said, touting its status as “the largest indigenous edible fruit in North America.” Although one piece of fruit can weigh up to two pounds, the average for cultivated varieties is around half a pound.
But what impresses Mr. Judd perhaps most of all is the tree’s ease of care and its adaptability over the long haul — the kind of performance that makes it a good bet, he thinks, in a changing climate.
“Its willingness to explore new grounds is an inspiration for our times,” he said.
Asimina is notably the single temperate genus of the large custard apple family (Annonaceae). The rest, which include the cherimoya and soursop, are tropical or subtropical.
“It has been around for at least 56 million years, has weathered multiple ice ages and is the only member of its tropical family that hitchhiked north,” he said. “It’s almost like the prodigal son that has come all the way up here and just keeps adapting.”
In the wild, the pawpaw is a suckering understory plant along woodland edges and stream banks, making it adaptable to part shade, but Mr. Judd encourages gardeners to give it full sun to maximize yield. One requirement: a second tree within 20 feet, for cross-pollination. Typical placement is 12 to 20 feet apart, but if space is tight, the two can be as close as 18 inches.
Homegrown success begins with choosing the right cultivar, and the release of Mr. Judd’s new Fruit Patch App helps users do that, and find other guild components, as well.
Select pawpaws have a better seed-to-flesh ratio than wild types, and the app features stars like mild-flavored Shenandoah and Mango; full-flavored Susquehanna and KSU Chappell; and Potomac and Lehman’s Delight, which bear extra-large fruit.
You could also choose a pawpaw for its good looks as a landscape specimen (like Davis or Susquehanna), or its adaptability to Northern zones (Summer Delight or Ford Amend).
More Centerpiece Possibilities
A food forest: It’s a home orchard, but not a conventional one.
For now, maybe hold off on planting the apple trees, the peaches and the pears — fussier nonnatives — in favor of easier-to-grow, pest-resistant choices that produce fruit not sold at the supermarket. (Starter plants may not be sold at local nurseries, either; recommended mail-order sources include Edible Landscaping, Raintree Nursery and Burnt Ridge Nursery & Orchards.)
The geographic range of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) roughly overlaps that of the pawpaw. Mr. Judd grows more than 30 grafted cultivars, which reach about 20 to 25 feet tall (compared with 40 feet or taller for a wild tree on its own roots).
You don’t need a lot of persimmon trees (or even two) for a harvest: Many named varieties are self-fruitful, and Prok, Meader and Yates are good choices.
The persimmon — which grows from Zones 4 or 5 to 8 or 9, depending on the variety — is tough and adaptable to a range of moisture, “including surprisingly wet” soil, Mr. Judd said.
His key tip for getting persimmons and pawpaws off to a strong start: Begin with young trees.
Native elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, Zone 3 to 9) is also among Mr. Judd’s “edible landscape all-stars,” and its prolific small fruits can be used in jams, sauces and syrups. Not surprisingly, they’re a bird favorite, too. The multi-stemmed plant, which grows to maybe 12 feet tall, can also form a hedge. Keep it in bounds by taking a shovel to any suckers that stray from the desired footprint.
Planting two cultivars ensures the best fruit production. Mr. Judd especially likes York, Nova, Bob Gordon, Adams, Wyldewood and Johns.
A mulberry is another centerpiece possibility — not a wild, bird-sown volunteer, he said, but a named variety. These are often hybrids of Chinese and American species (Morus alba and M. rubra), including selections like Kokuso, Illinois Everbearing and Wellington. Or try the M. alba selection Sweet Lavender, which has the bonus of no juice stains.
Consider serviceberries or juneberries (Amelanchier canadensis), too. Most of us have never tasted the small fruits, but that may be because they don’t reach peak ripeness — a dark, purple-blue color — until well after a flock of cedar waxwings has swept in and devoured them.
A Patch Becomes a Forest
Mr. Judd recommends a “one-patch-at-a-time” approach to food foresting, keeping each guild well mulched to support the soil. He hopes, of course, that as the plants grow, you’ll be tempted to connect the dots (or guilds).
In some patches, he incorporates the native black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), especially the cultivar Viking, which may be better known to gardeners as an ornamental because of its small, white flowers, extra-large blue-black fruit and red fall foliage.
Its berries go in his “food-forest jam,” and in a juice to make Popsicles. Both recipes involve mixing elderberry and chokeberry with nonnative goumi berries (Elaeagnus multiflora) and black currants (Ribes nigrum). Cider-makers favor chokeberry, he noted, using it “to add a berry-forward flavor with a nice tannic finish.”
Remember his advice: Plant the plants you will use.
And maybe some that the deer won’t.
Trying to protect a tasty, young juneberry in the middle of a new patch, Mr. Judd got creative. He surrounded it with gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) — a well-defended plant with dense foliage and spiny twigs — adding aromatic, unpalatable sage and Egyptian walking onions.
“My deer-resistant guild,” he called it, delighted at the success of another experiment in food-forest making.
Ready to let all that sun shining on the front lawn ripen fruit instead? Surely it’s better than growing a harvest in need of endless mowing.
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Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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