Given that we need shelter, why own the land around the home? For privacy, separation from strangers, security? As an investment, perhaps. Or because that's what people do?
I wonder sometimes why so many are content to have a few gumdrop-cut bushes and grass, without change, year after year, and spend nearly no time outdoors on their property. The idea of owning something just to own it, not to interact with it, just to have it there and see it occasionally, makes more sense for a painting or heirloom than for a plot of land.
Not everyone has a green thumb. Some, like one of my kids, have a strong aversion to anything with too many legs, too few legs or slime. However, everyone eats, and we live in a prime agricultural area. Perhaps the easiest thing a nongardener can do to improve their relationship with their land is to plant a small and hardy fruit tree, or fruiting shrub. All this requires is a sunny spot with irrigation, and a few hours to select and buy a plant, prep the site and plant it.
Genetic dwarf peach, nectarine
Suppose someone had only ever seen large dogs like mastiffs and Saint Bernards, and then met a Chihuahua. They might wonder what had happened to the poor thing, and would be surprised to learn "that's just how they grow."
Well, some fruit trees, specific cultivars of peach and nectarine, grow as floppy-foliaged shrubs. The leaves clump together in mop-like fashion on short branches, and the mature size of the tree would barely reach the eaves after decades of growth. The fruit tend to be on the small side, yet have good scent and sweetness. They are charming plants, more than adequately productive at harvest time, and easy to fit into residential-scale designs. They lose their leaves in winter, and like all stone fruit trees have lovely flowers from the bare branches in springtime.
I'm particularly fond of the peach cultivar Summer Sweet, which in my garden bears fruit in early summer. It started as a bare-root purchase, the roots and branches totaling perhaps two feet in length. Fourteen years later, it's 5 feet tall, yet every year it yields a shopping-bag load of nice fruit, so I make cobbler and either chutney or jam. Different nurseries carry a variety of genetic dwarf stone fruit trees bare-root in winter. Adding a fruit tree of this sort isn't a major project, yet can make a big difference in one's garden over the years.
Feijoa or pineapple guava
Native to South American mountain slopes, in the region where southern Brazil meets northern Argentina, this gray-leaved shrub is surprisingly hardy, thriving in the Bakersfield climate. The coloring is similar to an olive tree, except that the bark is reddish, and can be quite ornamental on older specimens.
The fruit is grown commercially in Australia and New Zealand, where it is as familiar as plums or apples. There are some excellent feijoa recipes online at Aussie sites. Locally I've seen them at a farmers market. They are the size of kiwi fruit, egg-shaped, with a bluish-green color that tends to camouflage the fruit among the foliage. The flesh is pale yellow and firm, with a tropical fragrance sometimes compared to pineapple and banana. When ripe, they fall from the branches, typically in October or early November. Fortunately they don't bruise easily, and keep quite well. I mulch underneath my feijoa bush with grass clippings so the fruit land on something soft.
Perhaps the most endearing trait of the feijoa is its edible flower petals, which are red above and white on their undersides, appearing late in spring. They are naturally sweet, and make a surprising addition to a salad. In past years my kids introduced their friends to these, and I was quite charmed to see children foraging on flower petals in the backyard.
Feijoa is evergreen, not losing its leaves, so it is sold as container stock, and can be found in 5-gallon size at nurseries. With age it can reach 15 feet tall, but most I've seen around town are more modestly proportioned.
Most citrus trees grow large or downright enormous. Fortunately there are alternatives, including those grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks, and naturally smaller ones such as kumquat. Perhaps the best choices for residential fruit trees are the mandarins, or seedless tangerines. The various Satsuma cultivars, with bumpy easily peeled skin, are favorites of many. Local nurseries carry a wide variety of citrus of varying sizes.
Another I'd recommend, which may need to be special-ordered, is the fukushu kumquat, which is larger and sweeter than the better-known nagami cultivar (the kumquat typically found in supermarkets). These are naturally compact and thorn-less. Among the sour citrus, an excellent choice is a lime tree, as they hold their fruit for months, even longer than most other citrus.
Dig a big bowl
Since a lot of plants come in cylindrical pots, there's a temptation to dig a hole to fit the roots, rather like a round hole for a round peg. In fact, I've seen exactly this done by employees of a landscape company, and was frankly horrified. They arrived at a house with a jack-hammer fitted with a shovel tip, rapidly excavated holes in the solid clay, and fitted the rootballs snugly into those "sockets" in the dirt. No effort was made at amending the soil. Years later those bushes are about the same size they were originally, rather yellowish, with some dead twigs inside, sheared into nondescript rounded blobs.
Let's assume we want our plants to grow and be healthy. This requires healthy roots, which depend on soil conditions. Ideally the soil should be amended throughout the beds before the garden is planted. Alternatively, amending generously for larger plants like trees and shrubs is effective in helping them thrive.
There is no need to make the hole much deeper than the rootball, unless drainage is an issue. To plant a 5-gallon shrub I've been known to dig the hole a foot and a half deep, sloping upward at the sides to an outside diameter of 4 feet, and then bore a hole down the center with a post-hole digger, going down another 2 feet, to assure drainage in heavy clay. A cubic-foot bag of compost is worked into the backfill mix, and the excess site soil is scattered around the garden. No fertilizer or chemical amendments are added initially: They can come later when new roots are established in the backfill.