Fruit Trees: Planting & Care
There’s something exciting about the rebirth of life every spring. The smell of newly turned soil, the squish of grass under bare feet, or the first new green shoots poking out of the ground makes us want to plant something new, and soon!
But what should we grow? Some have spent all winter mentally designing a new “room” in their yards, while others have been pouring through catalogs envisioning fresh and rare vegetables all summer. Just how industrious you become depends on your free time (we have a lot of that right now), your interest, your season-long commitment, and your growing “know how”.
For those considering the idea of growing their own fruit, there are lots of decisions to make. Big fruit, or small (blueberries, raspberries), dwarf trees or standards, how many to plant, where to buy them, where to place them, bare root or container, and then, what comes next? All great questions, but the most fundamental question is about commitment. A dedication to the care of fruit-bearing plants increases the likelihood that you’ll have something to show for it at season’s end. They, just like your family pets are going to be around for a long while, so proper care is necessary for good results. If “free fruit” is your only goal, I’d suggest you buy at the supermarket, it’s cheaper, and easier.
A full discussion around planting, growing and nurturing good fruit is more detailed than I can share today, and there are lots of great articles and university programs to address tree protection (plant health care) methods as well. For those who prefer an organic solution, the frequency of protective applications increases, but there are several great products, and some are available from Arborjet.
Small fruit, mostly bushes, or rhizomes, spreading into patches, tend to have the fewest pests, and are ideal for small properties, but the yields tend to be lower, with some having a single crop (blueberries) and others have a everbearing nature, like raspberries or blackberries. New thorn-less varieties offer a more pleasant harvesting experience. All fruit trees and fruiting-bushes do benefit from good soil amended with organic matter, and if possible, plenty of room for their roots. Check your pH too.
You must also consider the number of hours of light available, and your ability to keep plants watered during periods of drought. Fruit trees need full sun ( 6 hrs.) to set fruit, and once well established, most plants can withstand some drier periods, but a product such as Arborjet/Ecologel Hydretain, will keep moisture in the soil longer, permit water penetration into dry soils and reduce these stresses. I add our NutriRoot at planting, because it combines the moisture holding benefits of Hydretain, micro and macro fertility, increases root development, and feeds the soil biology, all in one. Remember that if you want fully developed and flavorful fruit, adequate water and good sun are necessities. Peach varieties have increased risk of bacterial diseases due to stress, if grown without regular and adequate water.
Before you dig your first hole or buy your first tree there are some questions to ask and get answered, and decisions you need to make. Are the fruit trees that I want capable of growing in my area? Be sure that your tree planting zone can successfully grow that species of fruit tree. https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/InteractiveMap.aspx
Apple trees need the chill period of winter, and don’t do well in the deep south except at elevation (mountains). Some fruit trees require more preventive care against of disease and insects, so they require more attention during the growing year.
Fruit tree species which have lower worry of pest outbreaks include bosc pears, Asian Pears, and Stanley Plums. Tree species which need greater care include apples, peaches, nectarines and sweet cherries. If you want the best results for your effort, reach out to your local extension agent and ask how difficult it is to grow what you want, in your area of the country. Also, there are newer more disease resistant varieties available. While heirloom plants are popular right now, they often lack disease resistance. I won’t comment on citrus trees as they’re a specialty reserved for the deep south, or you’ll have to grow them in big pots and bring them in and out. Here in New England, citrus’ peak bloom is in the weeks after we bring the pots in, when no bees can pollinate them, so yield is always lower.
Even if you wish to assure the best season-long control of pests, the typical chemical controls can be ended and followed up with organic solutions as you approach harvest time. This will help to control diseases of maturing and ripe fruit, a huge frustration! My greatest losses always occur in the weeks just before harvest, when chemical controls are not advised. This year, I’ll switch to organic fungicides, which are acceptable to reduce my losses at this critical time.
Some trees are self-fertile and will pollinate themselves, producing a large crop. While most fruit trees have both male and female parts, they’re frequently not self-fertile and need a similar-though separate-variety to deliver the best crops. If you’ve planted two of the same apple tree in close proximity, and they flower but they produce limited fruit; your answer is likely a need for a different apple variety. You want to choose a similar variety which blooms at the same time, but offers different genetic material. Fruit tree grower websites can assist in timing, and varietal choices, and what to plant for best cross-pollination.
Apricots, peaches, and nectarines are self-fertile, so they don’t require another tree, but your ability to gage fruit crop yield determines how many of these trees to plant. Apples, Plums and Cherries need similar species but different varieties to deliver good yields. Fruit growers advise a maximum of 50 ft distance between varieties you want to cross-pollinate. With dwarf trees you can be much closer, especial if yard space is limited. Be cautious if wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is growing nearby, as plums are particularly susceptible to a disease called Black Knot, when spores are blown towards your plum trees from the wild Black Cherries. Pruning as these branch galls appear is the only effective treatment.
Thinning of fruit is an emotionally difficult decision because it’s hard to justify removing perfectly healthy new fruit from trees. A failure to do so however, will produce small fruit, with less enjoyable results. The general rule on thinning which applies to pears (especially Asian pears) and peaches, is about 5” between any fruit left on the branches. Thinning also reduces disease spread among maturing fruit. I have found that Stanley Plums self-thin after fruits reach the size of a lima bean, so I’d suggest that manual thinning should wait until natural thinning occurs, or until fruit is the size of a dime.
Regular pruning should be reserved for structural strengthening fruit trees and is further reason to choose dwarf trees, which will not require you to purchase a ladder to harvest and prune. Keep the canopy open, removing branches growing inward, intersecting each other, and/or a sudden sprout which grows several feet in one year, but does not produce fruit. Remove any sprout coming from the base of the tree, as it is originating in the root stock, will not bear fruit of the type tree you bought. If all goes well, you will have a bountiful crop to share with neighbors and family, and there are always a few left for the critters.
Remember that a surplus of fresh fruit can become the fruit preserves you enjoy and give as gifts during the cold of winter, while you ponder next year’s adventures in gardening.
Hope you enjoy your spring gardening!