February 6, 1998
When my wife and I bought our house, one of the things that attracted us the most were these three gnarled old apple trees. Full of character (and later full of fruit), they helped set the tone for the "country place" we were looking for. Of course, most of you will never try to sell me a house, so we will need to come up with better arguments for growing tree fruit. Actually, I don't think I've got to do much selling here, since even non-gardeners enjoy tree-ripened apples or pears. So, let's just skip that, and move on to the selection process.
It won't do for me to tell you which varieties to pick. For one thing, new varieties are released every year, especially when it comes to the more popular fruits such as apples and plums. Also, what works in my climate may not be well adapted to yours. But there are a few common rules we can all follow.
There is a lot of breeding work being done with disease-resistant fruits, especially apples. This is important because it can minimize or eliminate the need for most spraying. Don't overlook some older varieties which have good qualities, however. A problem like apple scab may make fruit unsaleable, but you can still eat it – just peel the section that offends you. If I didn't grow Gravenstein apples, I wouldn't know just how good applesauce can be!
If you are fortunate enough to have experienced gardeners living nearby, ask them which varieties of the various fruit trees have worked for them. It can also be important to ask about their failures, especially if they can tell you why. Another great resource (if you live in the United States) is your local Cooperative Extension service (usually listed under "county government" in the phone book). Many counties have a Master Gardener program, with experienced gardeners available to answer your questions. Even if that's not the case where you live, there almost certainly will be publications available from the state extension offices. These will be allied with the land-grant university in your state.
Since most fruit trees nowadays are grafted onto some sort of rootstock, decide which rootstock will work best for your location. This may sound complicated, but it's really worth educating yourself in the basics. The most obvious trait various rootstocks have is in how they control the size of the tree, with dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks being available for apples, pears, plums, cherries, citrus, and other fruits as well. Another aspect to look at, though, is how well that rootstock is adapted to your climate. Some are hardier than others, or may not be well-adapted to your soil type or drainage situation. Additionally, some root stocks have the habit of inducing the tree to bear fruit at an earlier age, which can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances. If the vendor can't tell you the specific name of the rootstock, don't buy the tree. Many fruit tree failures are now thought to be due to grafting onto incompatible rootstocks. Some types of fruits, such as quinces and certain sweet cherries, are naturally dwarf and therefore will be sold on their own roots.
If you can inspect the trees before the purchase, try to pick those with well-developed, well-spaced branches that separate from the trunk at between 45 and 60 degrees.
Pick your supplier carefully. I tend to order trees from catalogs anymore, because frankly I haven't found a good local nursery I can trust. Unfortunately this precludes inspecting the trees in most cases, so you have to trust their judgment.
It is best to get your tree in the ground as quickly as possible. This means you need to get them when your soil is thawed and workable, but not so late that the tree is breaking dormancy. If for some reason you can't put the tree in the place you want it to grow, "heel it in" by digging a hole, sticking the roots in, and covering them with dirt. This should be considered a short-term alternative only.
It used to be recommended that you amend the soil in the spot where you wanted to plant a tree; but now the accepted practice is to plant in unaltered soil. You simply cannot amend a large enough area for a fully- grown tree's roots to develop fully. What ends up happening is that the roots tend to stay in the amended soil, and you get a weaker tree.
You should dig a hole that is both deep enough and wide enough so all the tree's roots can be inserted without bending (it is permissible to cut a single over-length root). Since the roots usually spread out from the root crown, it often works to build a mound in the hole and to place the tree on that. Spread the roots evenly, then cover them with about ½ the dirt you removed from the hole. At this point, it is a good idea to water it well with a hose, so any air pockets are eliminated. Then replace the rest of the dirt, and water again. The tree should sit in the hole in such a way that it is no deeper than it was growing at the nursery; this point is usually obvious by inspecting the tree. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should the point at which the tree and rootstock were grafted be buried! This will usually defeat the purpose of the rootstock, since new roots will form above the graft if it's buried.
For the first year your tree will need regular water and fertilization. Established trees often don't need either, although this will vary somewhat with your climate and soil. It's best to seek out the advice of experienced tree growers in your area. Also be sure to keep grass and weeds away from the young tree, since they will compete with it for water and nutrients.
Because fruit trees take a number of years to start bearing, it can be difficult to bring yourself to delay it even longer; but often you will want to do that. Once a tree starts bearing fruit, a lot of its energy gets redirected from growing. I've heard it said that a tree will not get any bigger once it has set fruit – this is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Make sure your tree is well-established, healthy, and close to the size you want before you allow it to set fruit. It can be painful to remove all those wonderful spring blossoms, but it just may be in your self-interest.
In all likelihood, you will have to prune your fruit trees to one degree or another. I'm going to side-step this issue for a couple reasons. For one thing, it would require several articles all by itself (they may come at some point in the future, however)! Each type of fruit tree has its own pruning requirements. Also there may be variations in the best pruning methods depending on where you live. I highly recommend that you take a pruning course from a reputable nursery or arborist. Alternatively there are books and pamphlets which can teach you how to prune; check your local library, or the Cooperative Extension Service. If you use the pruning links below, think of them as general guides only.
- Choosing and Caring for Fruit Trees
- Washington State University - Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center
- Why Fruit Trees Fail to Bear
- Factors affecting fruit tree production
- Ames Garden Tools - Pruning Guide
- USDA's "How To Prune Trees"
All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013