Country Traditions

Fruit Trees

Apples are an all-American success story-each ...

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Size: Common available sizes of fruit trees are Dwarf, Semi-Dwarf and Standard.

……Dwarf: Small trees for small spaces. Dwarf fruit trees can do well in an 8′ diameter plot. They are easy to prune and harvest because they don’t grow tall. The fruit is normal size, but the yield is less because of the smaller tree size. Dwarf trees are not as long-lived as the larger trees. Most dwarf trees begin bearing fruit in 3 to 5 years.
Semi-dwarf: Medium-sized trees which require a growing area of about 15′ diameter. Semi-dwarfs can range in height from 10 to 16′ and need annual pruning to keep the height down and the shape balanced. Very productive, this size tree will produce hundreds of fruit per season. Occassionally, trees will take a year off and produce little or no fruit, especially after a season of heavy production. Most fruit trees planted today are semi-dwarf, because they produce a large crop from a tree with manageable size for pruning and harvesting.

Standard: That huge old apple tree in Grandpa’s back yard is a standard, the only choice of size before the smaller hybrids were developed. Standards require more space and are a bigger job to prune and harvest. They can grow to 25 – 30′, or taller if left unpruned. If you want a “landmark” tree that the kids can climb in and swing from, get a standard. They take many years to reach full size, so it may be the grandkids who do the swinging. Most standard trees begin bearing in 3 to 5 years.

Maintenance tasks, such as pruning and yard work beneath the tree, should also be considered when choosing tree size. Smaller trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net, and harvest than large trees. And, if trees are kept small, it’s possible to plant a greater number of trees, which can offer more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.
Fruit: What varieties to choose? Here are a few tips:
• Choose local varieties. Ask at your local nursery for the varieties which do best in your area. Many exotic varieties are inviting, but the local varieties will produce best with the least effort.
• Match the tree to your soil. Plums, for example, do well in damp soil conditions which might not be good for apples. Pears and apples can handle drier soil, but need good drainage. Peaches can get blight from too much rain, so they will do better in semi-protected areas, like alongside buildings under eaves which offer some protection. If you have a planting location in mind, consult with your local nursery or garden center.
• Provide pollinators. Not all fruit tree varieties are self-pollinating. Often, the right combination of varieties are necessary for fruit trees to produce fruit. Most apples are partially self-pollinating and will set some fruit off their own pollen, however these varieties will set more fruit if cross-pollinated with another variety. Ask at your local nursery about the pollinating requirements for trees you are considering.
• Extend the harvest. If planting a few trees, choose varieties which will give you fruit for a longer time. With apples, for example, you can plant one early variety like Gravenstein for summer eating, a late summer variety like King for fall eating, and a winter keeper which can be stored all winter. Stored properly, the fruit from winter keepers will last to the following March or April. With three trees of different harvest times, you’ll enjoy your own organic fruit for 8 months of the year.
Conformation: When choosing a tree from your local nursery, it’s most important to look carefully at its features. Trees are commonly sold as ‘bare root’, meaning the roots are exposed, and the young tree is 3′ to 6′ tall. Here’s what to look for:
Strong, straight stem. Fruit trees do best when they grow straight. A slight lean in a young tree, if left unstaked, will develop into a large lean when mature and laden with fruit. The tree is susceptible to blowdown from wind, or can fall under its own unbalanced weight.
Defined leader. One central branch should be the obvious ‘leader’, which leads the growth straight up. A tree with no clear leader will require frequent pruning to keep the shape in balance.

Well balanced branches. Look for the ‘candelabra’ shape with branches extending evenly in all directions. This even growth will keep the tree balanced and growing straight, as well as maximizing fruit yield.

No low branches. Branches should be starting from the same general area along the tree stem. Avoid trees with one lone branch, low down. This is out of balance, and low-lying fruit encourages pests like raccoons. Low branches also get in the way of lawn care beneath the tree.

Several feet of stem. You don’t want your tree to start branching too low – it will be hard to walk under when harvesting, and it encourages pests.

Plentiful, undamaged roots. Roots should be well protected and kept damp. Avoid trees with roots exposed too long in the sun or damaged in any way.

Planting your fruit tree
An important consideration when choosing where to plant a fruit tree is soil drainage. Fruit trees will not thrive in soil that drains too slowly. You can test for drainage by digging a hole about l foot (30cm) deep and filling it with water. The hole should drain within 3 hours.
Dig the hole. Go down about 18″ and, with a pitchfork, fork the bottom and sides of the hole to loosen the soil.
Sprinkle compost on the bottom of the hole.

Put some dirt back in the hole, leaving a mound in the center.

Set tree in hole with the root ball on top of the mound. The graft line of the tree should be about 3″ above the ground. Adjust the height of the mound if necessary.

Spread roots evenly in all directions.

Fill hole with soil and firm gently with your foot. Check that the tree is vertical. Be sure to ‘overfill’ the hole so the soil is an inch or two above ground level. The soil will compress when watered, and settle to ground level.

Stake if necessary. Tie tree to stake with a rubber tie or piece of cloth. The tie should be loose so as not to girdle the tree. Allow plenty of room for the trunk to thicken.

Mulch around the base of the tree with grass clippings. Be sure to keep graft line clear of mulch so it remains above ground.
Fence if necessary. Deer will eat the bark of young trees, given the opportunity.

Fruit tree pollination – the key to successful fruit production
A healthy fruit tree with a large spring bloom does not guarantee the tree will produce fruit in the fall. Successful pollination must occur to produce viable seed, which leads to the development of mature fruit. Pollination can occur in several ways: some fruit tree varieties are self-pollinating, others are partially self-fertile, and others must be pollinated from another tree, usually the same type of tree but a different variety.

When buying fruit tree stock, ask about the pollination characteristics and requirements of the tree. Local advice is usually the best since pollination can vary within species in different climate zones. If you’re buying trees which need a separate pollinator, be sure the bloom time is the same. For example, early season plum varieties shed their blossoms before midseason plums come into flower, so there’s little cross-pollination.

To help improve the chances of successful pollination:
• Plant two or more varieties of the same tree – This is the most reliable way of ensuring successful crops. Even self-pollinating fruit trees will set more fruit when cross-pollinated.
• Attract bees to your orchard – Bees are active pollinators and a valuable asset in any garden. Plant flowers of both early and late blooming varieties to ensure a good display of flowers throughout the season. Mason bees can also be attracted and kept as permanent residents by providing small mason bee ‘houses’ near your fruit trees.
• Avoid using insecticides – Toxic sprays kill beneficial insects as well as pests, and should be avoided especially during the pollinating season.
• Consider ‘multi-graft’ trees for small yards – Fruit trees are available with three of four compatible cross-pollinating varieties grafted to a single tree. This effectively convets a cross-pollinator to a self-pollinator.
• Consider manually pollinating your trees – When poor weather results in low bee activity during the peak flowering time, you can take a branch from one tree and dust it in among the branches of another tree, effectively doing the job of a bee. This is more difficult with larger trees or if you have more than a few trees to pollinate.

Tips for growing productive fruit trees

• Be careful taking your new tree home – trees can die of shock. Keep root ball damp and shaded from sun.
• Always keep graft line clear of debris and above ground. If the graft line goes below ground the tree may revert to its root stock and give the wrong fruit – like crab apples!
• Thin the fruit. If the size of the fruit produced from your tree is below expectations, it may be due to an over-abundance of fruit on the tree. The tree has only so much energy to use to produce fruit, so thinning (removing some of the fruit) is essential to produce large fruit in some species, such as peach and apple. For best results, thin fruit trees early in the season, when the fruit is still quite small.
• Does your tree fail to produce fruit some years? Healthy, productive trees sometimes take a year off. However, if a fruit tree produces an over-abundance of fruit which is not thinned, the tree may become a biennial producer. Therefore, it is prudent to thin the fruit when trees produce a large amount of fruit.
• Defend against Apple Maggots. The apple maggot is the most destructive pest of apples grown in home orchards. This insect is a type of fly which pierces the skin of ripening fruit and lays eggs. In 5 – 10 days, the eggs hatch a maggot which burrows through the fruit. These pests can be managed by using sticky red sphere traps. Hang one trap for every 100 apples in a tree. For more information, or to purchase apple maggot traps, click here.
• Other Pests? See our Natural Pest Control page.
• Rake the leaves. Fruit tree leaves should not be used as mulch around the garden. If the leaves are still on the ground, cover the area with ground limestone. This will prevent spores on the leaves on the ground from developing.
• Prune during the dormant season. All major pruning should be done in late winter or spring. Ask your nursery for a leaflet on pruning. Some pruning is usually required each year to keep the tree growing in a balanced shape.
• Water during dry seasons. Water once every two weeks during dry spells; put a pan under tree and water until it fills 5 – 8cm (2 – 3″) to ensure water reaches the root zone.
• Make a field plan. Record on paper when you planted and what varieties you planted so when you harvest you’ll know what variety you are enjoying. Do not depend on memory or the plant identification tags to know what you planted – both will fade with time.
• Beware the weedeater! A weedeater can quickly damage a fruit tree by cutting the bark at ground level. This can stress the tree to cause reduced blooming and fruiting, and repeated injuries can even kill the tree.                             

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