A GARDEN OF EATIN’
FRUIT FOR YOUR BACK YARD
What says “summer” better than a freshly-picked peach or a bowl of sweet black cherries? For years, the only people privileged enough to taste these luxuries were those with ample back yards and a lot of time for maintenance. Fruit trees required 20 foot spacing, routine spraying and a long ladder for harvest.
None of that applies today. Thanks to the agricultural research departments at a number of state universities, fruit trees have been dwarfed so they can be grown in an area the size of a normal city lot. Many trees have also been bred for winter-hardiness, making formerly fussy fruit such as peaches and sweet cherries available to northern gardeners. Finally, some varieties of stone fruit are now self-pollinating; no longer do you need two different varieties for a crop. All of these improvements make growing fruit a possibility for the home gardener.
There are three factors that you need to consider before purchasing your trees: the final size of the cultivar you want, the winter hardiness of the rootstock, and soil requirements of the tree.
Fruit trees now come in four sizes – standard, semi-dwarf, dwarf and superdwarf. Standard trees generally have a mature height between 20 and 30 feet, and need to be spaced 20 feet apart. They also begin bearing at five years of age. Unless you have a large growing area and a lot of patience, the dwarfed and semi-dwarfed varieties would be the better choices. Semi-dwarf trees still have some height to them, ranging between 10 and 15 feet at maturity. These trees are dual-purpose, providing shade as well as fruit. The flowers in the spring make them highly ornamental as well. However, harvesting fruit may still be challenging if you aren’t on good terms with ladders. In this instance, the dwarfs and superdwarfs are the best options. Dwarfs generally grow a maximum of six feet tall, and the superdwarfs only run between four and five feet tall. Superdwarfs can grow happily in large patio planters if you don’t have garden space. With the dwarfs and superdwarfs, it’s feasible to grow four healthy trees in a 6 foot by 6 foot area.
Fruit trees in general are grafted, and different rootstocks have different degrees of winter hardiness. Cultivars that have been developed in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and New York will have hardier base stock. For this reason, gardeners in growing zones 2 through 5 should purchase their trees from suppliers carrying these cultivars. How will you know where your tree was “born”? Most vendors use winter hardiness as a selling point, and some state universities have their own “brand”. For example, Michigan State uses the “signature” name “Haven” on all the peach cultivars developed in their South Haven Experimental Station. Ask your vendor – garden center, nursery or customer service department at the mail-order house you use.
Different fruit varieties grow best in specific soil types. Most fruit does not like extremes, but apples prefer a slightly acidic, well drained soil. Sweet and sour cherries both prefer sweet soils. Citrus fruits like highly acid loam, and can coexist with azaleas, rhododendrons and crape myrtle. Pears, peaches, and figs like their soils as close to neutral as possible. A simple soil test will give you information on soil pH and fertility.
Apple and pear trees can be planted in spring or fall; cherries and peaches are best planted in the spring only. Have your planting areas ready well ahead of time. This helps your trees settle in quickly and reduces the possibility of transplant shock. Don’t add too many amendments to the soil you use for backfill; soil that is better than the norm for your garden discourages trees from sending out roots. Water your newly-placed tree in, and sprinkle a time-released granular fertilizer that is high in phosphorus (the middle number is higher than the other two) around the dripline of the tree once it leafs out.
Fruit trees don’t like to compete with weeds or grass, so keep the area around the trunk well cultivated and mulched. Fruit does require some spraying, because bugs like fruit as much as people do. A dormant-oil spray in the fall and an application of lime-sulfur spray in the spring will help keep beasties, bacteria and fungus from ruining your crop. These products have little environmental impact, but be cautious about applying anything when the trees are in blossom. You don’t want to risk harming any bees burying themselves in the blooms. Any pruning should be done during the trees’ dormant period.
Fruit trees begin to produce within two to three years of their installation, and continue producing for 20 years or more. So go ahead, plant a small orchard. You’ll enjoy the “fruits” of your labor for years to come.