Growing Fruits
Imagining Garden

You don't have to own a large estate to grow a wide variety of fruits at home. If you don't have space for full-sized trees, you can plant dwarf forms of apples, pears and other fruits. Or try pruning and training trees on a trellis in the time-honored technique known as espalier. Grow a grapevine over an arbor or pergola. Plant lowbush blueberries or strawberries in a bed near the house. Even container growing is possible, giving northern gardeners a chance to grow citrus, figs and other frost-tender fruit trees.

Garden Section

Fruit trees are somewhat fussy about where they're planted. If you were planting a large commercial orchard, site selection would be critical. But for a small home orchard, your best bet is to take a handful of variables into account, select the most promising site on your property, and then plant a couple of trees and give it a try.

  •  Soil: Fruit trees don't like wet feet, so well-drained, loamy soil is a must. They should be located where there is good air circulation so their leaves will dry quickly, since moisture helps spread disease.


 Frost: Flower buds can be easily killed by late spring frosts, so avoid siting your orchard in a frost pocket. Cold air flows downhill, making flowering fruit trees located at the bottom of a slope especially vulnerable to frost. Mid-slope is the best location, because winds are most severe at the top.


 Slope direction: Which direction the slope should face is not always clear. Southern and southwestern slopes can be hot and dry, and can cause trees to break dormancy too early, which makes them susceptible to damage from late frosts. Yet a southern slope can work well if it is protected from the prevailing winds by a windbreak on any side except the downslope one (which would block air circulation). A northerly slope may not provide enough solar exposure to evaporate moisture and promote good fruiting. In humid regions, easterly slopes can speed drying of the morning dew.


 Sun: Fruit trees need a lot of sun to grow healthy and be productive. If they are shaded by other trees or a building they will be less fruitful and more prone to insects and -disease.


Selecting Plants


It pays to seek out trees and shrubs that have some natural resistance to disease. In apples and pears the common diseases include scab and fire blight. With other fruits, such as raspberries, make sure you buy from a nursery that propagates from virus-free plants. Selecting disease-resistant plants doesn't mean that you will never experience any disease problems, but it greatly improves your chances for success.


Another crucial issue is hardiness. To make sure that the plants you purchase won't be damaged over the winter, check hardiness information before you buy. Also consider bloom time. Many fruits flower very early in the spring. If your area is prone to late frosts, such early bloomers may survive, but they will never truly thrive or reliably set fruit. To grow these plants in a marginal area, you’ll have to plant them in an especially favorable and protected site.



Buying Plants: Locally or by Mail?


Local nurseries usually sell trees in containers or with the root mass wrapped in burlap. Mail-order nurseries usually sell trees as "bareroot stock," which means that they are shipped to you in a dormant state with their roots packed in damp wood shavings.


The choice of where to buy is up to you: mail-order nurseries tend to offer more varieties than garden centers, so if you are looking for a particular cultivar or want a broad selection you should start with them. However, if you're unsure about which variety to buy, a local nursery will carry plants that will thrive in your growing area.


If you buy bareroot plants by mail, you will need to plant them in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, while the plants are still dormant and the water table is high. This spring planting gives the young plants a full growing season to get established before the onset of freezing weather in the fall. Trees and shrubs sold in containers by local nurseries are more forgiving in terms of planting time; they can be successfully transplanted in most areas either in the spring or early fall.

Most fruit trees will be sold as grafted stock. This means that the tree consists of at least two sections. The top part is called the scion, and is a branch cutting that has been taken from the variety of fruit you want to grow. The bottom part is the rootstock, and it is usually selected either for hardiness or the ultimate height and size of the tree. Standard rootstocks result in trees of full size (to 15 feet or more). Dwarf rootstocks limit the size of mature trees to 6 to 8 feet or so. Semi-dwarfing rootstocks produce mature trees somewhere in between the two extremes.


Dwarf fruit trees result in space-efficient plants that begin bearing fruit quickly, usually two to three years after planting. There are, however, a few disadvantages to growing dwarf trees. They have a shorter life expectancy than standard-sized trees—about 10 to 20 years on average. Because of their limited root systems, dwarf trees don't compete well with grasses and other plants, so you'll have to keep the area around them weeded and well mulched. Also, most true dwarfs are not suitable for regions in Zone 4 and colder. But for gardeners concerned with space limitations, or who live in relatively mild climates, dwarfs can be the ideal choice.



How to Plant a Fruit Tree


1. If you've ordered bareroot nursery stock, soak the plant roots in water or manure tea up to 24 hours before planting. If you can't plant within a few days after receiving the shipment, repack the plant in the damp sawdust or wood shavings it came in and store it in a cold, dark location until the ground can be worked. Never expose the bare roots of plants to wind or sun.


2. Using a sharp, square-ended planting spade, dig a circle 2 feet in diameter and about 3 feet deep. Remove the sod and set it aside. Now separate the topsoil and the lighter-colored subsoil into two piles, and remove any rocks from the planting hole.


3. Chop up the sod and put the pieces in the hole, grass side down, so that it doesn't come in contact with the tree roots. Cover the sod with a little topsoil.


4. Set the tree into the hole. For grafted trees grown on standard rootstocks, position the tree so that the graft union, the point at which the scion and the rootstock were joined together, is 1 to 2 inches below the surface of the ground. For dwarf and semidwarf rootstocks, the graft union should be 2 to 3 inches above the soil surface.


5. Fill in around the roots, using the topsoil first. Use your hands to firm the soil around the roots and eliminate any air pockets. Fill in about half the planting hole.


6. Pour water into the planting hole until the soil gets quite mucky. Then, using your foot, tamp down the soil.


7. Fill in the rest of the planting hole with the remaining topsoil and subsoil. Firm down the soil around the tree and make a "dish" or depression to encourage water to drain toward the tree.


8. Mulch around the tree with organic matter (leaves, compost, grass clippings, etc.). Don't use fresh manure, though well-rotted manure is fine. Line the mulch in the same dish shape around the tree.


9. Water the tree until the soil cannot readily absorb any more.


10. Drive one or two stakes into the ground outside the root zone to mark the tree. Fruit trees grafted to dwarf rootstocks develop smaller root systems than standard-size trees and require some support. After planting dwarf trees, attach the tree to the stake using some -flexible tubing or other material.


11. Prune off any side branches and cut back trees by about one-third after planting. Balled or container trees do not need to be pruned.


12. Place wire-mesh "hardware cloth" or a plastic tree guard around the tree trunk to protect it from rodents and deer.


13. Post-Planting. During the first growing season, water the tree regularly, giving it 5 to 10 gallons per day for the first month or so, then watering two or three times a week for another couple of months, or during dry weather. In the late fall, paint the tree bark with white latex paint diluted with water, so the bark will reflect winter sunlight and not be damages by sunscald or cracking.




  • Many varieties of fruit trees and shrubs are self-fruitful: that is, they do not need to have a plant of another variety nearby with which to cross-pollinate. Other varieties (particularly those of fruits) need to have a partner in the orchard so that they will be pollinated and produce a good crop of fruit. In fact, even self-fruitful varieties often benefit from having a different variety of the same plant located nearby.



    Cross-pollination doesn't mean that you will end up with weird-looking hybrid fruits. For example, a 'Cortland' apple tree will always produce 'Cortland' apples, even if its blossoms are visited by bees who carry pollen from another variety of apple or crabapple that is growing nearby. However, if you planted the seeds from that 'Cortland' apple, you would probably grow a tree that bore an entirely different kind of apple, one that was not "true to type."


Commercial orchards often rent honeybee hives to ensure good pollination during blossom time. Fortunately, there are also wild bees that do the same job. For example, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) is a good pollinator, and is found throughout most of the United States, with the exception of the Deep South.


It's very important never to spray insecticides during the blossom time of either the fruit trees or the other groundcover plants (dandelions, clovers, etc.) that may be growing near them. These toxic chemicals can kill bees and other beneficial insects. Read on for more information on nonchemical methods of pest control. Nursery catalogs and books usually provide good information on which varieties of plants need pollinators and which will produce fruit even if planted alone.


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