Tree Fruits, Part 1

by Harold Schrock | Oct 1, 2022 | 0 comments

apple orchard
Apple orchard. Photo ©

When are the two best times to plant a fruit tree? The best time was ten years ago! The second best time is this spring or fall, depending on your climate.

If you want to enjoy the tastiest tree-ripened fruit, you probably have to grow it yourself, or at least pick it straight from a local orchard. Most fruit is nearly impossible to pack and ship as fully tree-ripened in its most flavorful and nutritious state. Apples and cherries are common fruit that may be exceptions to this rule. Apples at their peak are still quite firm, and cherries can be shipped at ultimate ripeness in shallow containers. Peaches, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, and many other fruits are much too soft to pack in a box more than one layer deep when fully ripe and at ultimate deliciousness! Unless you’ve visited a tropical country, you have probably never had a truly excellent banana (not really a tree fruit) or avocado. These fruits that are typically picked green for shipping never come close to the flavor potential they have when picked soft and ripe.

Fruit trees can be very rewarding, but let me insert a caution. Most of our North American fruit trees are domesticated plants and must be cared for responsibly. A neglected orchard is a sad example of missed potential.

Planting a fruit tree should carry with it a commitment for many years of future care. While I can give some guidelines in these articles, I encourage everyone interested in caring for fruit trees to seek some hands-on training from a professional. There are illustrated guidebooks on home orchard management, but the best training for trimming and shaping the tree can come from actually observing how fruit grows on a tree. Tree trimming is not so difficult to learn. You might find an orchardist who will teach you in exchange for some help in the peak of harvest.

The first consideration when planning to plant an orchard is location. If you are working with a small backyard lot, your only decision may be which variety to plant. If you have a larger area to work with, choosing the right location is important. One of the biggest dangers facing tree fruit is frost during blossoming; this one factor probably destroys more fruit than all other potential problems combined. Often there are only a couple degrees of temperature between destruction and survival. Location can give you that small temperature difference needed for success some years, especially in hilly country.

A gentle slope facing east is probably the best place to plant an orchard; north slopes are also good unless you are planning on trees that are marginally hardy for your growing zone. Hilltops are also fine places for the trees that can easily survive the winter cold of your zone, especially if protected in some way from strong winter winds.

Avoid planting trees in low areas where frost tends to pocket. Frost pockets aren’t limited to the bottom of a hill. The upper side of a thick woods on sloping ground will also be a frost pocket where cold air can settle in a still night.
South and west slopes are generally not ideal for orchards. Where heat builds up early in the spring, it speeds up the opening of blossoms and increases the likelihood of getting caught by a late frost. Another reason for avoiding low ground is to avoid wet areas; most fruit trees do not grow well in soil that is not well drained.

The second consideration is variety. I encourage experimenting with different varieties when planting your annual garden, but I suggest you be more cautious when planting a long-term investment in fruit trees. In a home orchard where you have fewer than twenty trees, make sure the majority are well within your hardiness zone. It is very disappointing to invest space and time, let alone purchase expense, in a tree that winterkills one extra-cold winter. Also, if you are not experienced, steer clear of varieties that have known production difficulties. Here again, while you can gain valuable information from books and nursery catalogs, your best advice will likely come from a local commercial orchard. Ask about local disease pressure and search for varieties less susceptible to problems known to be in your neighborhood.

In my opinion, it is quite unnecessary to shop for the latest and greatest when looking for fruit trees. Tree-ripened fruit will taste delicious from old familiar varieties. I work with several commercial orchards and can take my pick of tree-ripened fruit every fall from dozens of varieties. The best tasting apple I have found has been available for a long time, the Macintosh. Of course I’m speaking from personal taste; yours may be different. By way of comparison, I find that Red Delicious is bland and uninteresting. I suspect it is chiefly sold for looks rather than taste, but, again, that is just my opinion. Of all the tree fruit, apples have the most varieties to choose from and also the most difference between varieties in terms of fruit texture and taste. I’m sure there are connoisseurs of fruit that will emphatically disagree with me, but I’ve not found many significant differences in taste between varieties of tree-ripened peaches, plums, pears, and other tree fruit. When choosing stone fruits for the home orchard, disease resistance is a big consideration, along with hardiness in northern areas.

The third consideration when purchasing fruit trees is the rootstock. Practically all fruit trees available from nurseries are grafted onto rootstock. The variety of the rootstock determines the final size of the tree. While there are many different varieties of rootstock, most of them fall into either dwarf or semi-dwarf categories. Semi-dwarf trees are probably the most practical for the home orchard. Dwarf varieties have the advantage of bearing fruit earlier in the life of the tree. However, most dwarf varieties require a trellis to support them, as well as a more aggressive fertilization and spray schedule to maintain a healthy tree. Dwarfing rootstocks are nutrient limiting by their nature, and require aggressive foliar feeding to maintain health. Semi-dwarf trees also greatly benefit from foliar feeding, but they do not require trellising or other physical support. They typically start bearing about four years after planting.
You will need a ladder to pick all the fruit off a fully mature semi-dwarf tree, but not a very tall one. Semi-dwarf fruit trees are typically topped out at 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5m) high, depending on the variety.

The healthiest fruit trees that require the least care may very well be non-grafted full-size trees. To get these, you can even save the expense of buying from a nursery by rooting cuttings off existing fruit trees. If you try this, do it only with older varieties. Unlicensed propagating of some newer varieties is illegal.

While there are some advantages to full-size trees, there are some significant disadvantages as well. One disadvantage is that full-size trees are likely to grow for eight to ten years before producing any significant harvest. Another disadvantage comes from the spacing—full-size trees need to be planted 30 to 40 feet (9-12 m) apart. This greatly limits the variety of fruits that can be grown in a smaller space. Long-term, it does not limit total production; full-size trees are just as productive per square foot as are dwarf and semi-dwarf, but that leads to another disadvantage. A mature full-size fruit tree will have a significant amount of fruit 20 feet (6 m) high or higher. Harvesting this fruit requires a significant risk in climbing after it.

If you are very patient, want fruit with the least amount of spraying, and expect you will own a cherry picker manlift in twenty years, perhaps planting full-size trees is right for you. Otherwise, I suspect you will prefer sticking with semi-dwarf trees.

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