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Growing vegetables and fruits is the most popular gardening trend in America today introducing more folks than ever to the benefits of playing in the dirt. With all those new gardeners comes a growing need for the information necessary to succeed and there are certainly many things to know in order to be successful with starting your home orchard.
The first thing to consider is location. Almost every type of fruit tree and berry bush requires a minimum of a half day of sunlight to produce a prolific crop of fruit. (Paw Paws would be an exception to this rule.)
Fruit trees prefer well-drained, fertile soils. Pears, apples, raspberries and blackberries tolerate slightly heavier soils but all will perform best in areas that are well drained. If you have a high clay content, working in compost to the top 12” of existing soil can create a suitable planting site. Full clay soils and poorly drained locations should be avoided. If your soil is very heavy and poorly drained, you can build a mound or planting bed with blended topsoil to plant your tree or trees on top of. Peaches, cherries, apricots and nectarines are especially sensitive to heavy soils. (Blended topsoil is necessary to insure a quality soil product.)
Pollination is an often-misunderstood factor in successful fruit production. Some types of trees can set an abundant crop with their own pollen, so they are called self-pollinating. Other trees require pollen from another variety to be successful. Bees usually perform this cross-pollination. If a tree is not labeled as self-pollinating, two trees of the same variety will not cross-pollinate each other. Generally speaking, most apples, pears, plums and sweet cherries require a pollinator, although there are a few self-pollinating varieties in each of those fruit types. Peaches, nectarines, tart cherries, apricots and berries are almost always self-pollinating.
Unfortunately, bugs and fungi like fruit almost as much as you do. There are organic and/or chemical sprays that can help protect your fruit. Perhaps the most important spray is a dormant oil spray applied in early spring before the leaf and flower buds open. This protective oil keeps insects from gaining a foothold in your orchard. Many spray products are available in a ready to use “hose end” sprayer, which is ideal for small orchards.
Regular, annual and aggressive pruning is essential to maintain the ongoing vigor of fruit trees and to maximize the production of fruit.
Pruning of young trees is important to set the eventual shape of the tree. Thin out the inward growing branches and any branches that cross over each other. Trim off the tips of the larger branches to encourage growth. (See the illustration below for a before and after look at the branches.) Brand new stems that grow out of the ground, from the root systems are called suckers and should be removed. Once your trees set fruit pick off some of the immature fruits, spacing them about 8" apart on the branches. This will encourage proper ripening and improve vegetative vigor. If you don’t thin, you will get many more fruits than the tree can handle, resulting in broken branches and small fruits.
In later years, it is helpful to “shape” your tree. Apple, pear and cherry trees are best trained to a central leader (uppermost upright limb). Peach, nectarine, plum and apricot trees should be trained to a vase shape (no central leader).
It is generally best to prune berries, apples and pears in early spring/late winter. Summer pruning is helpful to retard growth of the tree. So if the tree is growing very aggressively and getting taller than you like, take it back in July to control this growth.
It is generally best to prune cherry trees when the weather is hot. Bacterial diseases, detrimental to sweet cherries, are most active in cool, wet weather so wait until the tree has leafed out and warm weather patterns are well established to prune your cherry trees.
The best time to prune peaches, nectarines and apricots is in the early spring. Try pruning after the last frost date for your area. At this time, most of the winter damage can be trimmed off and you will minimize the effect of late frost damage to your buds and blooms.
As plums are very vigorous growers, you will want to prune aggressively. Bear in mind that summer pruning, when the trees is still growing, will help contain the spreading nature of your plum tree. You cannot over-prune a plum tree so do clean up pruning in the winter, to get rid of broken and dead branches and shape up the tree. Then in July, prune again to maintain a manageable size.
Growing fruits and vegetables organically is somewhat more difficult requiring a little additional planning, dedication and information. First consider your reasons for growing organically. A commercial grower needs very high yields of picture perfect fruit to survive in business. You don’t want to use chemicals to be gentle with your environment and control what goes into your body so if you have half of the commercial yield and they are a bit blemished you have still been very successful. A bug hole here, a bit of black spot there is a small price to pay for all the benefits of homegrown produce.
I hope many of you will join the growing trend of growing fruits and vegetables in your home gardens. Use your local garden professional to help you choose the fruit or berry plants best suited to your yard and level of interest.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt.
BEFORE AND AFTER PRUNING DIAGRAMS
MATURE TREE FORMS