Fruit trees may offer a better return on effort than anything in the garden. A single semi-dwarf apple tree, for example, can produce up to 500 apples in a season, with a productive life of 15 to 20 years. Several trees, with different harvest times, can bring fruit to your table eight months of the year.
Consider the Benefits of Planting Your Own Fruit Trees:
Your Own Supply of Organic Fruit
With your own fruit trees you know exactly what you’re getting: no sprays, no wax, no chemicals. And you can enjoy a steady supply of fruit for much of the year. Besides fresh fruit in the fall, you can store apples through winter, and can preserve fruit for year-round use in cooking and baking. It’s also fun to share your harvest with friends.
The cost of organic fruit is high. Averaged over a ten year period, organic apples from your own tree will cost only a few cents apiece. Compare this with the supermarket price for organic apples.
Good for the Environment
A fruit tree filters the air, conditions the soil, provides shade, shelters wildlife, and attracts pollinators to your garden. And there are no transportation impacts when growing fruit in your own yard.
You can have all of the above for very low cost and a relatively small amount of annual maintenance!
Choosing a Fruit Tree
Size: Common available sizes of fruit trees are dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard.
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 three to five years.
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. Occasionally, 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.
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 three to five 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.
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.
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.
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. A fruit tree which leans in one direction, out of balance, is more prone to blowdown from wind, or can fall under its own unbalanced weight.
One central branch should be the obvious ‘leader’, which leads the growth straight up. A tree with no clear leader will require more 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. Even fruit distribution also helps keep branches from breaking due to fruit overload.
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 Clear Stem
You don’t want your tree to start branching too low; it will be hard to walk under when harvesting. A few feet of clear stem also enables you to wrap metal sheeting, if necessary, to prevent raccoons from climbing the tree.
Plentiful, Undamaged Roots
Roots on bare root starters should be well protected and kept damp before planting. When selecting a bare root tree to buy, avoid nursery stock 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 one foot (30cm) deep and filling it with water. The hole should drain within three hours.
- Dig the hole: Dig down about 18″ and, with a pitchfork, fork the bottom and sides of the hole to loosen the soil. Water the hole deeply and wait until the water fully soaks into the ground at the bottom of the hole.
- 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. Handle the roots very gently during this procedure.
- 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, especially if the ground is sloping. Tie the tree to the 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 converts 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
Bare root fruit trees require careful handling since they can die of shock. When transporting a young fruit tree, be sure to keep the root ball damp and shaded from sun.
Always Keep Graft Line Clear of Debris and Above Ground
Bare root fruit trees usually have had the particular variety grafted onto a hardier rootstock. When planting the tree, if the graft line is set below ground level the tree may revert to its root stock and give the wrong fruit – like crab apples! When adding mulch, be sure to pull the mulch a few inches away from the tree stem. This will help ensure the soil level does not rise above the graft.
Thin the Fruit Soon After the Young Fruit Appears
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 overabundance 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, see our product page for Apple Maggot Traps.
There are numerous insect pests which can affect the production of your fruit trees. Insect pest invasions are often cyclical, and may persist through one season but not appear the following year. It helps to keep an annual record of fruit tree performance so you can identify problems which persist longer than one season, as well as which trees are most susceptible to pest problems.
To learn more about natural methods of controlling insect pests, see our page Natural Pest Control.
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.
Prepare Your Trees for Winter
A few simple steps taken after the trees have been harvested in the fall will give your fruit trees a head start for spring. Read our article Fall Care of Fruit Trees.
Fruit Tree Feed/Mulch: Spring Treatment
You can use the following mix to promote root and vegetative growth for fruit trees in the spring:
- 5 shovels leaf mould
- 5 shovels garden compost
- 5 shovels peat moss
- 1 cup bone meal
- 1/4 cup each: rock phosphate, alfalfa, greensand
Top-dress with 2″ of the above mix in early March and again in mid-June.
Buy Fruit Trees Online
Nature Hills Online Nursery
You can have live ‘ready to plant’ trees delivered to your door. Choose from over 200 species.
Fruit Tree Supplies
Fruit Trees Alive!™ Build-Up Formula
Helps fruit trees grow faster and bear big, delicious harvest. Eleven macro- and micronutrients are in the mix, including copper and sulfur, which produce the sweetness so characteristic of well-grown tree-ripened fruit.
Water Wise Soaker Hose
Maintaining moisture for new transplants and young trees is easy to manage with soaker hoses. Soaker hoses deliver water where needed, unlike sprinklers which lose water to wind and misdirected spray. These hoses can be set around the perimeter of fruit trees and easily moved to other locations as needed. Soaker hoses are available in different lengths and thicknesses.
Natural Deer Repellent
Actively repel deer and small animals for up to 60 days. The combination of garlic and egg putrescence deters deer through two modes of action; scent and taste. However, the scent is not strong enough to bother human noses!
Apple Maggot Trap
Apple maggot is a type of fruit fly that attacks apples, blueberries, hawthorn, plums, pears and cherries. They cause extensive fruit damage that renders fruit useless. The SpringStar Apple Maggot trap and lure set have proven effective at reducing apple maggot damage. Flies are attracted by the lures and come to a sticky demise on the goo-covered apple sphere.
Every orchard needs a good composter convert all the spoiled and damaged fruit into rich compost, the ideal fertilizer and soil conditioner. Fully sealed compost ‘tumblers’ are self-contained units which make compost faster than compost bins, and keep pests like raccoons and mice out of your compost.