Roy Ballard column April 17, 2013
Before you buy that fruit tree...
Consider the labors before seeking to enjoy their fruit
The mail-order catalogs and the displays of fruit trees at the local department store or home center make home fruit culture appear so tantalizing and easy.
The implication is that one need only plant the fruit tree and almost overnight the landscape is filled first with beautiful blooms and almost immediately after by a bountiful crop of juicy prize-winning fruit.
It is not quite that simple to grow fruit in home landscapes in the Midwest.
Many times gardeners will purchase and plant a few trees with good intentions but when they discover the discipline required for growing high quality fruit, the project is soon abandoned to become a deer-feeding station.
Fortunately, with some planning, some attention to detail and patience (and, did I mention, hard work?) even those with a small yard can successfully grow fruit trees.
Before embarking on your journey to grow your own fruit, however it is important to ask yourself “is this trip really necessary?” Why am I considering planting fruit?
Make sure that this is right for you.
Think about whether you have the time and a willingness to be outside during the year.
Do you enjoy pruning limbs off of trees in the cold of February? Spraying trees in the heat of summer? Is your family as excited about it as you are? If your family typically has a time-share condo in the fall, are you willing to reschedule it for some time other than during harvest?
And due to pest control and other expenses, you are not likely to save money growing your own fruit, so don’t give up your day job.
If you still feel compelled to go forward – read on!
When considering what to plant, choose varieties based not on what you can buy in the produce section of the grocery store, but on what true fruit quality is and what you enjoy.
There are literally hundreds of varieties out there, so don’t settle for varieties that happen to be on sale at the home improvement center this weekend. If you are willing to do that, then forego the work of the orchard and buy your fruit from the supermarket or farmers market.
I would encourage starting with varieties that have disease resistance and do not require other trees for pollination.
Site selection and planting technique are keys to success. The site should allow plenty of room for growth (don’t crowd trees), full sun and very good soil drainage.
Trees should be located where there is good air circulation and where they will not warm up and bloom too early in the spring. Avoid low sites where cold air “ponds” on frosty nights.
Apple, pears, cherries and plums grow in a wide range of soil types, but prefer a sandy loam or sandy clay loam soil with a pH between 6 and 7.
The ultimate size of the tree is largely determined by the rootstock (almost all fruit trees are grafted).
I would encourage most to seek semi-dwarf and dwarf trees and preferably those with a numbered rootstock so you know the actual potential of the tree.
Buying a tree based on the fruit name would be like buying a car by the color of the paint, but never lifting the hood to see what engine it had.
Smaller trees are easier to prune and with the crop closer to the ground there is less need for ladders. They are easier to spray and require significantly less space.
Trees will need to be pruned annually and sprayed at the proper time, and repeatedly, for various pests during the growing season. This will take dedication, especially during the hot days of summer.
Be sure that you know that most everything in nature enjoys fruit – birds, insects, mites, bacteria, fruit, weeds, fungus – and don’t forget late spring freezes and drought (think 2012).
Fruit culture is a long-term investment of far more than money. Dedication to learning and a commitment to the culture of high quality fruit are important. I have seen MANY orchards start with the best of intentions, only to languish into a food source for wildlife and a source of insects and disease for the neighbor’s orchard.
Fruit trees’ lifespan can be measured in decades, so it is important to make as few mistakes a possible as you start out on this journey. Perhaps consider small fruit (strawberries, raspberries and blackberries) before committing to tree fruit.
Aside from all that, fruit culture is a wonderful and rewarding hobby that may offer you many years of fresh nutritious fruit for the table, stories to tell the grandchildren, many hours with family picking and processing the fruit, a plentiful supply of outdoor exercise, an incredible ongoing learning opportunity and bragging rights over the neighbors.
I have made most of the mistakes possible with fruit over the past few decades – if that qualifies me as a good resource, I am always happy to help.
Related resources can be found at the Hancock County Purdue Extension website at http://www3.ag.purdue.edu/counties/hancock.