With my last post, Your Small Kitchen Garden started a mission to plant a pear tree this fall. Yesterday, when I made a grocery run, I stopped at a gardening store and was able to establish that Lewisburg, PA subscribes to the culture of “plant perennials in the spring;” there will be no pear trees—or any other fruit trees available until March.
This flies in the face of my philosophy (shared by many gardeners): planting in autumn has distinct advantages. The folks at the garden store were very helpful, offering up the name and location of the nursery from which they purchase trees, but by the time I drive there and back, I’ll have spent at least $25 for gasoline.
So, today I have no tree to plant, but I’m making phone calls to local garden stores and nurseries. Why all this hassle rather than click over to an on-line nursery?
Buy Fruit Trees Locally
I choose to buy locally whenever I can for the age-old reason: it supports the local business-owners. In small-town anywhere, local businesses need the support. But when it comes to planting fruit trees, I want as much control over my selection as possible.
When I order a plant on-line, I trust the seller will package up something healthy that is likely to survive if I treat it well. What I can’t be sure of is whether I’m going to like the shape of the tree they send.
This peach tree came from the nursery with a vertical trunk and a near-horizontal extension. The entire crown was (and still is) at the end of the horizontal extension. It’ll be four or five more seasons of pruning to correct the idiotic shape.
The shape of a tree matters to me when I’m working around it. For example, when I’m mowing the lawn, I don’t want to bend over to mow closely to a tree. I also don’t want tree branches so low that the only way to mow under them is to stand away from the tree, and repeatedly shove the mower under, pull it back, and shove it under.
When a fruit tree has shoulder-level branches in the spring, those same branches are likely to hang down to knee- or ankle-level when laden with fruit. Mowing around them then can damage the fruit, knock fruit off the tree, and even break the already-stressed branches.
So, my ideal tree shape is a little odd: a branch-free trunk up to about five-and-a-half feet, and then a kind of flat disk of branches radiating around the trunk. In other words, I’d like to have mushroom-shaped fruit trees (I still have to duck under the branches, but I don’t have to bend low).
Truly Dwarf Trees
Were I planting a particularly small dwarf-variety of tree, I’d put far less emphasis on the tree’s shape. I would simply maintain a large circle of mulch around a tree whose crown diameter was six to ten feet. Then the first branch could start six inches up the tree’s trunk and I’d be happy.
But, I’m not planting a dwarf pear tree if I can avoid it. So, I want a tree I can prune into a shape that makes me happy. Were I there to choose the tree in person, it would have a straight trunk running vertically up to a healthy leader—with, perhaps, a bump where the leader was grafted onto root stock. If I end up buying through mail-order there’s no guarantee I’ll get a tree shaped like this.
Grafted? Root Stock? What?
Details about how your fruit tree is assembled are only slightly important to your success in growing it. But, it never hurts to understand what the store owners are telling you when they throw industry jargon your way. So, in my next post I’ll explain how the nursery operators assemble fruit trees, and how that can result in odd shapes, dwarfs, unwanted growth, and unfortunate tree failure.