Posts Tagged ‘fruit’
A loaded peanut butter and jelly sandwich will ooze jam when I bite into it. The sweet fruitiness calls back flavors from last year’s growing season.
It’s the first 22nd of 2013; the first Post Produce of the year. Finally, winter has found my small kitchen garden in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A fresh inch and a half of heavy, dry snow covers an earlier, well-hardened snow that was on the verge of melting away just a few days ago. The thermometer reads eight degrees Fahrenheit as I type, and it’s heading lower as morning approaches.
To celebrate Post Produce in the dead of winter, I’ve only preserves from my garden. We’ve been eating carrots, beans, squash (both summer and winter varieties), pepper relish, and herbs from last year’s garden. While I try to create new combinations and flavors with my own preserves and farmers’ market purchases, a classic, unoriginal, all-American standard has recently exploded back into my repertoire: Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches!
Lunch for a Bedtime Snack
We don’t do dessert so much at the Cityslipper ranch, but lately I’ve developed late-night urges for sweet snacks. Having to assemble something to get me through to bedtime, I slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using one piece of bread cut in half, and it satisfied. I guess when you go without dessert long enough, that quasi-nutritional lunch-time standard tastes pretty sweet.
The bread and peanut butter I use for these snacks come from a grocery store, but the jams and jellies come from my larder. In 2012, I made strawberry jam, sour cherry jam, black raspberry jelly, fruit punch jam (sour cherry, black raspberry, and blueberry), peach jelly, grape jelly, and quince jelly.
In the interest of full disclosure, only a few strawberries and fewer blueberries came from my garden, though peaches could have. Black raspberries grow wild across the street from my house, so harvesting and preparing them makes it feel as though I grew them myself.
But wherever the produce comes from, it’s always a joy to make a sandwich using jam or jelly I made from the fruit. I’ve produced videos and written posts about making jam and jelly. I hope you’ll try making some in the coming season; it’s easy to do and a terrific first project when you’re learning to can.
How to make strawberry jam – written instructions
How to make sour cherry jam – written instructions
Now You Post Produce!
Please participate. Write a post on your blog about how you’re using produce from your garden—fresh or preserved… or write about produce that you’re harvesting or planning to harvest. Then return here and use the Linky widget to link to your blog post. Follow other bloggers’ links to see what your fellow gardeners produce.
Apparently, if you live in a warm climate, you may not find these berries growing in your neighborhood–or you might have trouble getting them to produce.
Though my small kitchen garden has had a very slow start this year, the woods and meadows around it have grown apace. So, black raspberry season has ended, and blackberry season is just getting started.
I’ve talked much with my friends about my wild black raspberry harvest: I’ve picked at least 32 quarts of berries—eight gallons—and these I’ve cooked into jelly and syrup which I’ve canned to give as gifts and to use in all kinds of cooking projects: ice cream, ice cream topping, marinade, salad dressing, drink flavor (as in sangria), and pancake and waffle topping.
Apparent Confusion among Kitchen Gardeners
Sharing with friends about black raspberries has raised some questions. Most surprisingly is that southern acquaintances report black raspberries don’t grow well or aren’t common in their areas. But the USDA reports that black raspberries range into southern Georgia. So, while black raspberries are weeds in Pennsylvania, they might not be so robust in the south.
The second question about black raspberries is why so many people refer to them as blackberries. Apparently, blackberries grow very well in southern states. So, maybe some southerners assume that a reference to black raspberries is a reference to the familiar blackberry. But an equal number of northerners seem to confuse black raspberries and blackberries. Below, I’ve written a short primer on these two, similar berries.
Black Raspberries Versus Blackberries
Black raspberries also go by the name black caps. The name suggests the berry’s shape: it’s like one of those scull-hugging stocking caps—like a bowl made out of little round balls that sits like a cap on a hard core. When you pick a black raspberry, it easily pulls away from the core.
A blackberry looks a lot like a black raspberry, though the balls that comprise it are usually bigger than the ones that make up a black raspberry. More importantly, when you pick a blackberry, the hard core comes with it; a blackberry has a central core of stem-like material.
The black raspberry on the left is hollow; it looks like a tiny cap you could put on a tiny person. The blackberry on the right contains a solid core. While both types of berries taste great, I prefer black raspberries. Unfortunately, black raspberry seeds crunch and stick between my teeth. The core of a blackberry makes it even less pleasant. Crunchiness is why I juice the berries and use the juice to make jam and syrup.
While black raspberry and blackberry plants are very similar, black raspberries ripen in very early summer and usually finish when blackberries come on. I track a season’s progress by the berries: Strawberries set things off and fade as black raspberries take over. Black raspberries fade into blackberries which, in turn, give way to elderberries. Mulberries ignore the progression. They ripen in strawberry season and might hang around well into black raspberry season. (In case you don’t know mulberries, they grow in trees and they resemble blackberries far more than they resemble black raspberries.)
Really: the differences between black raspberries and blackberries are obvious when you see the plants and berries. Please have a look at the photos and schedule your trip to visit me near the end of June; we’ll pick some black raspberries and make jelly.
There wasn’t much “structure” to the root systems of my young fruit trees when I planted them in the fall. They’ll need plenty of water as they come out of dormancy this spring.
I’m poised to plant my small kitchen garden, having finished late-winter pruning and grafting in my fruit trees. I’m poised, but holding. March teased early with some very warm days, but then plunged into barely-tolerable cold.
The soil has thawed, so a more rugged gardener could have planted peas, lettuce, spinach, and other cold weather crops by now. I tend to wait until April for those, and sometimes am simply too busy to plant them until late April. But this year there’s something else that’s very important for me to do in my garden: water young perennials.
Fall Planting Time Bombs
Back in mid-Autumn, I argued in this blog that you should plant fruit trees in the fall (this goes for most perennials, but if they’re not going to feed you, don’t waste your energy planting them). I shared my experiences of trying to find fruit trees at local nurseries, I explained that I ended up buying via mail-order, and I showed how I planted my young trees in mid-November.
Among the advantages I listed for planting perennials in autumn: you don’t have to water, and you can omit fertilizer. Dormant plants aren’t demanding.
Come spring, those young perennials emerge from dormancy and require the creature comforts you denied them in the fall. If you had plenty of rain or snow over the winter, your soil will thaw and be moist; your perennials will be happy. However, if your neighborhood is emerging from a dry winter, your perennials may awaken to desert-like conditions. This is especially bad for the young ones.
What’s more, even if your ground thaws wet, you need to make sure the young plants don’t dry out along with the soil. Unless you’re experiencing substantial seasonal rainfall—or massive snow melt—you should start watering when the ground thaws.
How Much Water?
In early spring, water deeply once or twice a week (again, don’t water if Mother Nature is doing a good job of it). As plants (any plants—not just the perennials you planted in autumn) emerge from dormancy (you see leaf buds plump up), increase your watering to once daily unless the soil is obviously saturated.
When you plant perennials, you should soak them till the soil can’t hold more water. This helps you work out air pockets and get the soil up against young roots. Subsequent watering needn’t saturate the soil. Your goal is to keep everything damp, not to maintain a mud pit around your tree.
When leaves emerge and you see vigorous growth, cut back the water to two or three times a week, and keep it up until fall. Skip watering if there’s a decent rainstorm.
Especially if you planted bare root trees in the fall, they need a lot of moisture in their first year to help them develop strong root systems. But temper daily watering: the point of planting in autumn was to reduce the amount of water you had to provide. Especially in March and April, the soil may stay wet for several days between watering.
It’s good to provide fertilizer as your young fall plantings wake up in the spring. Best of all, mulch with compost (but don’t let the compost rest against the plant). If that’s not an option, provide a light feed of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer.
For my older fruit trees, I’d always driven holes in the ground with a crow bar, and then filled the holes with fertilizer. A friend who runs an orchard told me he prefers to broadcast fertilizers on the surface and let them dissolve into the soil. For young trees, just dust fertilizer on the loose soil around the tree trunk—a small handful at most. With all the watering, it’ll soak in quickly.
There’s plenty of good stuff for a rodent to eat in and around my yard, but apparently sour cherry and pecan tree twigs are the tastiest of all. Still, the rodent left healthy leaf buds any of which could become a new leader for the tree.
My small kitchen garden experienced some trauma this week: someone bit off the tops of some of my new trees! I mentioned those trees in an earlier post about new pear trees. In that post, I explained the importance of protecting young trees from rodents who would be eager to chew on them during a snowy winter.
Well… those rodents were more eager than I expected. I had looked for tree tubes at local gardening stores, and, failing to find any, had come up with a possible alternative I figured to make out of trash. But, no rush, I thought: there wouldn’t be snow for some time and there are plenty of tender shoots and leaves still available to any foraging critters who might wander through.
I made my nearly cost-free tree tubes out of two-liter soda bottles. First, I rinsed the bottles thoroughly; I don’t want residual sugar or artificial flavorings to attract rodents to my trees. Using a utility knife (scissors would work), I cut the tops off above where the bottles start to taper—so the cut bottle tapers a little. I cut off the bottom above where the indentations start. This leaves the bottom of the cut bottle wider than the top; the upper end of each cut bottle can slide easily into the bottom end of a cut bottle.
Stupid Rodents in my Small Kitchen Garden
I get about 9 inches of tube from each bottle. So, I stacked 3 bottles to make an 18-inch tube. As my trees grow, I may add another bottle or two; the tender bark will need protection for several years. I’m not concerned about removing the tube in the future. When the tree branches and the bark is tough enough to withstand rodents, I can simply use a utility knife or scissors to cut the thin plastic away.
Rodents around here don’t think the way I do. While they had been perfectly happy with lawn grasses, weeds, meadow plants, and forest undergrowth until this weekend, apparently they wanted something different during the holiday. Someone cleanly snipped off the tops of the three new trees I’d not yet protected with fences or tree tubes. This is an impressive accomplishment considering that the trees are well apart from each other in different places in my yard… and there are intervening shrubs that didn’t receive similar pruning.
So, my sloth proved my point: young trees are vulnerable and you need to protect them! I’m discouraged, but not crushed. My young trees are several inches shorter, and they no longer have terminal buds. They do, however, have many lateral buds, and chances are they’ll make it through the winter if I protect them. Without a terminal bud, a young tree will send branches up from the main stalk, letting them vie to become the tree’s new leader.
My job, should the trees survive winter and send up these new limbs, will be eventually to prune off all but one so it can become the tree’s trunk. The trees’ future growth will “absorb” the bumps made by these side shoots so the trees appear straight—or nearly straight. This isn’t a great way to grow a tree, but it happens time and again to wild trees, and they don’t complain much about it.
Cheap Small Kitchen Garden Tree Tubes
I prefer soda pop from a 12 ounce can; I don’t drink it quickly enough to empty a two-liter bottle before the stuff at the end goes flat. This is one reason I didn’t make and install tree tubes immediately after planting my trees: I didn’t have any two-liter soda bottles available.
This tree tube concept wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not known about duct tape. I don’t worship duct tape, but there it is: I held the tubes together with a single wrap at each joint. Honestly: this is the first do-it-yourself project I’ve done where duct tape was truly the best solution.
Having bought several two-liter bottles, and picked up some empties from my dad, I was going to test my home-made tree tube idea this week. I started today… just a weekend too late. But I’m happy to say the makeshift tubes are perfect for my needs, and I hope they keep what’s left of my new trees alive through the winter. If you’re adding young fruit trees to your small kitchen garden in the near future, you might save some hassles by creating and installing tree tubes immediately after planting.
The pear trees are in the mail. In just a few years I’ll be able to harvest some of these beauties right in my back yard!
Many blog posts ago, I stated intent to plant a pear tree this autumn in my small kitchen garden. I reported my efforts to find a pear tree at local garden stores and nurseries, and my eventual decision to purchase a tree via the internet. I ordered a tree five trees, and then discovered a lot of negative reviews for the nursery I’d selected. I waited.
While I was placing my order, I decided to buy two pear trees and a sour cherry tree. After I placed the order, I emailed the store and asked to add two pecan trees for a total of five trees. The person with whom I corresponded (via email) to make this change explained that they wouldn’t ship my trees until there had been a frost to send the trees into dormancy.
Apparently, the nursery has had frost. I received notice that my order shipped, and I’m anticipating its arrival within the week. Psych! But I have a minor disappointment: the shipping notification didn’t mention pecan trees. I’m confident that I won’t be getting those trees, and that I won’t be charged for them.
Honestly, I’m not upset; I had an inkling that my emailed change request might challenge the nursery operator. I’d added the trees more to honor a minimum purchase amount specified by the nursery to offset their “no shipping charge” policy. So, while my request got lost between then and now, the oversight won’t cost me anything, and the nursery loses only the profit from selling two pecan “seedlings.”
When the new pear trees and the sour cherry tree arrive, I’ll document their condition and the steps I take to get them planted and ready for winter in my small kitchen garden. I hope, if you have the space and the inclination, that you’re planting fruit as well!
An anonymous visitor to Your Small Kitchen Garden raised concerns about Summerstone Nursery. In my last post (Pear Trees for my Small Kitchen Garden), I explained that I chose Summerstone from among more than a dozen web sites, and I explained my selection process. Admittedly, in researching these nurseries I made a classic blunder: I failed to research what customers of the businesses had to say about them.
I’m flabbergasted at the oversight as I’ve been shopping on line since the 1990s and I approach I thought I approached all information on the internet with a kind of “Oh, Yeah?” attitude. Not this time.
Problems with Summerstone?
Will I be one of the disgruntled few, or will I be happy with the vendor from whom I ordered pear trees? I may not be able to answer until next summer (and I don’t expect homegrown fruit for three or four years). In the meantime, I have visions of large, beautiful pears that are just out of reach.
So, a day late and about $36 short, I’ve read some consumer reviews of Summerstone Nurseries. The reviews aren’t all rosy (they’re also not all bad). I probably wouldn’t have bought from Summerstone had I read the reviews first… but I’m not sure. I also did belated due diligence on Willis Orchards, Raintree Nursery, and Nature Hills—the other on-line suppliers I mentioned in my last post. It would be wrong to say that any impress… though, perhaps, Raintree has the best ratio of positive to negative reviews… Summerstone’s ratio is the worst.
I’m not Thrilled…
When reading reviews, I always remind myself: If things go OK, I don’t go out of my way to tell the world about it. I expect things to go OK, so why bother reporting OK to a consumer watch organization? Businesses such as eBay make customer and seller reviews central to the basic sales strategy: you leave good review, I leave good review, we’re good eBay citizens… but a customer can really mess up a seller’s business by leaving a bad review. The dynamics encourage everyone to leave reviews whether good or bad.
For sales web sites, you can predict the behavior of customers: when things go well, they move on. When things go poorly, they complain. So, I’m sure you see mostly negative reviews of vendors who don’t participate in shopping communities or web 2.0 networking—even when the vast majority of shopping experiences with the vendors are neutral or positive.
Do I Feel Better Now?
Rationalization complete, I’m still bothered by the negative reviews of Summerstone Nurseries. It occurs to me that if left to their own devices, people are more likely to complain than to compliment (or simply move on), then a compliment on an independent consumer watchdog web site must carry substantially more weight than does a negative review. Sigh!
Well, I’m an optimist and I’m very patient. So, while I’m still not recommending a particular on-line nursery, I’m not denouncing any either. I’ll stay the course, and continue to report as the pear tree saga unfolds.
I feel I’ve learned what I thought I already knew: get your hair cut where the barber goes for a haircut; buy donuts where cops buy donuts; eat at the crowded restaurants… You know: seek other people’s recommendations before making a purchase.
This ancient pear tree stands about 40 feet tall. It’s loaded with pears, but all are way out of reach.
Many posts ago, I advocated that autumn is the time of year to plant fruit in your small kitchen garden. I laid out my plan to acquire and plant a pear tree this fall, and to share the process with readers of this blog. Things haven’t progressed as quickly as I’d expected, but I want to make it clear: I’m making progress.
Nothing Available Locally
I explained in two earlier posts (post 1, post 2) that I simply can’t find pear trees in local gardening stores and nurseries at this time of year. So, I’ve been prowling on-line for a nursery that suits me, and that carries a tree I want to own. To keep everything above board, here is the complete agenda for my search:
I’ve been seeking…
- …a reasonable variety of trees
- …a rock-bottom price
- …an informative site with (good) enough instructions for gardeners of zero skill
- …a nursery that will deliver my trees in autumn so I can get them planted
- …a web site with an affiliate program in hopes I might establish a long-term relationship with them and make a little coin from this web site
I haven’t yet found what I’ve been seeking.
A Very Brief Overview of Nurseries
I found many nurseries that have on-line presences. In fact, one found my blog before I found them and they left a comment about an earlier post. That site also has an affiliate program… but here’s the problem: Their price for a single pear tree was staggering (to me). If I wait until spring, I can get a tree locally for half their price—and I won’t have to pay shipping.
Many other on-line nurseries offer young, bare-root pear trees for under $10 per tree (bare-root means there’s no soil around the roots of the tree when they ship it). One nursery even offered trees at various stages of development; the older the tree, the more you pay for it. Here are links to the most compelling of the nurseries I visited… though there were at least a dozen others:
My On-Line Nursery
I settled on Summerstone Nursery for several reasons:
- They are used to shipping trees for planting in autumn.
- They were amazingly responsive to emails—and were patient when I bollixed my order and asked to make changes.
- Their prices didn’t cause indigestion
- They offer a good variety of pear (and other) trees
But Summerstone isn’t a great site for inexperienced gardeners. There’s very little useful information about their trees on the web site. For example, the instructions for planting are terse and don’t differentiate between planting in the spring and planting in the fall. As well, the site identifies specific trees as pollinators for other trees but doesn’t explain that nearly every variety of pear tree can pollinate nearly every other variety (see the box for more about pear pollinators). Also, descriptions of the pear varieties don’t always reveal how tall and broad the trees might become—or which hardiness zones they’re best suited to.
The photo of cherries is from the Summerstone Nursery web site… I ordered a cherry tree along with the two new pear trees.
For my own needs, I visited several nursery web sites and jumped among them to gather the information I wanted before making a purchasing decision. It would have been great to find one on-line nursery that provided all the features I wanted, but technology being what it is, I was still able to muddle through.
My Small Kitchen Garden Tree Order
I was going to plant just one pear tree… and it was going to be Bartlett because Bartlett is a self-pollinating variety; you need only one. But a crazy thing happened (don’t you know): I got really pumped about Moonglow pears and wanted to try them. Moonglow needs a pollinator—a non-Moonglow variety. So, I ordered one of each (Moonglow and Bartlett). Oh, and a sour cherry tree… because I love sour cherry pies and preserves. For good measure, I threw in two pecan trees—I may be a little too far north to keep pecans happy, or I may not be… but that’s a discussion for another post.
I may not see my new trees until November. I’ll keep you apprised.
While this completely neglected apple looks scrumptious in the tree, there is a near 100% certainty that it’s home to a grub or a worm or a burrowing insect.
I’ve explained in past posts (about fruit trees) that growing fruit trees as a part of your small kitchen garden strategy adds a boatload of work to an otherwise potentially low-impact activity. Especially with apples, if you don’t follow a regular maintenance schedule, your fruit trees won’t reward you well.
Even as I’ve embarked on the simple mission of planting a new pear tree in my own home kitchen garden this year, I’m ruing the near total neglect I gave my fruit trees through the growing season.
Tree Things I Didn’t Do
Dormant Oil—This is a bigger confession than I care to make: I have never completed all the annual fruit tree maintenance jobs recommended by expert agriculturalists. One that has always eluded me is supposed to happen in mid-to-late winter: spraying the tree with dormant oil. Dormant oil kills several types of bugs that can weaken a fruit tree—and that may attach themselves and hold on through the winter.
As in every year I’ve had fruit trees, I didn’t apply dormant oil this year.
Pruning—In very late winter, it’s important to prune a fruit tree. You remove dead wood, take out branches that cross each other (to reduce rubbing that may damage the bark), open up the tree’s crown so sunlight can make it to the tree’s lower branches, do some shaping to make the fruit-bearing branches more accessible, and cut back limbs to promote new growth.
Traditionally, I’ve pruned my trees properly, and I’ve even done a lot of grafting. I didn’t do any pruning or grafting this year.
Mulch & Fertilizer—It’s helpful to mulch around a tree that grows out of your lawn. Mulching retains moisture, guards the soil from insects and burrowing animals, and keeps your lawnmower away from the tree’s trunk. Mulch helps retain moisture, cuts down on plants that compete for the moisture, and provides shallow roots with some insulation against rapid freezing and sudden extreme swings in temperature. Fertilizer is a quick pick-me up, providing nourishment at crucial developmental points during the year.
I’ve never been good about mulching, though my wife sometimes does the job. I do usually fertilize… but I neither mulched nor fertilized my fruit trees this year.
Culling—Especially with peach trees, and with apple trees to a lesser extent, a tree’s tendency to be prolific can result in production of small fruits. Peach tree branches may be lined with blossoms, and if every one of them grows into a peach, they’ll be small peaches indeed. So, shortly after the petals drop off and you can clearly identify baby peaches, it’s a good idea to pick off and discard a lot of the babies. Usually a two-step process, you first pick off fruits from clusters leaving just a single fruit where there was a cluster. A week or two later, you pick off the smaller fruits, leaving one every eight or nine inches along each branch.
This is typical of an apple that has had no help in fending off insect marauders. I’d have no desire to bite into this one, and paring it for use in pie or apple sauce would be only slightly less appetizing.
Certain insecticides cull fruits when the fruits are small. For example, applying Sevin brand insecticide to an apple tree right after the petals fall will usually cause some fruits to fall… and using a higher concentration of Sevin culls a greater number of fruits.
I didn’t do any culling this season.
Pest-prevention—Pears, peaches, and plums grow surprisingly “clean” in central Pennsylvania even if you do nothing to fight off insects. Apples are another story. If I don’t treat my apple trees with some type of bug spray repeatedly, nearly every apple I harvest will hold hidden biological treasures. Chemical insecticides require application immediately after petals fall, and again every ten to fourteen days until harvest. Admittedly, I’ve not tried organic treatments to protect my apples… if you’ve had success with any, please leave a comment that tells about frequency of application and efficacy of the product.
This season, I applied insecticide right after petal-fall, and, perhaps, two weeks later. After that, my apples became insect incubators.
Woodchucks, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, and, perhaps, smaller rodents, suplement their diets with my rotting apples. There is also a healthy bee and wasp population eating the sweet fruit. The alcohol fumes coming off the apples might draw attention from prohibitionists.
Harvest—Of course, if you grow fruit but never harvest it, you don’t actually have fruit. Peaches provide a window of as long as a month during which you can pick some, let them ripen indoors, pick some more, and so on (picking a peach speeds it to ripen—but it should already look ripe before you pick it). Then, all at once, the ones still on the trees soften, shrivel, and drop off. Pears seem to hold on for several months, but you should harvest pears the moment any full-sized one drops off on its own account. You can start picking apples when they first look ripe, and continue picking right up until leaves are falling. The apples will start to jump out of the trees on their own, so it can become a daily chore to pick up fallen apples before rodents chew on them, and then to pick apples off the trees so you get some that aren’t bruised by the fall.
Yes, I’ve harvested apples this year, but my motivation is very low. Most of my apples are fermenting in my lawn while providing nutrition to insects and rodents. The ones I’ve gotten to before the predators all have been colonized by boring insects—even apples I’ve picked from the trees.
There’s Always Next Year
When the season started, I had been excited about mild weather and a bumper crop of apple blossoms. A few awkwardly-timed rain storms (which interfere with insecticide treatments), and heavy focus on non-gardening-related activities made me miss insecticide application for about six weeks. At that point, it was pointless to jump back in and hope for good results; I could see most fruits were already badly formed.
It sometimes takes a year like this to get me motivated for the next five years: With last year’s bumper crop of well-cared-for apples, I canned some nine gallons of apple sauce. I enjoyed canning two gallons of it, and canning the rest felt like a forced march.
When it comes time to prune and graft in March, I’ll remember the overwhelming smell of fermentation and the sticky gushiness under the apple trees during my autumn lawn mowing. It’ll be enough to get me out to work on my fruit trees.
I’m on a mission to plant a pear tree this fall in my small kitchen garden. In the past week, I’ve visited or contacted garden stores and nurseries within a half hour drive of where I live in central Pennsylvania—hardiness zone 5b. I’m ready now to concede that the local culture simply doesn’t believe in fall planting of perennials. That’s too bad for two reasons:
- Planting in the fall has many advantages (read about them here)
- I’m going to have to mail order my pear tree
What I’d Look for at a Nursery
As I explained in my last post (click here to read it): 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. I would not buy a young tree whose main trunk made an abrupt change in direction, or had one dominant branch that was obviously thicker and reached higher than the main leader. I’d also be cautious of the distribution of branches.
Sometimes, it seems nursery operators prize low branches. Young trees often come with branches starting within a foot of the ground which is not a problem unless the tree’s main trunk makes an awkward diversion from vertical. When a tree has a vertical leader, within a few seasons, you can prune away the very low branches, and encourage growth on the higher ones.
However, when a young tree’s leader is at the end of a horizontal branch nearly as thick as the main trunk, it may take many years of aggressive pruning to train a new vertical leader that’s even vaguely in line with the trunk. If you’re growing a very small tree, then low branches make sense. But I want to be able to duck under my tree’s branches, so it won’t do to buy one that a nursery assembled with one or more main branches three feet off the ground.
It’s about Assembly at the Nursery
When you’re shopping for fruit trees, chances are you’re looking at chimeras. A chimera is an organism assembled from parts of several organisms. Especially in the cases of dwarf fruit trees, but often with larger trees as well, a nursery worker, through a craft called grafting, has combined two or more types of trees to make a single tree. The worker cuts a scion (a thin branch with several leaf buds and a leader at its tip), from a standard variety of fruit tree—say, a Bartlett pear. The worker also roots a variety of pear tree that has specific desirable characteristics, but that may produce unappealing fruit. The worker preserves the roots and cuts off most of the above-ground leader, replacing it with the Bartlett pear scion.
Over the course of a few months, the select root stock melds with the scion, and new wood and bark grow together to make a viable tree. The nursery worker makes sure no leaf buds survive on the root stock, so the only viable growth above ground is the good-eating variety of fruit.
Why the Grafting?
In grafting, the nursery worker is creating a tree with the best possible combination of features. Often, a desirable fruit’s roots are vulnerable to diseases, but the rest of the plant is hardy. It makes sense, then, to graft the desirable fruit onto a different root that won’t succumb to disease.
To make dwarf fruit trees, a nursery worker selects a “dwarfing root stock,” and grafts a desirable fruit onto it. The dwarfing stock simply passes water and nutrients to the rest of the plant more slowly than the plant would like… acting, in effect, like a bonsai tree master who cuts roots off of plants so they’ll grow up small though proportioned just like normally-grown trees.
Grafting can result in trees with undesirable shapes—especially when the nursery grafts two or more scions onto a single root stock (this is advantageous for fruits that require cross-pollination and is also necessary if you want two or more varieties of fruit from a single plant). Only one scion can be the tree’s leader… others must be branches—and when you graft a branch onto a three-foot tree, you have a tree that wants to be in your way when you do yard work.
What’s my Next Step?
I want to order my new pear tree soon so I can add it to my small kitchen garden in October. I’ll browse on-line nurseries, make a list, and share it with you in an upcoming post. When I select a nursery, I’ll explain why. I’ll also order a tree and explain my thinking about it.
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.