Posts Tagged ‘fruit trees’
I was out in my small kitchen garden this morning, pruning apple trees. For people in hardiness zones 6 and lower, pruning season is upon us: late winter ends in just 21 days! If you haven’t pruned your fruit trees this winter, you should get started.
Have you never pruned a tree? Follow along. I had planned this post to examine the tools you’ll use, and to lay out a strategy to get good results. The post got quite long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. This one introduces pruning tools and shows how to use them.
Tools for Pruning Apple Trees
Shears—For young trees, or trees that you’ve managed well over the years, pruning sheers may be enough to do the annual job; they’ll cut through branches up to about the diameter of a pencil. Shears fit easily in a pocket, so you stow them when you’re climbing ladders or trees and pull them out when you’re ready to prune.
A bypass pruner has scissor-like action. That is, two cutting blades slide past each other, each cutting into the branch.
An anvil pruner has one cutting blade that pinches the branch against a flat metal surface until the branch separates.
Perhaps the greatest innovation in pruning shears is the ratcheting shear. When you’re cutting heavy branches, you might not have enough strength to get through with one squeeze. A ratcheting shear lets you start a cut, release pressure, and squeeze again with greater leverage—it’s astonishing how easily a good ratcheting action can complete a cut.
Loppers—When you need to cut through branches thicker than a pencil, use loppers. Loppers come in many sizes. Generally, the longer the handles, the larger the branches they can shear. My loppers easily cut branches the thickness of broomsticks, and I’ve used them to cut branches perhaps twice that… albeit with less-than-ideal results. You can find both bypass and anvil loppers, and there are even ratcheting loppers.
Loppers are too large to put in your pocket, but they extend your reach so you won’t have to climb as high for light-to-medium pruning jobs.
Pruning saws—For the very thick branches, a pruning saw is handy. You can use other saws—a bow saw would be my first choice—but you’ll find a pruning saw among the easiest to fit into tight spaces and awkward positions you often deal with when working in trees.
I have a pruning saw with very coarse teeth on one side, and fine teeth on the other. The fine teeth have almost no set, so they can cut only very small branches without binding (read the box about Saw Teeth for an explanation of tooth set).
A Pruning Cut
The “how” of making a pruning cut is simple. There are two types: One that shortens a branch, and one that altogether removes a branch. My next post provides guidance on which branches to cut and why. Here’s how to make pruning cuts.
Shortening a Branch
To shorten a branch, always cut just beyond a leaf or fruiting bud. Wood protruding beyond the last living bud will most certainly die, leaving a point-of-entry for rot, insects, and microorganisms. When you cut close to a bud, that bud assumes the “leader” role for the branch and grows vigorously in the coming season. Because no wood protrudes beyond the bud, the vigorous new growth quickly scabs over and protects the bare wood.
Note that a bud protrudes from a branch at an angle. Cut along that angle without nicking the wood that directly supports the bud (see photo).
Removing a Branch
Cut a branch off as close as possible to the branch or trunk from which it’s growing. Usually, there is a bulge on the parent branch where the smaller branch emerges from it. Cut flush against that bulge without cutting into it. Also, don’t nick or scratch the bark on the limbs you’re leaving attached. When sawing, lay the saw blade onto the branch you’re preserving, gently engage the limb you’re removing, then saw carefully without letting the blade rub against the supporting branch. Don’t force the blade into the cut, and don’t rush.
As you reach the end of a cut, support the branch so it doesn’t pinch the saw or splinter away from the tree. Measure your final strokes so the blade doesn’t slip through and accidentally gouge bark. If your saw has teeth on both edges of the blade, you need to be extra careful to keep the rear teeth from messing up the branch you’re retaining.
When using loppers or shears to remove a branch, get the blades as close to the base of the branch as possible, and try to make a clean cut without stabbing the anchor branch. I feel as though I can get a closer cut with bypass pruners than I can with anvil pruners.
Admittedly, a fruit tree seems a bit large to be a component of a small kitchen garden. However, it’s inescapable: if you want to grow certain fruits, you must grow trees. Besides, many homeowners ended up with fruit trees when they bought their houses; my yard had three apple trees, a pear tree, and a peach tree growing out-of-control when we moved in.
To get the best crop of fruit from your trees, you need to prune them. This is a late-winter job; it’s best to prune while a tree is dormant. I prune in March; in hardiness zone 5b sap starts flowing in late March or early April. I’ve gotten an early start this year so I can explain pruning here in time for you to get your trees in shape.
Advantages of Pruning Apple Trees
If apple trees did come with your house, or if you have some old trees you’ve ignored for a season or longer, your trees may be a bit wild. In just one season of neglect (which, typically means two seasons of growth), a tree can mess itself up pretty severely. In two or three seasons of neglect, a tree can turn itself into a three- or four-year reclamation project.
Unless a tree is rotting through its trunk, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting it under control. There are a number of advantages to pruning, and they define the guidelines I follow as I tackle this relatively pleasant off-season gardening task. In no order of merit, here are advantages of pruning:
- Pruning limits the size of a tree. By pruning, you keep a tree from competing with surrounding plants; from shading out your living spaces; and from interfering with wiring, clothes lines, buildings, walkways, and driveways. You also keep fruit within reach—fruit that grows on very high branches may go to waste.
- Pruning opens spaces for light to get to the lower and inside branches of a tree.
- Pruning removes dead and diseased wood.
- Pruning simplifies a tree and makes it easier for you to work in and around the tree.
- Pruning encourages new fruit-bearing growth.
- Pruning tricks a tree into producing larger, meatier fruits.
Before you Prune
Before we get our hands on pruning tools, there are a few important points to stress:
Be patient—you can make significant changes to a tree’s appearance in a single season. However, a particularly wild tree may require several years of pruning to get it into top form.
Stop when the tree emerges from dormancy—even if you haven’t completed your pruning agenda, don’t continue into the growing season. Once sap is flowing, it can accumulate at a cut and drip onto lower branches. The moisture and nearly undetectable sweetness can attract insects and feed pathogens. Opening a wound during the growing season causes unnecessary stress.
Don’t overdo it—never remove more than 20% to 25% of the tree’s leafing branches in a season of pruning. If you’re not confident about estimating 25%, be light-handed.
Tools matter—use sharp tools that make clean cuts, and clean the tools before you start pruning. It’s also wise to clean blades periodically while you’re pruning. A wipe with rubbing alcohol will disinfect tools so they don’t carry disease from one plant to another or spread disease to healthy limbs of an infected plant.
Pruning Tools and Techniques
In my next post, I’ll show you the tools I use and I’ll list the guidelines I follow as I prepare my fruit trees for a new growing season. If you have specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave comments; I’ll either respond with my own comments, or incorporate your questions into upcoming posts. For the discussion, I’ll talk about pruning apple trees, but the information applies as well to nearly any deciduous tree.
Please check back soon, or subscribe to my RSS feed so you catch the posts as I get them up on Your Small Kitchen Garden.
Here are links to other articles with information about pruning apple trees:
Pruning Fruit Trees with Knives – by Jeremiah Wright. More apples are grown in Great Britain than any other fruit. The reason of course is that the climate suits this fruit particularly. Apples can he grown to start the season in August, and to end the season in June by …
Pruning Apple Trees – Each Little World. Pruning trees and shrubs is one of the few reasons we northern gardeners have for venturing into the garden in the winter. And even at that , pruning at our house is generally limited to our two full-size apple trees. These 50-year-old trees…
How to Prune Apple Trees – Today we’re talking about Pruning Trees. In the coming weeks this will be a job to done, if you’d like more fruit. How to Prune Apple Trees by: Paul Curran. In this article you will find out how to prune apple trees. …
It seems a whole season has passed in my small kitchen garden since I started encouraging people to plant fruit trees in autumn. Then, I reported on the impending demise of my pear tree and my decision to add a new tree this fall. Autumn arrived very slowly, so the frost that sends trees into dormancy came late—the nursery didn’t ship my trees until early November.
The good news is: they arrived at the end of last week, and they look fine. What’s more, I planted them during the weekend, and documented the experience as-promised. Of course, autumn made itself known during the weekend, so tree-planting was less pleasant than I’d have liked: I don’t believe the temperature rose above 40F degrees, and a dusting of snow fell as I was packing my gear back to the garden shed.
According to instructions on Summerstone Nursery’s web site, I unwrapped the young trees and watered them from root to tip.
Kudos to Summerstone Nursery
A young bare root sapling may have very few roots branching off the main stem. This is the sour cherry tree’s root section lying against the back of a shovel. It’s easy to understand why someone might feel they received “sticks.” Young trees are sticks that haven’t yet grown into logs.
In one of my posts about the fruit tree saga, I explained that I first ordered trees, and then looked for customer reviews of the vendor from whom I ordered. Most reviews were negative, and I was a tad concerned. Later, I reported that I had ordered three trees via the vendor’s web site, then emailed a change request to add two more trees. When I received a shipping notice, it listed only the original three trees along with the charge for just those three.
Surprise, surprise: when I opened the package, I found five trees inside. All were clearly labeled, and all were apparently in good or better health. Assuming they are actually the varieties of trees I ordered, I have only a tiny complaint about the vendor, Summerstone Nursery: I wish they’d managed the change request accurately. Now I need to review my credit card bill and mail a check to Summerstone if they didn’t charge for the additional trees I’d requested. Still, based on this one experience with Summerstone Nursery, I’d buy from them again, and I’d recommend them to other gardeners.
To plant trees in a lawn, first remove the sod where you’re going to dig a hole. I’m planting two pear trees in the same hole. This simplifies a lot compared to spacing the trees out: Pruning two trees so close together is like pruning one tree. Watering and treating for insects is easier with the trees close together, and bees will work both trees as one, with luck, resulting in a high pollination rate. I dug a rectangular hole because I used this patch of lawn for illustrations in another blog post about cutting a garden bed into a lawn (including detailed instructions for how to cut sod). Eventually, I’ll mulch the area into an oval shape. For a single bare root tree of this size, you could dig a hole about the width of a shovel, and a foot deep… but I encourage you to dig broader and deeper so you loosen the soil where roots will grow a year or two down the road.
Bare Roots for a Small Kitchen Garden
With the sod removed, dig. You need to dig several inches deeper than the root section of the tree. Pile the sod and soil on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow; you’ll need it later (don’t bury the sod under the soil as you’ll need the sod first). Planting instructions from most nurseries tell you to set the tree so that the graft is above the soil line. In many cases, a layperson can’t identify a graft, so this information is useless. If there’s an abrupt bend or a bulge in the twig just above the root line, that’s probably the graft. If the twig seems continuous, embed the tree so that all roots projecting from the main twig are underground… but all tree branches or leaf buds are above ground. If you’re just not sure, planting shallow is safer than planting deep—the root stock will hold up better in contact with the soil, but anything above the root stock may suffer if it’s underground.
One recurring criticism of on-line nurseries is that the trees they ship are no more than sticks. For the uninitiated, I understand this concern: young trees are pretty much just sticks. Were you to buy a tree of this age already potted, you wouldn’t think twice about it; what few roots it had would be concealed by soil.
However, the trees I purchased were delivered “bare root.” This means they were removed from the soil in which they were growing at the nursery and wrapped in moist packaging for shipping. The leaders of my bare root trees (the leader is the top-most vertical branch with a terminal bud on its tip) looked like perfectly healthy branches on any of my mature fruit trees: thin, supple, and lined and tipped with healthy leaf buds. The bare root end of my trees had only a few thin roots—but certainly adequate roots to support trees of this size.
When the hole is six or so inches deeper than the root section of your tree, line the bottom of the hole with the sod you removed at the outset… but with the grass side down. You don’t need to do this, but why waste the great nutrition in that sod? Buried, the sod will break down over the winter, and make your tree happy when its roots grow down in the next growing season. (Don’t plant the tree with its roots in contact with the sod.)
Planting such young trees creates a few challenges:
1. When grass and weeds are under a blanket of snow, tender tree bark becomes particularly appealing to rodents. If you don’t take precautions, your young trees will be perfectly healthy one evening, then barkless and dying the next morning.
2. If prevailing winds perpetually blow on your young trees through the winter, the trees may dry out. Sometimes you’ll lose a leaf bud or two and the tree will remain viable, but if all the buds go, there’s little hope for the tree. Ideally, you protect the stick-like baby with a windbreak… and if you’re clever that windbreak can double as a rodent-excluder.
Some years ago, the industry invented tree tubes. These are rigid or semi-rigid cylinders that can surround your saplings, protecting them from rodents and deer until the trees are tall enough and woody enough to withstand furry pests. If you’ve driven through tree-planting country, you might have seen forests of these tubes springing up in fields.
Spread soil on the sod until the hole is the correct depth to accommodate the tree. Then hold the tree in place and gently fill with soil around it. Continue adding soil to cover the roots of the tree; stop when the entire hole is about an inch below the surrounding soil.
A tree tube might extend four feet above the ground, completely hiding a seedling whose crown is only two feet up. That seedling concentrates on growing up the tube to reach sunlight. Using a tree tube increases your tree’s chances of surviving its first years in your small kitchen garden.
I can’t tell you yet how easy these tubes are to find. I phoned a local garden store in search of tree tubes, and they suggested I consult a local forestry authority. I’m hoping a home improvement store might carry them, but if that doesn’t pay off, I’ll be back to ordering on-line. There are plenty of companies selling tree tubes, or tree shelters, or tree guards, or grow tubes on-line.
I wish I’d thought to track these down before my trees arrived. Now I have to fight off rodents hand-to-hand until I can acquire some tree tubes.
Add water. Don’t add a little water. Your job now is to flood the hole. Do so gently without washing away soil. Rather, let water trickle into the hole so it soaks in and eventually saturates the soil you dug out and added back; this may take ten or fifteen minutes (for a single tree in a much smaller hole it might take two or three minutes). When there are puddles around your tree, shut off the water and lightly press down the soaking soil with your foot. As you do this, gently adjust the tree so it points straight up (or at the angle you desire); the soil will be so loose and sloppy that the tree will move around easily, shifting often as you tamp down the contents of the hole. Add more soil on top to soak up excess water.
Erect some type of anti-rodent protection… and a wind block if the tree isn’t well sheltered. I fashioned a three-sided fence using sections from my planting bed; I won’t need them around the vegetable patch until spring. However, if I find tree tubes, I’ll remove the fence… What ho! I just got an idea for fashioning makeshift tubes from junk. I’ll experiment and let you know how it works.
Here are some other articles about planting fruit trees:
Peach Tree Guild | The Lazy Gardener – Luckily for me now is a good time to plant fruit trees: when they are dormant. The cultivar is Elberta, which seems to be a pretty reliable peach according to what I have read. With some of the species I already posses I threw together …
Vegetables Gardening Fruit Trees – Well the first thing that I want to talk about would be that fact that it is a great time to plant fruit trees in Winter this time is best because all the sap in the stems and leaves of the tree has fallen back down into the roots to …
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.
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.
Some weeks ago, I admonished visitors to Your Small Kitchen Garden blog to think about planting fruit in the fall. It’s fall. So, plant fruit!
In earlier posts, I provided encouragement about planting strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, pears, peaches, apples, cherries, and plums: Plant Fruit. Let’s talk a bit more about pears, peaches, apples, cherries, and plums.
Before you Buy
I originally posted about fruit to help people decide whether they want to deal with the hassles of fruit-growing. Most of the continental United States (those in hardiness zone 5) is at the critical decision point: plant now, or miss out until spring. I argued in my earlier posts that now is better…
But before you rush off to the garden store (or click over to an on-line store), answer some questions:
Choose a Spot in Your Small Kitchen Garden
If a tree is going into the soil in your yard, evaluate the location. Will your fruit tree get at least six hours of direct sunlight every day? Look at nearby trees, if there are any. The five-foot tall spruce hedge on your neighbor’s property may not be a problem today, but in five years, it could completely shade out part of your yard.
If the crown of the tree you choose will be 30 feet across at maturity, plant it at least 15 feet from the nearest obstruction.
Measure for Size
The crown of a dwarf variety of fruit tree may extend only 4 feet around the tree’s trunk (perhaps, 8 feet in diameter). The crown of another dwarf variety may extend 15 feet around the trunk (30 feet in diameter). It’s pointless to choose a variety of fruit tree without knowing how much space you have for it, so measure the space you’ve chosen.
With aggressive pruning, you can confine many varieties of fruit trees to smaller spaces than they’d choose for themselves, but this must be a work of love: pruning is a late-winter activity that you ought to do annually. If you miss a year or two, you might regret having planted a large variety of tree in a confined space (just saying).
Evaluate the Drainage
It’s sad if the first choice location for a fruit tree in your small kitchen garden is in a depression, or in a level spot at the bottom of a hill. In a very dry year, you’ll be happy to have water accumulate around your tree during rare rain storms. However, in wet years, a tree planted on low ground can suffer from having its roots submerged in water for days or weeks at a time.
Dave Wilson Nursery has a nice web page about how to plant a tree (Dave Wilson Nursery). They suggest a test you can use to determine whether your soil drains properly for a tree: Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and fill it with water. Let it drain, then fill it again. If it takes longer than 3 or 4 hours to drain on the 1st or 2nd filling, you have problems! They also suggest if you really want to plant in a place with poor drainage, that you build a raised bed and go right ahead.
In Ground, or Above Ground?
This photo of trees planted in a raised bed is from the Dave Wilson Nursery web site.
Trees are amazingly adaptable and will try to make a go whatever the soil conditions you subject them to. However, if your yard sits on rocks, clay, or both, you need to make adjustments; it’s pointless to start your fruit trees where they’ll need to struggle for water and nutrition.
If you can dig in the soil, you can amend it with a mix of high-quality topsoil and humus. If you can’t dig in your soil, or you’d rather not, then consider using a container or building a deep raised bed for the tree. Again, for further thoughts on raised beds (and a lot of other useful information about planting trees), check out the Dave Wilson Nursery web site.
When You Decide to Dig
Chances are, you’ve already heard this: Call a local authority before you dig. Electric, telephone, and TV cable wires all might run through your yard… as well as water and sewer lines. Oh, and if you’re rural enough, you probably have a large septic field in the yard—maybe two of them: an active one and a spent one.
Don’t plant fruit trees on an active septic field. This isn’t a rule… some trees will prefer the septic environment, and it might take years for their roots to plug up the field’s drainage system. But why take chances? If you have a retired septic field in your yard, on the other hand, it might be the perfect space for a new orchard.
In any case, make certain you know how deep you can dig safely before you fall in love with a location for your fruit tree. When you call about the services, ask whether, and how deep you can dig. They may send someone to mark the paths of underground cables or pipes, so call immediately if you’re going to plant soon.
My pear tree has a crack running from its first branch down to the ground; it’s time to plant a replacement.
A final thought about planting over underground wires and pipes: Planting over them isn’t so much a problem as is the potential long-term impact on the health of your tree. If a service company needs to excavate to make repairs six or seven years from now, your fruit tree may not survive the ordeal. If planting over services is your only option in your limited space, opt for a large container and a very dwarf variety of fruit tree… you’ll be able to move the tree the next time a utility company digs up your yard to fix something.
Are You Ready to Plant Fruit?
If you’re building a raised bed, best to do so before you have a fruit tree on-hand… after it’s built, you’ll need to fill it with soil, and that might mean scheduling a delivery by a landscaping supply store. If you’re going to dig a hole, you’re probably safe having the tree on-hand before you start—though, again: if you need to upgrade your soil, make sure you have that finished before you adopt a tree and take it home.
I’m going to plant a new pear tree in my yard this fall. The one that came with the house has rotted at least halfway through near its base, and I doubt it’ll be standing two or three years from now. I’ll share the procedure with you as it unfolds. I can’t guarantee the timing of posts on the topic because I haven’t been to the local nurseries yet, and I may need to order on-line. Believe it or not, some on-line suppliers aren’t yet shipping fruit trees for fall planting.
Some links to more information about fruit trees:
Landscaping In Small Places And Planting Fruit Trees – Almost every month we find that we are being bombarded by new diet or exercise plans created specially to tempt us change the way we lead our lives. It is true that we all should really closely examine our current behaviour with a view …
Shapes For Fruit Trees: Winning Gardening Guide – Through the use of pruning techniques, it is possible to shape your tree to a particular style. There are seven main tree shapes that all have their own advantages for particular situations. During the growth of the tree, simply cut off …
As Autumn Arrives, Plant Fruit Trees!
We’re about to roll into September, so it’s hard to think clearly about next spring’s small kitchen garden. But this is an important time to do just that—especially if you want to grow fruit. You don’t need to rush out immediately, but if you want to plant perennial fruit-producers, autumn is the best time to do it. Thinking about it now can save some energy in autumn… and if you need to order plants through the mail because you can’t find them locally, it’s good to get a head start.
Fruit for Your Small Kitchen Garden
OK, not all perennial fruit plants want to be planted in the fall. Forget about brambles: raspberries, blackberries, and loganberries. They prefer spring planting. However, blueberries, grapes, apples, cherries, pears, peaches, and plums will all do best when you plant them in the fall. You can also plant strawberries, but as October approaches, select ever-bearing plants; summer-bearing plants should be in by the end of September. (My summer-bearing plants have sprouted new stolons—runners—in the past two weeks; they know when they like to be planted.)
Don’t you Plant Fruit Trees in Spring?
There’s a serious culture of people who plant fruit trees in the spring. That’s OK, but it creates challenges for the owner of a small kitchen garden. When you start in the spring, you introduce young, tender plants that are emerging from sleep. These plants are going to need a lot of water to get established, and in only two or three months, water could be scarce. Equally challenging: summer heat puts extra stress on plants. You might soon be pumping even more water to keep the tree perky.
Planting in the fall provides several advantages:
- Even as the air temperature plummets, soil cools down more slowly; roots will continue to grow into November or even December.
- With autumn comes the rain. It’s not a rule, but even if rainfall doesn’t increase in autumn, your new plantings are going dormant so they simply don’t need as much water.
- Perennials don’t need so much fertilizer when they’re going dormant. If you plant in the fall, you can leave off the fertilizer until the ground starts to thaw in March.
A perennial that you plant in the fall will most likely be much happier in the spring than one that you plant in the spring. By planting in the fall, you leave more time in the spring that you can use to plant spring vegetables… or sit in your easy chair.
Plant Fruit Trees for a Small Kitchen Garden?
It seems I’m often encouraging you to depart from the basic premise of this blog: a small kitchen garden is one that provides food you consume throughout the growing season… with little left to store or give away. It’s hard to grow fruit trees that provide such a modest amount of fruit without serious human intervention early in the season.
But what if you want to have fruit growing in your yard? In fact, your entire small kitchen garden could be a single fruit tree. (I hope we can still be friends.) Clever nursery operators have designed dwarf varieties of apple, pear, and peach trees that produce full-sized fruit. For those who have, perhaps, only a patio, deck, or balcony, there are even trees that will thrive in containers. Sadly, for some types of fruit trees, there are no dwarf varieties. For example, a sour cherry tree grows a crown out to 15 feet or more, and a sweet cherry tree is going to be twice that diameter! Plums have the same problem. Make it clear to the salesperson (or sales web site) when you buy your plants exactly how much space the tree(s) will have. And ask whether the trees are self-pollinating. In some cases, if you buy one tree, you’re going to need a second or you won’t get any fruit.
While dwarf trees might fit in your small kitchen garden, look around for trees that have several varieties of fruit grafted onto a single plant. These may require more space, but they solve pollination challenges, and they provide variety in limited space. My dad once planted an apple tree that produced five types of apples. I’m sure you can find similar chimeras at your local garden store.
To Be Continued…
Please don’t dive into fruit-growing without considerable thought. As a truly lazy gardener, I can assure you: it’s much more of a pain to care for perennial fruit trees than it is to care for annual vegetables. With vegetables, you plant in the spring, harvest through the summer, and put it all to bed for the winter. Even a single fruit tree can provide year-round chores: mulching, fertilizing, pruning, culling, spraying, watering… to get the best production, all these things matter.
I grow fruit because the trees came with my yard. I’d miss them if they weren’t here, but I sometimes resent their demands for attention. Worse: when I neglect them, I’m annoyed that they don’t shrug their shoulders and produce good fruit anyway.
My next post will continue this topic about planting fruit in the fall—with even greater emphasis on the small kitchen garden. Please check back and I’ll encourage you to plant fruits that are best suited for gardeners with very limited space.
Here’s another article with further thoughts about planitng fruit:
Fruit Trees – If you select a fruit tree which needs a mate in order to produce fruits, you’ll also need to make sure you plant the two trees close enough together. Putting them at opposite ends of your large yard may cause you to never have any …