Do you grow fruit? Berries and fruit trees are often under-appreciated in the world of gardening, but it’s my topic this week with guest, Dr. Lee Reich. An expert on many thing gardening – such as composting and the no-till approach – Lee’s greatest passion is growing fruit.
Lee has written several books on gardening, and two are specific to fruit growing – Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden and Grow Fruit Naturally. One of the things I love about this ever-curious gardener is that he bases his approach to growing on science, but he is constantly exploring ways to expand beyond the traditional to grow what he loves in new ways.
Many gardener’s shy away from growing fruit. After all, fruit and berry producing plants are perennials, so they require a greater investment of space and time to mature and bear. Gardeners also shy away from growing fruit, out of concern that pests and diseases will be a bigger problem on fruit-bearing plants.
These are each legitimate issues, but like all garden challenges, you just need to understand your options to find the right solution.
Lee is no stranger to garden challenges. He lives 90 miles north of New York City in zone 5. Aside from cold winters typical of the area, his garden is situated in a valley. Cold air sinks to low spaces, so the temperature at his home tends to be five degrees cooler than the rest of the region. That cool air also releases more moisture onto his trees and shrubs, which puts everything in his garden at greater risk of disease.
So, how does Lee overcome the obstacles of location? With good management practices – like focusing on healthy soil and purchasing and placing plants wisely – and a lot of determination.
Growing in Limited Space
Oftentimes when we think fruit, we think orchard. Who has space to grow an orchard? The truth is, fruit trees and berries can be integrated into the landscape and ornamental plantings just like any tree or shrub.
An orchard – even a small orchard – would produce far more than most home gardeners would be able to consume. A small tree can produce a good yield, so one or two trees and a few vines or berry-producing plants can be plenty for most gardeners to handle.
If a small tree would be better-suited to the space you have available, consider looking for dwarf or even miniature varieties. Many species of fruit are available as dwarf or miniature and are several feet shorter than a standard variety. These smaller varieties are produced by grafting stem of the desired fruit, like a MacIntosh apple, onto the rootstock of a naturally shorter apple variety.
The stem cutting, (known as the scion) determines the production of the fruit, but the rootstock determines the overall natural growth size. Many dwarf varieties grow to just 8-10’ high. There are some shorter varieties also available, including miniatures which mature at under 8’. Take the time to research your options and understand what you are buying.
If an 8’ tree is still too large for your space, you can restrain size with good pruning. Consider the bonsai, which are nearly always grown in a container. Bonsai are carefully pruned to remain very small. Although a bonsai tree may be one hundred years old or more, it can be pruned to remain just a few feet high.
The point is that with good pruning, nearly any tree can be kept to a manageable size to fit your space.
Managing Pests and Diseases
No matter what you grow, there will always be the threat of pests and diseases, but don’t let that prevent you from growing the things you love.
Just as with vegetable gardening, one of the best ways to manage those threats on fruit-bearing plants is to understand which pests and diseases are most common in your area. Once you’ve identified those, you can look for fruit-bearing varieties which are resistant to those specific issues.
Some fruit trees are naturally resistant to pests in general. Lee gardens in an area plagued by a number of insect pest issues. So, he grows American persimmon, in part, because it inherently attracts few pests. He also grows Liberty apples, because that variety is resistant to a number of diseases common in his region. Not surprisingly, Lee includes a great list in his book detailing which varieties are resistant to various pests and diseases, so check that out.
Do you enjoy pears? Well, pear trees are one of the easiest to grow and the least likely to suffer from pest or disease problems. With 5,000 European-style pear varieties and thousands more Asian-style pears – you’ll be able to find one that fits the bill for your garden.
If fruit trees just aren’t your thing, consider berry vines or shrubs. Berry-producing plants have fewer pest and disease issues overall, and they are often easier to grow than fruit trees. Who doesn’t love a juicy, perfectly ripe berry?
Putting the right plant in the right place is just as true when it comes to growing fruit. Know your area. Become familiar with the issues common to your region, so you can purchase plants equipped for the resiliency necessary to your space.
Once you buy, don’t overlook the next important step of planting in the right place. Nearly all fruit-bearing trees and shrubs require several hours of direct sun and soil with good drainage. Place the plant where it will receive good light and drainage, and it will be more likely to thrive and produce. Plus – healthier trees and shrubs are less apt to fall victim to disease or pest attack.
Lee and I both garden organically. Rather than spraying our edible plants with chemical pesticides and herbicides, we rely on manual controls and organic treatments. There are a number of effective treatment options available, and a good resource is the University of Maryland Extension.
If your fruit-bearing plant does receive some damage from pests or disease, don’t consider that a failure. For one thing, trees can tolerate a certain amount of damage and still continue to produce.
Disease doesn’t have to mean your tree is a goner. Many diseases can be overcome with proactive pruning. Just as you would do for your tomato plants, prune out the branches and foliage of fruit trees showing signs of disease to prevent spread.
Sure, the fruit we buy in the supermarket might look perfect, but it doesn’t offer as much flavor. The bigger concern is that it’s been sprayed with plenty of chemicals to achieve that perfect look.
If your homegrown peach suffers a nibble or two, cut out the damage and enjoy the rest. It may not be ready for a photoshoot, but that peach will be packed with flavor. As importantly, you’ll be able to enjoy knowing that it’s free from any chemicals you opted to keep out of your garden.
The insect pests can be troubling, but it’s the larger pests which will probably create the most heartburn for a fruit grower. After all, who can resist luscious tree- or vine-ripened fruit? Not many of us, and furry critters like deer and squirrels are just as drawn to these tasty food sources.
What’s a fruit-loving gardener to do? Ultimately, your best line of defense for larger pests is a barrier. Fencing or netting can keep loss to a minimum, and Lee uses both to protect his beloved blueberry bushes.
Lee also recommends applying deer repellants up until the time fruit is ripening. And he has his dog to thank for some pest control. The squirrels and deer find Lee’s fruit trees less appealing with a rambunctious dog roaming the area.
Regardless of the prevention steps you take, you’ll still probably lose some of your crop to critters. Consider it sharing the wealth.
Down to the Business of Planting
Once you’ve set your mind on the variety that fits your tastes, space and conditions; you can choose to purchase bareroot or containerized plants.
A bareroot plant is typically sold dormant and without soil around the root system. Plants in this form are easier to ship, so there is a much greater variety available as bareroot. Since the exposed roots can dry quickly, it’s critical to get bareroot plants into the ground shortly after you receive them.
Containerized plants are just that – they come in containers, with soil around the roots. This option can be easier to plant, and it can be planted nearly anytime. Since it is being sustained by nutrients and moisture in the soil, a containerized plant can live for months while waiting for you to find the perfect time and the perfect spot.
Resist the urge to purchase a larger tree in order to have fruit sooner. Research has shown that smaller plants can establish more quickly than larger specimens, and within a few years, small trees tend to outpace their larger counterparts. Save yourself some money and stick with smaller trees.
Lee’s preference is a 4’ bareroot plant. He’s had the best success with that type and size. As a guy who loves unusual varieties, he also just loves the greater diversity available as bareroot plants.
Most fruit trees are grafted – with the stem of one variety grafted onto the rootstock of another variety within the same species. The graft area is known as the grafting union, and you never want to plant so deeply that the grafting union is beneath the surface.
The union is usually easy to spot. Look for a slightly bent – and sometimes wider – area on the trunk.
If the tissue of the grafted stem makes contact with the soil, it can root too, which is typically undesirable. For example, if you’ve purchased a dwarf apple tree, the rootstock will ensure the tree will mature at the dwarf height. However, if the stem of the grafted variety takes root, it is likely a standard tree and will mature at standard height. As a result, you could wind up with a 30’ tree rather than an 8’ tree. So, keep the graft union two to three inches above the soil surface.
If you place trees in your lawn space, keep the turf outside the drip line of young trees. The dripline is the area beneath the canopy of branches and foliage. The spread of the tree’s roots is typically consistent with the circumference of the dripline.
Turf above tree roots will compete with the tree for water and nutrients. So, eliminate competition by removing turf within the dripline and mulching the exposed surface with about 2” of a natural mulch material. Arborist wood chips or shredded leaves are two great options. As the mulch breaks down it will provide nutrients to the soil which will feed the tree.
Once the tree has matured, competition from turf is less of a concern, however damage from a lawn mower or weed trimmer is another story. A tree trunk nicked during lawn maintenance becomes more vulnerable to disease. So if you allow grass to spread into the dripline, allow sufficient space between the edge of the turf and the trunk of the tree.
Gardening Beyond the Limits
Perhaps you opt not to put your fruit-bearing plant into the ground at all? Many varieties will thrive and produce well in containers. Just be sure to learn what you’re buying and what its needs are.
Tropical and sub-tropical plants, like citrus, may not be hardy to your zone; but you can overwinter them indoors and bring them out during the warmer months to receive better light and air flow.
Lee grows several fruit varieties indoors – including kumquats, guava, and lemons. During his college years, he even had a fruiting apple tree growing in a container. Lee is an expert in the art of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
His containerized fruit trees enjoy outdoor conditions from spring through fall. Then, Lee protects them indoors through the -20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures of his Zone 5 winters.
Some fruit trees – like apples, pears and most stone fruits – require “cooling hours” to grow and produce. These species undergo a hormonal change after a certain amount of time in cooler temperatures – usually around 30-45 degrees Fahrenheit. Most apple trees, for example, must accumulate approximately 1,000 hours of cold temperatures to trigger growth, which begins as temperatures warm.
A fruit tree requiring this cooling period, but kept indoors through the winter, won’t receive the conditions necessary for continued growth and fruit production. On the other hand, a containerized plant exposed to too much cold outdoors can freeze solid – killing the plant.
If you have an unheated storage space or basement, that might be the perfect spot to allow your plant to get the cooling period it needs. Just be sure to provide some light and water as well.
When your only solution is the great outdoors, pile mulch around the exterior of the container to provide roots with an added layer of insulation against freezing temperatures. You might also consider sinking the container into the ground through the winter to take advantage of surrounding soil and prevent plant roots from freezing.
Time to Talk About Pruning
So many gardeners suffer from what I like to call “prune-a-phobia” – fear of pruning. It seems counterintuitive to cut away what you’ve worked so hard to cultivate, but good pruning for most trees and shrubs is a fundamental aspect of success.
Not all fruit trees need to be pruned – or require much pruning. If you don’t enjoy pruning or won’t have the time, look for varieties which won’t require that type of maintenance.
So, why is pruning so important for many fruit-bearing varieties? It allows light and air to reach all the areas of the tree. Good light contributes to good-tasting fruit, and good air movement keeps leaves and stems dry, which reduces the risk of disease.
When it comes to pruning fruit trees, there are many different approaches, but a few key basics.
First and foremost, always prune out broken, diseased or dying branches and stems. These can be pruned out any time of year, and it’s best to get them off the tree as soon as possible.
In general, it’s best to prune young trees to allow 8-10” between side branches. If you find two side branches growing near each other on the trunk, select the branch that’s sturdiest and/or that’s growing in the most appropriate or aesthetically-balanced direction and prune off the other branch.
There is a generally-accepted form for each type of fruit tree. Many pear trees, for example, are pruned to maintain a central leader, a Christmas tree-type shape. There are other shapes too, like an open center with a wider base. Many good resources are available online to learn which form is a natural fit for the type of tree you are growing, along with guidelines for achieving that form.
Did you know that upright branches produce more vigorous woody growth, while horizontal branches produce more fruit? The wider angle of a horizontal branch also promotes a stronger union with the trunk, so the branch is better able to withstand the weight of the fruit.
A branch doesn’t need to be either upright or horizontal, consider the whole gamut of angles in between.
It’s your tree and your garden – so, don’t be afraid to follow a form that works for you. Lee prunes his trees to follow the form that he wants. He bends branches and uses branch spacers to shape his young, developing trees. He calls it using art scientifically and science artistically.
It only takes a few weeks for a young, developing branch to be trained through bending or spacers. Give it a try. If you don’t like the results, try something different with new branches coming on. Take all these opportunities to learn and grow as a gardener.
As the tree matures, pruning for shape becomes less important. Focus shifts to pruning for health, light, air, and overall fruitfulness. Learn the bearing habit of your particular species.
For example, peach trees bear fruit on wood that is one year old. When you prune a branch to stimulate new growth, your efforts will be rewarded with more fruit the following season.
I covered lots of pruning basics for health, light and air in my very first podcast, so that’s waiting for you when you’re ready to learn more.
While there is an art to pruning fruit trees, there’s just one tried-and-true method for pruning the canes of raspberries and blackberries.
The roots of these canes are perennial (they grow year after year), but the canes themselves are biennial. In other words, the cane grows one year (known as the primocane), fruits the second year (known as the floricane), then dies.
Raspberries send out lots of new shoots from the roots – too many shoots, actually. Lee recommends leaving a row of shoots about a foot wide (and whatever length fits your space). Cut out any shoots beyond that one-foot width. Next, to allow light and air to each shoot, select the sturdiest shoots and prune out all the others to allow approximately 6” between shoots.
As the shoots develop into canes, it’s a good idea to support them from wind damage with some sort of trellis. Prune off the tops of the canes before they extend more than a few inches above the support. Lee has found that 5’ is a great height for bountiful raspberry-producing canes.
While raspberries bear fruit on the cane, blackberries bear fruit on the side shoots extending from the cane. Cut out all canes and side shoots which bore fruit the previous season. Blackberries grow in clumps, so your next step is to prune to thin out primocanes (canes which are just one year old and didn’t bear fruit the previous season), to leave around six canes (keeping the healthiest six canes). Finally, prune back the side branches to approximately 18” in length.
As summer wears on and new canes spring up, pinch them off at the top at around 3-4’ above ground. That will promote more side shoots and primocanes for fruit in future seasons.
Growing from Seed
Have you ever purchased fruit from the supermarket and wondered about growing your own plant from the seed? This won’t always produce results you want, but you can start some fruits from seed.
Sub-tropical and tropical fruit seeds, like citrus, can be good candidates. First, they tend to sprout easily. More importantly, citrus seeds are apomictic – which means the plant which grows from that seed will produce exactly the same fruit as that the seed came from.
Other seed types won’t grow true fruit. Most seeds come from fruit which is the product of the pollination of other varieties. The characteristics of the pollinating varieties are carried forward in the seed, which affects the fruit.
In other words, save a Fuji apple seed, and you may be able to get that seed to sprout and grow. However, if that plant bears fruit, it won’t bear Fuji apples. The fruit will be a combination of Fuji and any other pollinating variety which carried forward in the seed.
Fruits which require a cooling period for tree growth, like apples, also require a cooling period for their seeds to germinate. Fortunately, you can trick those seeds into germinating.
Lee places these types of seeds into a plastic bag with moist potting soil. He stores the bag in the refrigerator for a few months and waits for the seeds to sprout. This is a process known as stratification, and once the seed has sprouted, it’s ready to plant in a container and grow as you would any seedling.
To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize
Over-fertilization can do more harm than good for many plants and for many reasons. But did you know that too much fertilizer can reduce fruit production? If you find yourself with a lush, vigorous plant that just isn’t producing any fruit, the culprit might be fertilizer.
Bountiful, vigorous foliage is the goal when it comes to most of our landscape and vegetable plants, but fruit trees are different. These tree varieties perform best with a little less pampering and a little more tough love.
Observe the growth of your fruit tree and shrub. If it’s putting on too much foliage, you may need to cut back or eliminate fertilizing.
Fruit trees coddled with lots of supplemental nutrients from fertilizer grow lots of foliage, but that makes the tree more susceptible to pests and disease. Are you growing your tree in lawn space? You’re inadvertently feeding the tree when you feed your lawn.
Lee doesn’t fertilize his in-ground fruit-producing plants. When they’re young, he adds an inch of compost once a year around the area within the dripline. Once they have matured, he stops adding compost and mulches the area with a natural material. As the natural mulch breaks down, it provides all the nutrition the plant needs.
Lee’s soil is naturally rich in nutrients, but that may not be the case in your garden. Your best bet is always to start with a soil test. The test results will provide insight into the nutrient level of your soil, and what amendments would be beneficial. Then, observe your fruit-producing plants over time to judge whether fertilizer is needed.
Lee loves the old saying: “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Never underestimate the power of observation when it comes to gardening.
I hope this discussion with a fruit-growing master has encouraged you to give fruits a try in your garden or provided you with a few tips for maintaining the fruit-bearing plants you’re already growing. There is a lot to explore in the world of fruit gardening and, as always, plenty of lessons to learn along the way. Be sure to listen in to my conversation with Lee to hear a few more of his stories and examples. He’s passionate, incredibly knowledgeable and ever-curious to try new things.
Are you growing fruit in your landscape? I’d love to hear about your favorites and your experiences in Comments below.