Gardeners who wish to grow fruit trees will have much better results if they learn the ropes before they ever purchase a tree and dig a planting hole. Early decisions such as what cultivars to grow and where to plant them are pivotal to a successful orchard. To share how to get started growing fruit trees and how to do it successfully, joining me on the podcast this week is community orchardist and author Susan Poizner.
Susan is the director of Orchard People Fruit Tree Care Consulting and Education in Toronto, Canada, and the founder of OrchardPeople.com, where she offers articles and courses on raising fruit trees. She trains thousands of new growers worldwide through her fruit tree care training program, and is also an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist. Her podcast, The Urban Forestry Radio Show, is the 2021 GardenComm Silver Award of Achievement winner for Radio Program Overall.
Susan’s new book is “Grow Fruit Trees Fast: A Beginner’s Guide to a Healthy Harvest in Record Time,” the follow-up to her award-winning fruit tree care book “Growing Urban Orchards,” which is based on her experience founding the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard in Toronto in 2009.
I don’t grow a lot of fruit here in Atlanta, Georgia. Heat and humidity, pests and diseases, and a very busy schedule force me to find areas where I can lighten my load. However, even though I’m late to the game, I am growing fruit now, so I very much looked forward to having this conversation with Susan to share her knowledge and advice.
Falling for Fruit Trees
In an earlier life, Susan was a journalist and filmmaker who traveled the world. When she returned to her home city of Toronto and met her husband, Cliff, life changed. She was never a gardener, but Cliff is from Trinidad, where gardening is commonplace. When Cliff wanted to turn their backyard into a garden, she was against it, thinking she would be stuck taking care of it. But that is what set her on her path to fall in love with gardening and become an organic gardener.
She worked seasonally for the City of Toronto as a gardener and became captivated by trees — in particular, fruit trees.
“It’s hard to fall in love with a zucchini plant,” she says. “They’re wonderful. I’m all about zucchinis. I love zucchinis, but they don’t last forever. At the end of the year, you compost them. A tree becomes a friend. It can be your front yard tree or your backyard tree. And if this tree is so generous to also feed you with the most wonderful, sweetest, fabulous fruit that you will ever have that tastes nothing like the fruit at the supermarket, well, what’s there not to love?”
A Troubled Community Orchard
Susan came up with a plan to plant a community orchard in her local park.
“I got permission from the city to do it. I had people who wanted to do it with me, and I thought it was gonna be easy,” she recalls.
But within a couple of years, the once-healthy trees started showing weird symptoms. Spots appeared on the leaves, and if they produced fruit at all, the fruit wasn’t very tasty.
“This is a public space,” she says. “People had trust in me and my team that we were going to raise these beautiful, fruitful trees. And in the end, they were becoming messy.”
She applied her research skills and journalism skills to get to the bottom of the problem and figure out what she needed to do to keep the fruit trees healthy and productive. That led to her first book, “Growing Urban Orchards.”
“I was an intermediate grower explaining what I learned as a goofy beginner, making all the mistakes,” she says of her first book.
“Grow Fruit Trees Fast” came a decade or so later, when she was a more experienced gardener, and is targeted at experienced gardeners who wish to expand their horizons by growing fruit trees.
“I want to make sure that this is an express journey without all the goofy mistakes,” Susan says. “So I help you in this book. It’s a one-hour read. In one hour you will understand everything you need to do in order to keep those trees healthy, and you can decide if you want to plant them or not at that point. Hopefully, you will, but at least you’ll know what you’re doing.”
Susan really cuts to the chase in the book, moving the reader along.
Prevent Fruit Tree Pest and Disease Issues
Susan considers pests and diseases “mistakes” because they are problems that are preventable. Once they take hold, it is very difficult to fix the problem. There are sprays to treat diseases, but the best time to start protecting trees is when they are young and healthy, she says.
“That’s when you protect it,” she explains. “You build up its strength, and a stronger tree is more resilient to pests and diseases. That’s been studied. There’s research on it in terms of pests and, in fact, insect pests are just not interested in attacking healthy trees.”
Susan uses an apt metaphor: Insects and pests are bullies. They don’t pick on the strong and confident ones on the playground. They seek out the ones who are not confident and are a little vulnerable.
“We want to raise trees that are beautifully strong, beautifully resilient, so that if there is a pest and disease problem, we can help them right away,” she says.
This is true of your vegetable garden as well. Healthy plants are the least likely to become targets and can tolerate pest damage.
Tree Choice Matters
The biggest mistake that fruit tree growers make, according to Susan, is to just buy the trees that are available at their local garden center.
“The secret is that garden centers or big box stores will only carry fruit trees that are varieties that we are familiar with from the supermarket,” Susan says. “The problem with that is those varieties from the supermarket — like everybody’s favorite honey crisp — are amongst the hardest to grow without pesticides and fungicides.”
Instead of the garden center or big box store, go to your local fruit tree nursery. Local specialist fruit tree nurseries are more likely to have the trees that are best adapted to your area. And if you have already identified the appropriate trees for your needs, you can use nurseries that are further afield but carry what you are searching for.
When you find a nursery, look for a tree labeled “disease resistant.” (Susan offers a list of fruit tree nurseries on her website.)
For instance, apple scab is a common disease that is annoying and makes the fruit, leaves and tree “yucky,” Susan says. But she adds that there are at least seven cultivars of apple trees that are apple scab resistant.
As an organic gardener, it’s helpful to know there are apple trees available that don’t call for spraying to control a very common apple tree disease.
Other things to know when choosing trees are the right plant hardiness zone, how many chill hours are required, and which trees will cross-pollinate so that they will produce fruit.
Understanding Chill Hours
The kind of fruit trees that Susan grows — apple, cherry, apricot, peach, plum — need a certain number of chill hours to bear fruit. Where she is in Toronto, this is not really a concern. But to points south, it can be an issue.
A chill hour is credited for each hour that a fruit tree spends in temperatures ranging from 45° to 32° Fahrenheit or 7° to 0° degrees Celcius.
“They actually need a minimum number of chill hours of cold temperature in order to blossom properly and produce a harvest,” Susan explains. “So they need the message from the environment around them that says: OK, it’s resting time. This is dormancy time. Time to relax. You can stop growing for a little while. You can store all that energy in your root system.”
Then when it warms, the rising temperature signals the trees that it is time to bring up the nutrients from the root system, open their buds, make flowers and bear fruit.
“If you are in a warmer climate, you may not be able to provide enough chill hours,” Susan says.
However, there are cultivars that are bred for warmer climates, so Susan recommends contacting your local extension service for recommendations of fruit trees that are suited to your climate.
Understanding Fruit Tree Pollination
Some fruit trees can be planted solo and bear fruit on their own. These are self-pollinating trees. They are very independent, Susan says. These include many peach trees and sour cherry trees.
Other trees, including most apple trees and most pear trees, need partners to make fruit. They must be planted near trees of the same type but different cultivars.
For example, two gala apple trees planted side by side won’t pollinate each other because they are genetically identical. This can be resolved by getting a third apple tree of another cultivar.
Some trees are very finicky and selfish. Triploid trees don’t pollinate their neighboring trees but need to be pollinated themselves.
Understanding Root Stocks
Susan says it took her a few years to get her head around rootstocks, especially because the names of rootstocks are so dull, like M.27, G.65, B.9 and G.41.
“In general, the rootstock will determine the size of the tree when it is mature,” Susan says.
When you purchase a fruit tree, the trunk part is a clipping, or scion, of the tree that produces the fruit you wish to grow, and the rootstock comes from a different tree. So a rootstock of a very small tree with a clipping of a McIntosh tree grafted to it will produce a dwarf McIntosh tree, and the rootstock of a larger tree with the same McIntosh grafting will produce a larger tree.
Dwarf trees may grow to only 10 feet tall while a semi-dwarf is limited to 15 feet tall. The size to buy all depends on your needs. If you don’t want to shade out your other plants, then a dwarf rootstock or semi-dwarf rootstock is what you should look for. If you don’t mind a large tree, look for a “standard” rootstock.
No matter what size rootstock you start with, you will need to prune your fruit tree to keep it healthy and productive. Keeping trees compact by pruning will also make it easier to perform holistic or organic sprays and easier to harvest from, Susan says.
Bare-root vs. Potted Trees
Susan is not a fan of potted fruit trees, though she says they are handy because they can be planted at any time. Bare-root trees require planning ahead, including ordering them up to six months in advance of planting time.
Bare-root trees are shipped in early spring or late fall while dormant. They have no leaves and can look as simple as a stick with some roots. The roots are in a bag with moistened mulch.
“You have to plant this thing really soon after you get it,” Susan says. “You can’t just sit it in the garage for a week or two.”
If you leave the bare-root tree in a warm spot, such as up against your house, the warmth will break its dormancy, the buds will open, it will desperately need water, and it will conk out and die.
You can store a bare-root tree in a cool basement for a few days, but ideally, you would plant it within a day of receiving it, according to Susan.
Another option is to heel in bare-root trees. This involves putting your bare root trees together in a hole, leaning the trees on the side of the hole, and lightly putting the soil on top.
“This is not planting,” Susan says. “This is temporary. You do it in a shaded location, in a protected location, but outdoors. And you make sure the roots are moist enough.”
Despite the precautions involved in using bare-root trees, the benefits outweigh the hassle.
“Bare-root trees are healthier, they grow quicker, they adapt better to their new environment, and it makes sense,” Susan says.
Meanwhile, potted trees have their roots stuffed into a little pot, which creates stress, she explains. “It takes a while for them to break out into the soil around them after you plant them, and also, they’re kind of spoiled. They’re like, oh, I liked my potted soil. I don’t like this new soil that I’m in.”
Bare roots, carefully stretched out when put into a planting hole, adapt well to their new environment. Bare root trees are often younger than potted trees and allow you to do a “whip cut,” Susan says. This is the first pruning cut that comes right after planting and watering the tree. Take off the top third of the tree, and by the end of this process, it will look like one little stick in the ground.
“That is our first step to creating a strong, fruit-bearing structure to the tree that will last a lifetime,” Susan says.
A potted tree will have a harder trunk and already have a structure that is not the desirable structure to ensure every branch gets access to sunshine.
“If you want your tree to grow fast, get a whip, get it bare root, plant it, do your whip cut, boom. You’re going to see how quickly it grows,” Susan says.
Susan says you can buy a potted tree that already has fruit on it, plant it, and get fruit that first year. But the problem with this is the young tree is focused on producing fruit rather than growing its root system.
“If that tree doesn’t get to put all its energy into its root system for the first year or two, it really won’t be a strong tree as it grows up,” Susan says. “Fruit trees are like children who need good nutrition when they’re young. They need loving care, and if they don’t get those things, like malnourished children, [they] have health problems when they grow up.”
Forcing trees to produce fruit in those early years, when they’re still adjusting to their new environment, steals from the future. They won’t be as productive, the quality won’t be as good, and they may have more stress and disease problems.
Another advantage of buying bare-root trees is the range of choices you will have that are not available when buying potted trees. For example, Liberty, Freedom and Novamac are well-developed disease-resistant trees that you can find for sale as bare-root trees but won’t find potted — unless they are the cast-offs that weren’t sold out early in the season.
The Right Tree in the Right Place
In addition to chill hours and adaptability for your region, there are more things to consider when choosing a tree and where to plant it.
Susan recalls consulting for a nonprofit in Toronto that was wondering why one of their orchards was very productive while the second did not perform well. The struggling orchard was in the shade of large native trees, so the trees received less sunlight for photosynthesis. “When your tree is shaded, it won’t get enough sunshine to produce energy through lots of photosynthesis, and photosynthesis and energy makes it a big strong tree,” Susan says.
Additionally, the shade means when the fruit trees are rained on, the leaves, fruit and branches stay damp for a prolonged period. Dampness creates conditions that are welcoming for fungus. And on top of those concerns, having an orchard next to other trees creates root competition for water and nutrients.
How to Plant a Bare-Root Tree
A bare-root tree looks a bit like a broom, depending on how many roots it has. When put in a planting hole, the roots should be directed out in all directions and not wrapped around each other. Never cut the roots shorter to fit a small hole, Susan advises. Make the hole bigger to accommodate all the roots.
“As soon as you trim off roots, you’re trimming off stored nutrition that the tree needs because the tree stores its nutrition in its root system. So you’re taking away fruit as soon as you clip those roots,” she says.
The feeder roots are the young little root hairs at the end of roots. It’s not the large woody roots that are taking up nutrients. “So you don’t want to cut those end bits off,” Susan says. “You just make a big wide hole and make sure that those bare roots can stretch far and wide.”
When planting a bare root tree, mound up soil right under the main stem to ensure that stems stay above the soil line when the tree settles. On that stem is a bump called the graft union where the two parts of the tree — the rootstock and the scion — are joined together. That union should never be buried. Lay down a rake or shovel handle over the hole to make it clear where the soil line will be once the hole is backfilled, and have a friend lay down and look to ensure the graft union stays above that line.
“If you bury your graft union, you could actually lose the benefits of having this wonderful rootstock,” Susan warns. “The actual top part of the tree, the stem, … can sprout its own roots, and it won’t need to use the rootstock.”
If burying a tree too deeply leads to the stem growing its own roots, it won’t matter if a dwarf rootstock was used. The stem could then grow to be 40 feet tall.
Irrigation and Tree Health
“Many of us don’t know how to water a tree properly,” Susan says.
When Susan first started her public orchard, there was no irrigation system in the park. The group filled buckets with water at a neighboring house and dragged the buckets all around the park. Then during one planting workshop she poured a bucket of water around the roots of a tree and someone came up to her and — in a not nice way — told her, “You’re watering that tree wrong.”
This undiplomatic messenger turned out to be right. Susan later learned to water deeply and slowly, targeting the extreme ends of the root systems, where trees take up moisture and nutrients.
“If I water really close to the trunk of the tree, nobody’s getting any help there, right? It’s not helping anybody,” Susan says. “So you want to make sure that when you water your fruit tree, you are watering under the edge of the canopy where the feeder roots are.”
You don’t need to water the trunk and the leaves — only the roots. If a sprinkler wets the trunk and leaves, the tree will be more susceptible to fungal diseases.
After that first year or two when a tree is settling in, supplemental irrigation will be needed when there is a dry period.
Fruit trees don’t have teeth and can’t chew, Susan points out. “So while there’s nutrition in the soil, they can’t take it in unless it’s in liquid form,” she says. “So a dehydrated tree is a starving tree.”
Advice on how to fertilize trees is mixed. There are commercial tree fertilizers available, but a fertilizer composition that is right for someone else’s soil may not be what your soil and trees need. Susan recommends starting with a soil test. If there are no major nutrient deficiencies, then fertilizer is unnecessary. And applying chemical fertilizer or fruit tree fertilizer spikes to soil that doesn’t need it will do more harm to your trees than good.
When she has good soil, Susan mulches her trees annually with two inches of compost or one inch of composted manure. “If people have great home compost, that’s the best thing,” she says. She spreads the mulch in a donut around the trunk to the edge of the canopy. She may also cover the compost with wood chips.
Mulch put down in early spring will start to break down and give nutrients to the tree in later spring and early summer when the tree needs them.
Compost is the ultimate slow-release fertilizer. Though we call it “finished compost,” it continues to break down all season and for years to come.
The Reasons to Prune Fruit Trees
“Native trees are amazing and beautiful and ornamental trees are amazing and beautiful, but fruit trees are supposed to be providing us a healthy harvest,” Susan says. “If you do not prune your fruit tree, it might be OK for fruit the first few years, but eventually you’ll get a big hairy mess with lots of branches that may produce a lot of fruit, but the fruit will be hard, it might taste bitter, it might not taste good. And our goal with fruit tree pruning is to make sure that we have less fruit but better quality.”
Pruning provides good air circulation to mitigate fungal diseases that thrive in a dark, damp environment. Fewer branches mean greater exposure to the sun for each remaining branch. This helps photosynthesis and helps the fruit ripen.
Proper pruning strengthens the remaining branches. “I see fruit tree pruning as sort of energy management of your tree,” Susan says. “You’re teaching your tree where to direct its energy, saying ‘Sweet tree, please don’t put all your energy into a hundred branches. It’s going to be hard for you. You’ll get diseases. The fruit won’t be nice. Here, let me guide you. Let’s remove 25% of those branches. And let’s see how each branch gets a little bit more energy grows longer and stronger and produces better quality fruit.’”
Fruit Tree Pest and Disease Management
“Every type of fruit tree only has a finite amount of diseases,” Susan points out.
Familiarize yourself with the problems that may afflict the cultivars you are growing. That way, you can identify and deal with problems as they arise.
The second thing to do is be clean. Pests and diseases overwinter, so remove leaves from the ground affected by rust. Otherwise, the fungus will recur the following year and be much more severe. Likewise, remove wormy apples and infested cherries and take them away from the site. Don’t put them in your compost where the pests and diseases will happily overwinter.
Also kick off the “mummy fruits” that hang from a tree — and don’t compost them near your orchard.
“It’s all part of being meticulously clean and giving your tree the loving it deserves,” Susan says.
A home gardener’s compost typically won’t get hot enough to kill pests and diseases the way that hot composting in a larger commercial or municipal composting facility might.
Many fruit pests, like apple maggot and codling moth present telltale signs. They lay their eggs under the skin of the baby fruit, and the eggs hatch into larvae. You might see a tiny hole with goop coming out — that goop is frass, which is another word for insect poop. When Susan notices this, she removes the fruitlet from the tree and from the site.
If an apple is left on the tree, the larvae will continue to grow and the fruit won’t look great. You could pick that apple once it’s mature and excise the bad parts. If you were to leave it on the tree until it falls on the ground, the larvae will mature into adults that will lay next year’s eggs.
You can prevent apple maggot with orchard socks, also known as maggot barriers. They slide onto baby apples and stretch as the apples grow. The flies can’t get through the barrier to lay their eggs.
Kaolin clay is another option that can be used instead of, or on top of, the socks. However, Susan doesn’t use kaolin because in Canada it requires a pesticide license despite being nothing but clay.
Dormant oil is a must, according to Susan. However, the timing must be right. Dormant oil coats the branches and trunk of the tree when the buds are tightly closed and there are no leaves on the tree. This layer of oil will suffocate whatever eggs or insects are on the crevices of the tree branches and trunk. This has to be applied when the temperature is right around freezing — not too cold and not too warm — and conditions are not too windy.
If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Susan Poizner on how to grow fruit trees successfully, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you tried to grow fruit trees? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“Growing Urban Orchards” by Susan Poizner
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