Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden - planting, pruning, harvesting

It's never too early to add fruit trees to your home gardening plans. The reward is well worth the effort. Here are ten important tips for growing backyard fruit trees.

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An old proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” I think this little pearl of wisdom is especially true when it comes to fruit trees.

It’s too easy to put off buying and planting trees. They can be expensive and there’s always so much else to do. When thinking about fruit trees, it’s also easy to twist one’s logic: “It might be seven years before I’d get fruit, so why bother?” But guess what. You’ll be waiting a whole lot longer if you never plant those trees.

Here’s my advice for selecting and growing fruit trees.

Don’t Put It Off

The sooner you plant your fruit trees, the sooner they’ll produce. Since it’s going to take a minimum of two years (for some apple varieties) to five or more (cherries or pawpaws), it’s never too soon to get started. If a fruit tree is more than your budget can bear, you might consider suggesting a tree–or a gift certificate to a reputable nursery that stocks them–as a gift idea.

Do Your Research

Some trees are self-pollinating (most nectarines, peaches, sour cherries). Others require another variety of the same fruit to pollinate (most apples, pears, plums). It’s best to plant cross-pollinators no more than 50 feet away. If you’re lucky, a near neighbor has planted a good cross-pollinator close by. Timing is everything when it comes to pollination: be sure the trees you purchase for cross-pollination bloom at the same time of year.

It’s also important to know the best time to plant. Most nurseries ship based on appropriate planting time for your area; however, if you’re buying locally, you need to learn all you can about favorable planting conditions.

Learn about hole depth and width, watering needs, pruning requirements. There’s plenty to learn. If your tree doesn’t come with these instructions, search the internet. Just be sure your sources are reliable.

Know Which Trees To Select for Your Planting Zone

As much as you may wish it were true, you can’t grow every kind of fruit in every climate. Apples, for instance, require a dormant season. Frost and citrus don’t mix. And while there are folks who push the envelope, it’s a lot of learning and work to grow fruit in an uninviting climate. To find out whether you can grow your favorite fruit where you live, check with your local agricultural extension service.

Protect Your Trees

A young tree’s bark is especially susceptible to damage, yet it’s appealing to hungry deer. Be safe and use some kind of tree wrap or guard. You can purchase netting, tubing, or paper or burlap wrap. Or you can be creative and make your own tree guard. When we planted a crabapple tree, we were unable to find tree wrap locally, so we improvised by purchasing black corrugated plastic drain pipe which we cut to an appropriate length and then slit down one side. Just be sure not to constrict the tree’s trunk by wrapping too tightly.

Remember to Protect the Fruit Too

Nothing is more disappointing than discovering that just before your fruit fully ripened, something got to it before you did. To keep birds away, cover fruit trees with netting. Outdoor dogs will help keep raccoons, deer, and bears away, but there are other options too. Keeping your trees inside a properly fenced area. (Deer fencing or two parallel rows of four-foot-high fencing spaced four feet apart should keep the deer out.) If you add a row of electric fencing atop your other fence, raccoons should steer clear, as well. We decided to enlarge our vegetable garden to accommodate fruit trees and enclosed the whole thing with deer fencing. So far, so good.

Be Sure You Have Enough Space

What is the mature width of the trees you’re considering? Be sure you have enough room between them. It’s possible to grow your trees more compactly than standard spacing suggests with special pruning methods; however, it’s crucial to research this technique. One good resource is the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees.

Think About Height

You need to think about how you’ll harvest your fruit too. Do you really want to climb an extension ladder braced against tree limbs to collect your fruit? Or to prune your trees? That can be dangerous, especially for aging gardeners. When they’re available, consider dwarf or semi-dwarf trees instead of the larger standard ones to make care and harvesting simpler.

Siting Is Important

Soil for fruit trees should have plenty of nutrients, and you may need to add amendments in any case. Plant where drainage is good. And plant where your trees are ensured a minimum of five hours of sunlight each day.

Rightsize Your Orchard

If you over-plant, you’re not as likely to keep up with necessary maintenance. Consider which fruits your family is most likely to eat, which are the most versatile, how much fruit you really need. There’s no reason to plant an entire apple orchard if your harvest will serve only your family. (On the other hand, remember that apples can be dried for late-winter eating, preserved as applesauce or pie filling, or juiced for cider.)


Blossoms on a fruit tree

Be Attentive

Fruit trees crave attention, some more than others. Again, research is imperative to see how much care specific trees require. All of them need mulching, pruning, fertilizing, and regular and frequent watering. You also must be diligent in protecting your trees from pests and diseases. Rigorous fall clean-up is essential.

What rewards your family will reap if you add fruit trees to your garden. There’s no time like the present to get started.

For more about planting, pruning, harvesting and more, check out this article by Mother Earth News gardening guru, Barbara Pleasant.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can find Carole at Living On the Diagonal, where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well as random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

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