I’d never have a garden without at least a few fruit trees

Opinion: When adding fruit trees to your garden, there is a lot to consider, but let me assure you that they’re so worthwhile.

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Growing our own fruit trees, even in small space gardens, is a wonderful gardening opportunity. Not many things are as rewarding as picking a fresh apple, cherry, pear, plum or peach off one’s own tree year-after-year. For optimum production, however, we have to be creative about how and where we grow them.

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Access to plenty of sunshine is a key factor. During the summer growing period, it’s critical that all fruit trees have good exposure to the full intensity of the sun from at least 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Good air circulation is also important to help minimize disease issues. Quality soil, to a depth and width of three to four feet, is essential to allow roots to grow deep and access their own moisture, especially in hot summers.

One of the biggest obstacles for many folks is the amount of space needed to grow fruit trees. This is especially concerning when two or more trees are required for cross pollination. Since all trees, including fruit trees, can be grown in containers, it’s possible to grow them without the availability of ground space, but it can be a lot more work, even with an automatic watering system.

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Fortunately, today, an eclectic mix of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees is available for the home and garden market. In smaller spaces, most people prefer a compact tree, but dwarfing rootstock isn’t always available. Most of today’s fruit trees are grafted onto various rootstocks, which determines their ultimate size and strength, and results in earlier fruit production.

I asked Joe Biringer, a Washington state fruit-tree grower who ships a significant number of fruit trees to Canada, about the size issue. He said many different factors, including the soil quality and the growing conditions, affect a tree’s ultimate size. Also, every variety of tree has its own unique vigour. Even when grafted on to dwarfing root stock, certain robust varieties will still grow well beyond their so-called dwarfing range. So, determining a tree’s ultimate size has always been a challenging issue, even for professionals.

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Biringer pointed out that, with proper pruning and training, most fruit trees can be kept at a comfortable height for both maintenance and harvesting. He also mentioned that summer pruning is most important to help keep fruit trees within an ideal size range.

I asked Biringer if he could give some approximate heights for a range of fruit trees. In terms of dwarf or compact fruit trees, he indicated that, while growers will most often choose from a proven selection of rootstocks, there can still be variations in height. On his M-27 mini-dwarf apple rootstock, Biringer said trees will usually grow around 10 feet tall. It’s quite a weak rootstock and needs to be either trellised or staked securely to prevent the tree from breaking, especially when laden with a heavy fruit load. He recommends the M-26 dwarf rootstock for a stronger, more resilient tree. A tree grafted on this rootstock will grow in the range of 12 to 15 feet.

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He grafts dwarf pears onto quince rootstock, and they will grow between 12 and 16 feet in height. His semi-dwarfing rootstock Old Home 97 will put pear trees in the range of 15 feet, depending, of course, on the vitality of the variety. Most plums have fairly good vigour, so his St. Julien A rootstock will keep them nicely within 12 to 15 feet.

Cherry trees are the most aggressive in terms of growth, and the many varieties grown on the Gisela 5 dwarfing rootstock will top out in the area of 12 to 15 feet. Most growers use the Mazzard rootstock for cherries, and this means, that without pruning, they will often reach 25 feet in height.

For peaches, Biringer uses Marianna 2624 or St. Julien A stock, and although it is semi-dwarfing, the peaches have such vigour that they will grow 15 to 18 feet tall. According to Biringer, it’s critical to keep all peaches pruned hard each year to keep the fruit-bearing new growth down low. He recommends that large, woody, old stems, which produce little new growth, be pruned hard every year. Nectarines are simply fuzz-free peaches, so they need to be pruned in the same manner.

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Another major issue that confuses many folks is pollination. With cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums, whenever possible, make sure you get a self-fertile variety so that you only need one tree for fruit production.

Most apples, pears and plums require at least two different varieties for cross pollination. It’s very important that both varieties bloom at the same time, or at least that their bloom times overlap, to ensure proper pollination. For smaller space gardens, choose a multi-grafted tree that has enough different varieties to guarantee successful pollination. A great B.C. nurseryman once told me that an excellent alternative to a multi-grafted tree was to plant two desired varieties in the same planting hole and to grow them as a single tree. I’ve seen it done, and it works well.

When adding fruit trees to your garden, there is a lot to consider, but let me assure you that they’re so worthwhile. I’d never have a garden, no matter the size, without at least a few fruit trees.

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