Getting Started - Tree Fruits

Growing tree fruit successfully in the home landscape is challenging and potentially rewarding.  Tree fruits are subject to many problems (insects, diseases, weather extremes, wildlife) which can  frustrate the the novice grower. 
apples Suzanne Klick
Photo credit: Suzanne Klick

Apples & Pears
Peaches & Necterines

If you intend to grow organically, start out with small fruits such as blueberry and blackberry.  Tree fruits, especially apple and peach, are more prone to diseases and insect pests than small fruits.  Fig, Asian pear and Japanese persimmon are the tree fruits with the fewest pest problems.  However, the knowledgeable and dedicated gardener can successfully grow tree fruits without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

If you have the space, desire and commitment to grow tree fruits consider these points before selecting your cultivars:

  • Consult with neighbors who grow fruit.  Which trees and varieties grow well in your area?
  • When possible, select varieties that have resistance to diseases you are likely to encounter.
  • Avoid fad trees like the “5-in-1” apple.
  • “Container” varieties tend to be disappointing.

The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true when buying fruit trees.  Bargain plants may not be healthy or may be a variety not adapted to your area.  Buy trees of recommended varieties from a reliable source.

  • Order your trees during the winter and have them delivered right before you’re ready to plant in early spring.
  • Be sure that you understand your suppliers terms, return policy and guarantees.
  • Most tree fruits are grafted onto a separate rootstock that is hardier and more pest resistant than the root system of the desired cultivar. Rootstocks may also dwarf the tree. Make sure that you know the precise rootstock that your tree is grafted to.
  • A healthy one-year-old tree or “whip”, approximately four to six feet tall with a good root system, is preferred.
  • Trees that are two years or older frequently do not have enough buds on the lower portion of the trunk to develop a good framework.

When Your Trees Arrive...

  • Check the label closely to make sure that you are getting the variety and rootstock that you desire.
  • Call the supplier if trees appear stunted, poorly grown, diseased, or insect injured.
  • If the plants can not be set out immediately:  wrap them loosely in a plastic bag with some holes cut for ventilation and store them at a temperature just above freezing.  Surrounding the tree roots with moistened sawdust, shredded newspaper or peat moss will prevent them from drying out.  You can also plant your trees in a temporary trench of moist soil in a shaded location (this is called “heeling in”.)  Pack soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets and prevent root drying.

Transplant your trees as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or from mid- to late September.  Select a full-sun location with deep, well-drained soil.  Avoid wet locations. The soil pH should be in the 6.2 to 6.8 range. Incorporate well-rotted manure, compost or peat moss throughout the eventual root zone.  Make the planting hole three times the rootball width so the roots can be spread out.  Water trees deeply and regularly the first year after planting. Soak the root system in a bucket of room temperature water for a few hours prior to planting. 

Trees should be planted so that the graft union (the point where rootstock meets scion wood) is 2- to 3-inches above ground level after the ground settles.  Generally, trees should be set out 1-inch deeper than they were planted in the nursery.  The diameter of the hole is much more important than the depth of the hole.  The hole should be big enough to lay the roots out without crossing over or bending any back.  Before planting, remove any roots that are broken or damaged with sharp pruners.  Backfill the hole, firmly packing the soil around the root system and water in well.  Do not add fertilizer to the planting hole or leave a depression around the tree.  Place a 3-inch layer of organic mulch under the tree’s dripline tapering to “0” inches at the trunk. 

Remove all fruits that grow the first two seasons.  This will help divert your trees energy to root establishment.

Approximately one-quarter of your tree’s root system was removed when it was dug at the nursery.  After planting, remove the top quarter of your non-branched whip to re-establish the proper “shoot-to-root” ratio.  This will also encourage new lateral shoots.

On branched trees, remove poorly spaced and narrow-angled branches.  Leave branches that are wide-angled and arranged spirally about 6- to 9-inches apart up the leader (trunk).  Those branches left on the tree should be reduced by up to one-half their length and the leader should be cut about 12- to 15-inches above the top limb.

Rootstocks and Dwarf Trees

  • Fruit trees are vegetatively propagated by grafting a bud or shoot of the desired variety (“scion wood”) to a clonal rootstock chosen for specific characteristics.
  • Rootstocks influence the size of the tree, age of bearing, winter hardiness and susceptibility to some diseases and insects. A wide range of rootstocks exist for apples. Only a few are available for other fruits. There are no widely accepted dwarfing rootstocks for stone fruits (peach, cherry, plum). Trees on dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks are ideally suited for home fruit production. The smaller trees are easier to prune, spray, and harvest, and begin producing fruit at an earlier age than full-sized trees.

Surround the bottom 4 ft. of your trees with hardware cloth or woven mesh fencing to prevent vole and deer feeding. Some gardeners also surround their trunks with pea gravel to discourage voles.  Hanging small deodorant soap bars or applying a commercial odor-based  repellent will also help prevent deer feeding.

Can I Grow My Fruit Trees From Seed?
Yes, you can.  But you will probably be pretty disappointed with the results.  Tree fruits, especially apple and pear, are genetically complex.  So, trees grown from seed will not be true to the variety- their fruits will look and taste different from those of the parent tree.  Most temperate fruit tree seeds need special treatment- moist, cool conditions- to germinate reliably.  Furthermore, most of our supermarket fruits are shipped from distant states, and are not adapted to Maryland conditions. Saving and planting such seeds will lead to poor results.

Fruit trees are propagated vegetatively; they are grown from tissue taken from a known variety, and are often grafted onto special rootstocks.  There are many advantages to buying a young disease-free tree from a reputable nursery:

  • They will be true to cultivar.
  • They will bear more quickly than trees grown from seed.
  • The rootstocks that fruit trees are grafted onto in the nursery can make the trees more compact, disease and insect resistant, cold hardy, and precocious (bear fruit more quickly).
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IET Departmentof the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. © 2016.