If you have the space, desire, and commitment to grow fruit trees, consider these points before selecting your plants:
- 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.
Most fruit trees suited for the mid-Atlantic region are botanically grouped into two categories: pome fruits and stone fruits. The pome fruits comprise apples (Malus) and pears (Pyrus) and share many cultural similarities and pest problems. Likewise, the stone fruits—peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, and cherries (Prunus)—share cultural similarities and pests.
Buying fruit trees
The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true when buying fruit trees. Bargain plants may not be healthy or maybe 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.
- Fruit trees should not be an "impulse purchase" even though trees can look tempting at the nursery or big box stores.
- 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.
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).
Tree fruit planting
Plant your trees as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or from mid-to-late September into fall. Before planting soil testing is recommended.
The planning and care that goes into the site selection process will pay big dividends over the entire life of the orchard. An ideal location is:
- Well-drained but not droughty;
- In full sun; and
- Without frost pockets (places where cold air collects).
- The side of a hill that is too steep to be tilled for gardening usually works well. Cold air will drain down the hill, helping to limit frost damage in the spring.
- A north-facing gentle slope is particularly desirable because it delays early flowering and thus reduces the risk of damage to tender buds from a late spring frost. It also lessens winter injury because the sun will not heat trunks. Heating causes sap to move up during the day and then freeze at night and results in trunks splitting as the sap expands. Plant the trees from the top of the slope to three-quarters of the way down the hill.
- Frost problems are common on stone fruits. For this reason, apricots and sweet cherries are not recommended for colder areas of Maryland. Due to late spring frost, early-blooming apricots produce a crop only once or twice every five years in most locations.
- Foliage and fruit dry faster in full sun, reducing disease infection. Fruit will also color better and ripen more evenly in full sun.
- A direct southern exposure, however, should be avoided whenever possible. The warmer temperatures on a southern slope speed many stone fruits into early bloom, increasing the probability of exposure to frost.
- Northern exposures shaded by buildings are also poor choices. Light levels will be too low for adequate fruit development.
Deep, well-drained soils are necessary for most fruits. Adequate soil depth allows roots to both seek out nutrients and water and provide anchorage.
Stone fruits, particularly peaches, do not tolerate “wet feet” (roots in poorly drained, heavy clay soil). Very sandy soils may drain too quickly, leading to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies. Pears are somewhat tolerant of heavy clay soils.
The planting process
Fruit trees are vegetatively propagated by grafting scion wood (wood of the desired cultivar) onto a clonal rootstock chosen for a specific characteristic, such as hardiness or disease resistance. This is done because seed-grown trees will not have the same characteristics as their parents and, in general, are inferior to a grafted tree.
Planting is best accomplished in early spring when the soil can be worked. Purchase healthy one-to-two-year bare-root plants from a reputable nursery.
- If trees cannot be planted at once, heel them in outside in a protected location. Dig a shallow trench, lay the root system down, and cover with soil.
- Hydrate your trees 12 hours prior to planting by placing each one in a large container filled with water.
- Plant your trees so that the graft union (the bulge where rootstock meets scion wood) is two to four inches out of the ground after the ground settles.
- Generally, set out your trees one 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, use sharp pruners to remove any roots that are broken or damaged.
- Backfill the hole, firmly pack the soil around the root system, and water in well.
- Add a liquid starter fertilizer to the water, but do not add granular fertilizer to the planting hole.
- You may build a low ridge of soil around the tree base to hold water in.
- Place a three-inch layer of organic mulch under the tree, starting at the tree’s drip line and tapering to zero inches at the trunk.
- Water deeply throughout the first season to supplement rainfall.
- Do not allow your trees to bear fruit before their third season. Remove blooms on the central leader and thin fruits heavily on the scaffold limbs. Root establishment in the young orchard should take priority over fruiting. Once roots are developed, fruiting will follow.
Still have a question? Contact us at Ask Extension.