When I was a little girl, we had a grapefruit tree and a pecan tree in our yard in Texas. As far as I knew, my parents did not do anything except harvest the fruit and nuts. So, if my view of gardening seemed unrealistically simple, my idea of having a home orchard was even simpler. Trees just grow, right? It’s what they’ve been doing since the beginning of time, right? Well, yes, but it is not quite as simple as sticking the trees in the dirt, sprinkling them with water once or twice, and waiting for the first harvest. It should come as no surprise that the first few fruit trees we planted did not thrive. However, in spite of my total neglect, three Nanking cherry bushes did survive and produce fruit within two years.
You can make planting a little easier by killing the grass where you plan to plant the tree. Recommendations to use an herbicide to do this make my skin crawl because herbicides are poison. As I suggested in the article about starting a garden, you can put a kiddy pool wherever you want to kill grass, or you can pile up grass clippings or compost, and in a couple of weeks, the grass will be very unhappy. Give it a month, and it will be on its way to becoming compost itself.
There are a variety of opinions on how to plant trees, mostly centering on how big to dig the hole. Some say the hole should be twice as wide as the root-ball, while others recommend a hole that is just big enough to contain the roots without having to bend them around. So, in other words, this part of the equation is pretty forgiving. Finding the correct depth is the hardest part of planting fruit trees. When in doubt, err on the side of not planting too deeply. It is easier to add soil than to attempt to lift the tree after it is planted. And if a tree is planted too deeply, it will die sooner rather than later. Do not dig the hole much deeper than the depth of the roots. Over time the backfilled dirt in the bottom of the hole can settle, which means a tree that was originally planted at perfect depth will sink to an unhealthy level.
What is the perfect depth to plant a tree? Most trees come with planting instructions telling you how deep to plant it. These instructions usually center on where the scion is in relation to the soil level. Typically, the scion, or graft—a knobby bump between the roots and the trunk—is slightly below soil level in standard size trees and above ground with dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. How far above ground? Experts vary in opinion from a couple of inches to six inches. In reality, the problem is burying the scion. So as long as it is above ground, the tree should be fine. And why is burying the scion a problem? If it is buried too deeply, the tree will die. If it is only a little below ground level, the grafted tree could root, and you will wind up with a standard tree, rather than a dwarf tree. At least, that is what the experts say, but that is one mistake I have not made yet.
Experts also say that most people kill trees by overwatering, although that has not been my experience. I usually plant them and forget them, assuming that Mother Nature will take care of watering for me. I used to make the same mistake with my garden until we started writing down rainfall on our kitchen calendar. A rain gauge is one of the least expensive investments you can make in your garden and orchard. Every time it rains, check the level, dump it, and record the level on your calendar. If it has been a week without an inch of rain, give everything in the garden a good soaking, as well as trees that have been planted within the past year. Once they are established, they can usually withstand a dry spell without damage, although I still water them during droughts. They might survive without it, but I don’t see the point in stressing them.
Lack of mulch was one reason my first fruit trees died. Without mulch, the tree has to compete with the surrounding grass for nutrients and water, which is tough for a tree that is still in the midst of transplant shock. Mulch keeps the grass from growing under the tree, and it keeps water from evaporating. If you live in a subdivision, you can use any of the beautiful wood chips that they sell at the garden centers for mulching. Mulch should be spread around the tree in a fairly level circle. Do not pile mulch against the trunk of the tree, a fashion that seems to be gaining popularity with some landscapers around the country. So-called volcano mulching kills trees because the trunks do not get air and succumb to disease.
You can use wood shavings from a rabbit or guinea pig cage as mulch or fertilizer under your fruit trees. The manure will start to decompose, and when it rains, the water will make instant manure tea to feed the tree. We dump straw and manure from our goat barn under our fruit trees a couple of times a year, usually once in the spring and once in the fall. This is cold composting, so do not do it when an invasive weed like thistle has gone to seed and could be lurking in the manure.
Most gardening experts do not recommend the use of fresh manure in gardens, claiming that you could get a disease from the animal whose manure is used. However, the fruit in trees is usually at least five feet above the manure, making contact highly unlikely. Also, if the manure is applied in the spring, it will be at least ninety days before harvest, which is the amount of time that manure should be aged before a crop is harvested, according to the U.S. National Organic Standard. And we do the second mulching in the fall after harvest.
I used to worry about whether some type of manure was hot or cold—in other words, can you use it fresh or does it have to be aged? Many people on gardening forums ask about specific types of manure, and the responses are contradictory. One week someone says that chicken poop is cold and can be used right away, and the next week another person says it is hot and will burn your plants. It is the same confused scenario with sheep manure, rabbit manure, and the rest. I’ve heard sad stories of transplants completely wilting in the midst of a steaming garden after an overzealous gardener tilled in a pickup bed full of fresh horse manure (or rabbit or chicken or whatever). Through all the confusion, I’ve come to two conclusions. The key is moderation when using manure. A little manure (especially rabbit manure) scattered at the base of a tree won’t kill it, but piling it up around the trunk might do it. And second, if you have a large amount of manure to use, mix in some straw, hot compost it for a couple of weeks, and the problem is solved.
Other than watering during droughts, adding compost, and mulching a couple of times a year, fruit trees only need pruning and thinning of fruit. I resisted pruning for years, thinking that no one prunes trees in nature and they continue to grow just fine; right? Not exactly. They do continue to grow, but they do not produce an optimum crop every year. The leaves and buds on a tree need sun, and if there are too many branches, they won’t get as much sun, so they will be less productive. Disease is more likely in a tree with too many branches, because air cannot circulate. Like everything else, there are some very detailed directions for pruning, and you can get really scientific with it. But a couple of years ago, I attended a workshop on pruning, and the professor doing the workshop said that bad pruning is better than no pruning at all. That was a liberating thought. So, don’t worry about making a mistake, but don’t prune away more than one-third of the branches at an annual pruning. Although you can prune away dead branches at any time, do not perform maintenance pruning after July. Dormant pruning in late winter will result in more growth come spring.
If you prune nothing else, you need to prune the suckers that grow from the base of the tree or the scion. Suckers grow from the rootstock, which is not the same variety and probably not even the same species of tree that is growing above the graft. It is only taking nutrients from the tree, so get rid of it.
If a branch is rubbing against another branch, one of them needs to be pruned. As the tree grows, the two branches will rub against each other more, causing damage to the bark. Often, one of them will be a water sprout that is growing straight up from a main branch and will not produce fruit, so it should be removed. You can also eliminate branches that grow downward because they will get less light and be less productive. You can get much more detailed with pruning, but this is a good start that will make fruit trees more productive.
You should also thin fruit when necessary, which means pinching off or cutting off baby fruit, preferably in April or May. Based upon the age and size of your tree, you need to realistically determine how many fruits a branch can support. Young trees can obviously support far fewer fruits than a mature tree with thick branches. It is heartbreaking, yes, I know, to pull baby fruit from a tree, but you are doing the tree a favor. When one of my pear trees was three years old, I didn’t thin one branch enough, and it broke under the weight of the pears as they matured. Even on mature trees, fruits should be thinned so that none of them will touch each other at maturity because they are an invitation to bugs and disease. Smaller fruits (peaches and plums) should be two to four inches apart, and larger fruits (apples and pears) should be three to five inches apart. Fruits towards the end of long, skinny branches should be thinned more than those close to the trunk because the weight can pull down the branches, possibly breaking them. Cherry, fig, pomegranate, and nut trees do not require thinning.
This is an excerpt from Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living, second edition by Deborah Niemann.
Not sure which fruit tree(s) to start with? Check out this list of Best Food Producing Trees.