Last Saturday, we were lucky to have a visit from Charlie Nardozzi, garden educator, author, TV and radio personality, and garden coach. He provided us with two hours of entertaining and information packed advice on growing fruit at home - a project which can feel like a daunting commitment, but which he explained so clearly, that it felt like a task we must all embrace...right now. I have to admit, I have been living in the same house for 6 years and have yet to plant much in terms of fruit trees. I keep studying my property and imagining where the trees would go, but every year, another chance passes and my trepidation leaves me fruitless yet again. I have planted a few blueberry bushes and raspberries and currants far from the house, but no trees save for one orphaned plum tree a couple of years ago. Growing fruit trees always seemed like more work and maintenance than I have time for, but after learning some of Charlie's simple strategies, I feel armed and prepared. Here are a few of the general tips Charlie shared with us.....
- Trees are grafted, unless you dig them up out of the woods. Which is not a good idea, since you would be getting something not bred for fruit production and possibly disease laden. Trees are grafted in order to provide strong root stock in combination with a "top" that is bred primarily for eating quality. In addition, apple trees are often grafted onto a "dwarfing" root stock which will keep the tree from towering above you, fruit out of reach. When planting, look for what is called the "graft union" - it is a slight bulge at the base of the trunk where the root stock and the top meet. This union should be about 1" above the soil line once planted. If you plant it too deeply, you may trigger the root stock to take over the top growth and this would not provide you with the best eating fruit.
- At planting time, use only the native soil in the planting hole. Dig the hole so that it is 2 to 3 times wider than the tree's container or root ball. Do not go deeper than the container or you risk planting the tree too deeply. If you add compost to the planting hole, the roots will never have to reach out and search for food in the native soil and the tree's root system will never develop fully.
- When purchasing a tree, look for even lateral branching (called "scaffolding").
- The first two years of a fruit tree's life are the non-bearing years. It is important that the tree puts its energy into being strong and vigorous, not into making fruit. So, sadly enough, you must pick off the blossoms so that fruit does not form. This difficult task will reward you with bigger and better fruit on a healthy tree in years to come. After Charlie's talk, I dutifully went home and stripped my plum tree of its recently formed flowers.
- Spacing of trees is equal to their height. In other words, if a tree is going to be 15' tall, you need to plant it 15' from its closest neighbor.
- Pitted fruits like plums, cherries, peaches, and apricots do not do as well on clay as apples and pears do. If you are like me, and live in a clay pit, look for the best drained site and consider digging some trenches to direct the water away from the orchard.
- Amend the soil by layering in compost and other nutrients on the soil surface (not right up against the trunk though) after planting. This should include compost, some additional nutrients based on soil test results, woodchips from hard woods (which promote beneficial fungal activity), and a little woodash (only about 1 cup per tree). Vermont Compost Company's Perennial Blend is a perfect material for mulching around the base of the fruit trees. It includes compost, micro-nutrients, macro-nutrients (NPK), and an extra shot of bark, which is high in lignans and which promote the beneficial fungal activity trees love.
- A north facing slope is the best spot for a home orchard - it heats up a little later in the spring and keeps the trees a dormant a little longer. This delays bud formation which lowers the risk of a frost zapping those early flowers. A north facing slope also has good air circulation and frost tends to blow away before settling into a valley or dip.
- Fruit trees are best planted in pairs, and their planting partner should be a different variety or cultivar. This diversity leads to better pollination which equals more fruit formation. For example, a Liberty apple, should be planted near a Honeycrisp, or a Parker pear should be planted with a Summercrisp pear.
I think I will try a few cherry trees and pears this year. I have a spot picked out, on the north facing slope outside our kitchen window. And maybe once those are in, I will start to imagine some blueberries and raspberries nearby....closer to the house than the ones I planted when we first moved here. One thing I am glad about....my years of procrastination with the back yard means that I have a blank slate and the home orchard can be very close to the house; it will be landscape and larder, all in one.