Nothing beats being able to pick a tree-ripened peach from your own backyard fruit tree. Unlike the rock-hard specimens found at the store, homegrown peaches, plums and nectarines can be picked when they are perfectly ripe, bursting with sweet and tangy flavor.
I caught up with fruit tree expert Phil Pursel of Dave Wilson Nursery, in California, to discuss the basics of backyard orchard culture, including how to choose a fruit tree well-suited for your region, plant it to thrive for years and set up a backyard orchard so you’ll be harvesting fruit from May to November.
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Project: Plant a fruit tree.
Types of fruit trees this applies to: Apple, apricot, Asian pear, cherry, fig, mulberry, nectarine, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, pluot and quince. The same planting advice applies to citrus trees, but their care is different — they’re heavy nitrogen feeders and need frequent doses of fertilizer to grow well.
Why: To enjoy sun-ripened fruit from your own backyard.
It’s a good project for you if: You have a medium-size site in your yard (about 8 to 10 square feet, or 0.7 to 0.9 square meters) with full sun, and you have time for pruning once or twice a year.
Average cost: Generally speaking, the cost increases based on the age and size of the tree. Fruit trees are the least expensive if bought as bare-root trees, ranging from about $25 (single variety) to $60 (multigrafted trees). Container-grown trees of the same age are more expensive.
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Bare-root fruit trees, stored in soil at a nursery yard and ready to be purchased.
When to plant: If you’re planting a bare-root tree, you have to do so in early spring before the bud break — while the tree is still dormant. In mild climates, you can plant bare-root trees from late fall into early spring. In cold climates, plant when the ground has thawed in spring.
If you’d like to plant during another time of year, when the tree is already leafed out, choose a container-grown tree.
Why choose a bare-root tree: It costs less than a tree potted in soil in a nursery container, and there is a greater variety to choose from. Because bare-root trees lack soil, they’re lightweight and easy to handle, and nurseries will often ship them straight to your door. Plus, bare-root trees take off more quickly in their first year, compared to those grown in containers, since the bare-root trees immediately grow into local soil.
The Beauty of Bare-Root Plants
Choose Your Fruit Tree: Right Plant, Right Place
Ensuring that you have a tree that grows well in your garden and produces a good fruit harvest starts with selecting the right tree for your region. There are two main factors you should consider:
1. Chill factor. “Chill hours are accumulated temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit [7.2 degrees Celsius] that accumulate from November through February,” Pursel says. Some varieties of fruit tree require a certain number of minimum chill hours to set fruit. “Stone fruit — such as apricots, cherries, peaches and plums — tend to be more sensitive to lack of chill hours than apples or pears,” he says. Check with your local nursery to make sure you’re purchasing a tree that will produce well in your region.
Dave Wilson Nursery’s list of low-chill trees
2. Soil type. Most fruit trees are sold grafted to rootstock. To ensure that your tree grows well in your garden, select one from your local nursery that is grafted to a rootstock adapted to the soil type in your area. This is particularly important in regions with heavy clay soil.
Your best bet for success. Purchase your fruit tree through a local nursery or reputable online nursery, rather than a big-box home improvement store. “Local nurseries will carry the fruit tree varieties that are suitable for your specific area,” Pursel says. “They will also carry trees with specific rootstocks [for your region]. With most box stores, they receive the same assortment of trees from their supplier that will be shipped throughout the nation. This means that low-chill varieties will end up in cold climates, where frost will kill these early bloomers, and high-chill varieties will end up in warm growing regions, where they wont get enough chill hours to set the fruit.”
Photo by jbolles
Considerations for Your Planting Site
Choose a sunny site. Select the sunniest area of your yard, making sure it receives at least six hours of sunlight. In desert climates, fruit trees should be planted in an area with some afternoon shade to avoid sunburn.
Test the soil drainage. Most fruit trees will not thrive in soils with poor drainage. Dave Wilson Nursery recommends doing a quick drainage test in your yard before choosing a spot for your tree. Dig a hole about a foot deep and fill it with water. Note how long it takes the water to drain completely, and fill the hole again with water. If the water takes over four hours to drain on both the first and second round, this is a sign you have poor drainage. Pick another site in your yard, or plant in a raised bed or berm.
Leave space for multiple trees. The spacing of your orchard trees depends on how you intend to control the tree size. Generally speaking, most fruit trees should be spaced 8 to 10 feet apart for dwarf varieties and closer to 15 feet apart for full-size varieties. If your plan is to keep the trees small and plant more densely, you can plant them closer together.
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How to Plant a Fruit Tree
Dig a hole. Using a shovel, dig a planting hole a little deeper than the bare-root tree’s longest roots, or about the same depth as the potted tree’s root ball, and at least one and a half times as wide — some planting guides suggest up to three times as wide. Test the planting hole size by holding the tree in the hole and aligning the root crown (the area where the trunk meets the root) of the trunk with the soil level. Backfill as necessary with native soil or slightly amended soil to adjust the planting depth to keep the crown level with the soil.
Prep the roots. Before planting bare-root trees, prune off any broken or rotted roots and then make fresh cuts on the other roots to encourage new feeder-root growth. For potted trees, gently loosen the root ball just in case the tree has become root-bound in the nursery container.
Plant the tree. Position the bare-root or potted tree in the planting hole, spreading out the roots. Shovel native soil and lightly amended soil, if you prefer, into the hole, backfilling until it is entirely filled. Gently tamp down the soil to help the tree stay upright in the hole. Add a layer of mulch, covering the entire planting area but keeping it at least 6 inches away from the trunk.
Water. Give the newly planted tree a good drink, completely saturating the planting hole. Water again once the top 2 inches of soil dries out, and water consistently throughout the growing season.
Learn more about planting a new tree
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Maintenance and Care
Maintaining a small backyard orchard is far less time-consuming than you may think. “Taking care of fruit trees requires a fraction of the effort a lawn does,” Pursel says. And, needless to say, it offers much sweeter rewards.
Paint trunks in hot interior regions. Young fruit trees can be susceptible to sunburn in hot climates, such as interior and desert areas. To prevent burns, which can cause stress to the plant, coat the trunks of newly planted trees with a white latex paint diluted 50 percent with water.
Pruning. Selective pruning is necessary once or twice a year to keep the size in check and promote a healthy tree with good air circulation between branches. Pruning is most important in the first three years, when the shape and size are being established.
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Keep backyard trees small. To conserve space in the backyard and make picking fruit easier, keep the trees’ size in check by pruning them. “Think fruit bushes, and you’ll have a clear idea of what a backyard orchard should look like,” Pursel says. “Ideally, you should be able to pick the majority of your fruit from the ground. If you need a ladder to pick your fruit, your tree is too tall.”
Hoi Ning Wong
A recently planted multigrafted “fruit salad” tree
Fruit salad trees. If you have room for only one tree but would like to grow multiple varieties of fruit, look for a multigrafted “fruit salad” tree. These have two to six varieties of fruit in the same family (apples are one family; stone fruits are another) grafted to a single rootstock. Each fruit retains its original flavor, characteristics and ripening time and appears as a single branch of the tree. For example, you could choose a fruit salad tree with a branch each of apricot, cherry, peach and plum.
An espaliered ‘Red Delicious’ apple tree
Espaliers. Another way to grow multiple fruit trees in a small space is to rely on a traditional European pruning technique. Create an espalier by training tree branches along wires attached to a wall or fence and pruning to promote horizontal growth. For the ultimate space-maximizing tree, choose a multigrafted espalier.
A backyard ‘Blenheim’ apricot tree
When to harvest. The time you have to wait for your first harvest after planting a tree depends on two things: the type of fruit tree and how old the tree was when you planted it. “When someone buys a bare-root tree or a newly potted tree at a nursery, that tree is typically one to two years old,” Pursel says. Most apricot, peach, nectarine, plum and pluot trees start producing fruit when they are two to three years old. Cherry trees can take over three years to fruit, and apple and pear typically take four to five years before producing a reliable crop.
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How to Harvest Fruit From May to November
If you’re planning to plant a small backyard orchard, choose fruit tree varieties with different ripening times for a steady harvest over multiple months, rather than one month of full-on fruit inundation. Horticulturalists call this selection successive ripening. Pursel shares some good varieties for this:
Apples: ‘Gravenstein’ (July), ‘Gala’ (August), ‘Jonagold’ (September), ‘Fuji’ (October), ‘Granny Smith’ (November)
Apricots: ‘Katy’ (May), ‘Blenheim’ (June), ‘Moorpark’ (July), ‘Autumn Glo’ (August)
Peaches: ‘Gold Dust’ (June), ‘Suncrest’ (July), ‘Elberta’ (August), ‘Fairtime’ (September)
Plums: ‘Methley’ (June), ‘Shiro’ (July), ‘Late Santa Rosa’ (August), ‘Emerald Beaut’ (September)
Pluots: ‘Flavor Supreme’ (June), ‘Splash’ (July), ‘Dapple Dandy’ (August), ‘Flavor Finale’ (September)
For your backyard orchard, you could choose a single variety of fruit (for example, all apples) and plant for harvesting in July to November, or select a variety of fruit types (apples, apricots, peaches) with staggered ripening times.
More: How to Grow 10 Favorite Fruit Trees at Home