10 September 2007
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
With fall approaching we are starting to see local apples become available at markets and there are some very tasty varieties to be found that are not usually seen in local groceries. The temptation for some with tree planting season upon us as well is to plant some of these heirloom varieties both for the delicious fruit but also to help preserve them for future generations. There is a lot to be said about backyard orchard management but for now a few words about getting started.
It is desirable to locate the fruit planting as close to your home as possible. Where space is limited, fruit trees may be set in almost any location suitable for ornamental plants. Consider the mature size of the tree when designing the planting.
Dwarf fruit trees lend themselves admirably to ornamental plantings as well as orchards. They come into bearing earlier than standard-sized trees, occupy less space, and can be more easily pruned and sprayed with equipment normally available to the average gardener. Most nurseries now carry dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees of all varieties. Dwarf pear, peach, and cherry trees of a few varieties are offered by some nurseries, but are not recommended because trees may not survive more than five years due to disease and incompatibility problems.
Size of Planting & Tree Spacing
Space, site, family size, available time, and pollination requirements determine the size of the planting. Choose fruits based on family preference, adaptability, and available space. Never attempt to plant more than you can care for properly.
How far apart must the trees be set? This is an important factor and, to a large extent, it influences selection of site and varieties. They can be set farther apart if space allows but, for best results, should not be set closer than the minimums indicated. To maintain a bearing surface low enough for necessary pest control, trees should not be crowded. Ask for help to determine the size and spacing of your planting.
The importance of selecting the best site possible for fruit planting cannot be over-emphasized. Good air drainage is essential. Cold air, like water, flows downhill. For this reason, fruit buds on plants set in a low spot are more likely to be killed than those on a slope. Frost pockets; low, wet spots; and locations exposed to strong, prevailing winds must be avoided. South-facing slopes encourage early bud development and can sometimes result in frost damage. Select late-blooming varieties for this location.
Deep, well-drained soil of moderate fertility should be selected. A fertile, sandy loam or sandy clay loam is suitable for most tree fruits. Adequate water drainage is the most important soil characteristic. Poor fertility may easily be improved by proper fertilization and cultural practices. Improving soil with poor internal drainage is difficult and expensive. Moderately fertile soil is desirable; deep, well-drained soil is vital.
Give special attention to the selection of varieties. They must be adapted to your soil and climatic conditions. If possible without sacrificing too much yield or quality, select varieties with the fewest insect and disease problems.
Several varieties of the same kind of fruit maturing at different times may be planted to prolong the harvest season. The value of certain varieties for special uses, such as freezing, canning, and preserving, should be considered. Some varieties may be purchased in season from commercial growers more economically than you can grow them yourself.
Cross-pollination is necessary for satisfactory fruit set in many tree fruits. Varieties that are cross-fruitful and that have overlapping bloom dates should be selected. To be certain of adequate cross-pollination, plant at least three varieties of apples. Do not confine your selections to Summer Rambo, Winesap, and Stayman. These varieties will not cross-pollinate. Golden Delicious is used by many commercial growers as a pollinizer for other varieties of apples in their orchards.
Apples, like other tree fruits, will not produce trees with the same characteristics from seed. If you plant a seed from a Red Delicious apple, the fruit would likely be small, unattractive, and of poor quality. Therefore, fruit trees are propagated vegetatively by either budding or grafting scion wood of the desired cultivar on a rootstock. The rootstock and scion variety maintain their respective genetic identities, but are joined at the graft union and function as a unit.
Obtain the best nursery stock available. Buy only from reputable nurseries that guarantee their plants to be true to name, of high quality, and packed and shipped correctly. Beware of bargains. High prices do not necessarily mean high quality, but good nursery stock is not cheap.
Usually, 1-year-old trees are preferred. A common mistake made by many gardeners is to select oversized or ready-to-bear nursery trees. Experience has shown that younger trees bear almost as soon, are easier to keep alive, and develop into more healthy, vigorous trees than do the oversized stock. The older trees cost nurseries more to grow and are sold for higher prices, but are usually worth less than younger trees.
For more information about this and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.