Everyone knows that homegrown vegetables taste much better than anything you can buy in a store. Sure, it's partly psychological. But it's partly real too. Especially when it comes to fruit. Tree-ripened fruits are sweeter and more flavorful because you can harvest when they're ready, not when the packer and shipper are ready. So don't neglect fruit trees. There's room in most every garden for at least one or two, especially if you chose dwarf kinds. So in case you're hesitant, here are some reminders to help you get started with fruit trees.
Be patient. Most fruit trees require at least two years from planting to the first harvest. A standard apple tree usually takes two years to start fruiting and four years to reach full production. Time to bearing in years typically ranges from two to five for apples and apricots, three to four for peaches, four to six for pears and plums, five to six for quince, and five to seven for sweet cherries. Trees on dwarfing rootstocks generally begin fruiting earlier. From them, you'll harvest one or two fruits the first year.
Plant varieties adapted to your climate. Cold temperatures limit the types of fruit you can grow in cold climates, and lack of sufficient cold limits the varieties you can grow in mild-winter regions. Apricots, nectarines and peaches, for instance, will not survive winters in regions where minimum temperatures regularly drop below -15? F!. But where winter temperatures are particularly mild, certain varieties of these same fruits, as well as apples and pears, may not get cold enough.
Most deciduous fruit trees need a minimum amount of "chill" in winter to grow and fruit well the following season. The chilling requirement of different fruit trees is the total number of hours below 45? F needed while the tree is dormant in winter. Chilling requirements vary considerably. In the South and mild West, choose an apple tree such as 'Anna', 'Beverly Hills', 'Dorsett Golden' or 'Pettingill' that requires only 200 to 300 hours. 'Gravenstein' apple requires 700 hours, and 'Red Delicious' and 'McIntosh' require even more.
Provide pollinizers. Most fruit trees need cross-pollination -- the pollen of a different but compatible variety -- to produce a crop of fruit. Pears, sweet cherries and Japanese plums are in this category. Exceptions include most peaches, figs, sour cherries and the genetic dwarf sweet cherry 'Stella'. These are self-fruitful, meaning they produce fruit from their own pollen. Some fruit trees, including most apples, are semi-self-fruitful. They will make an adequate crop without cross-pollination, but yields increase with cross-pollination.
Plant in the right place. Fruit trees require full sun for maximum production. Plant in fertile, well-draining soil. Avoid heavy clay. Give the trees plenty of space so they don't have to compete with other trees for nutrients and water. If you live in an area with strong winds, plant trees in protected locations rather than on hilltops. In areas where spring frosts threaten developing buds and flowers, plant where air drainage is adequate, such as midway down a gentle slope.
Keep trees well watered and fed. Water trees infrequently but deeply. The frequency will vary by climate and weather, but the soil should be moist down to at least two feet for dwarf trees and three to four feet for full-size trees. In arid summer regions, this means watering once every two to four weeks. Too much or too little water can cause fruit drop. Use a mulch, such as compost or straw, to help maintain even soil moisture.
Apply an organic fertilizer, such as compost or aged manure, or a complete commercial fertilizer such as a 10-4-4 if growth is poor. Too much fertilizer can cause bland, soft fruit that is more susceptible to brown rot. The best time to apply fertilizer is in early spring.
Prune and thin. The primary objectives of pruning fruit trees are to create a strong tree form and to maximize the harvest. Because the tree produces fruit only on certain "fruiting woods," you maximize harvest by pruning to renew fruiting wood. Each type of fruit has a different bearing habit, which determines the correct pruning procedures.
Some trees, such as peaches and apricots, must be pruned heavily to remain productive. Prune others, such as apples and pears, more selectively to avoid removing fruit-producing spurs.
Thin the number of fruits a tree sets to get larger, higher-quality fruit and to encourage steady, year-to-year productivity. The best time to thin is once fruits are one-half to one inch in diameter. In most cases, thin to allow six to eight inches between fruits. For apples and Japanese plums, thin to one fruit per cluster, and be careful to not damage long-lived fruiting spurs.
Lynn Ocone is a garden writer based in Burlington, Vermont.
Photography by National Gardening Association