The perfect time to plan this year’s fruit tree orchard
home orchard
February 24, 2014
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URBANA, Ill. - It is not too early to start to plan for a new home orchard or to consider replacements for aging fruit trees in an existing home orchard, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. 

“There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider: apple, cherry, peach, pear, and or plum,” said Richard Hentschel.

In northern portions of Illinois, the horticulture educator said apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in backyard orchards. Apples are the hardiest of fruit trees and a good place to start for the home orchardist, he added.

“When you shop the fruit tree catalogs or visit with your favorite retail garden center to find out what varieties they will be carrying this spring, consider dwarf apples because, as in most cases, yard space is limited. Dwarf apple trees are naturally smaller than their full-sized siblings and are much easier to train, prune, and maintain than a full-sized fruit tree. If you have lots of space, full-sized fruit trees are always an option but will provide the challenges associated with any full-sized fruit tree,” Hentschel said.

Fruit trees are dwarf naturally or because growers graft or bud them to a dwarfing rootstock, limiting the size of the fruit tree. If they are naturally dwarf, then the apples listed will be a “spur-type” tree. There are many examples of spurs available. Empire, red and yellow delicious, Macintosh, Rome, winesap, and early blaze are a few. The smallest fruit trees will be a combination of a spur type grafted or budded on a dwarfing rootstock, often listed in the catalogs as “Double Dwarf.” 

“Catalogs will list a mature size that is considerably smaller than the full-sized version, but the ultimate size of your dwarf tree is really up to you. If you start to train too late or do not prune correctly, that dwarf apple tree will be much larger than you wanted or expected, yet still much smaller than a full-sized tree,” Hentschel explained. 

Another important key to selecting fruit trees is pollination. Fruit tree catalogs will suggest which apple varieties will be the best pollinators for the varieties you wish to grow. “It is critical that you have two different apple varieties blooming at the same time in order to get good pollination and a strong fruit set,” he said.

Apples are mostly considered to be “self-unfruitful,” meaning that pollen from other flowers on the same tree or from another tree of the same variety will not pollinate itself. The smallest home orchard would need to contain at least two different apple varieties blooming at the same time. Hentschel noted that a possible exception to this rule is if an ornamental flowering crabapple is in bloom, pollen from the flowering crabapple will pollinate fruiting apple trees. This is more likely to occur in an urban backyard than outside of town, he added.   

Just what do experts mean when they say “you need to train your fruit tree?” 

“Home orchardists need to train the tree for structure and to encourage fruit production in order to have a productive, high yielding home orchard,” Hentschel said. “The branches will be positioned on the trunk to allow good sunlight throughout the canopy to promote fruit production from the interior to the outside of your trees’ canopy. This also allows air circulation in the canopy, reducing leaf and fruit diseases, so you benefit in two ways.”

Using dwarf apple trees as an example, what orchardists call the central leader system will likely be used to train the trees. The central leader system allows fruit trees to look like most other trees in the landscape, yet produce apples without the tree looking like those seen in commercial orchards. Training starts the first year dwarf trees are planted. Start to select scaffold branches, placing the first set of scaffold branches no more than 24 inches from the ground.

“By starting that low, you will be able to place additional scaffolds and still have a mature tree that is no taller than 6 to 8 feet, making it very easy to manage. If a dwarf tree is allowed to grow without being well trained, that fruit tree will be much larger than you had planned for. Fruit production will be delayed and long-term care will be more difficult,” Hentschel said.

There are several other advantages of a well-trained dwarf fruit tree, Hentschel noted. “Annual spring pruning will be visually much clearer as to what branches will need your attention. There will be branches that need to be adjusted using traditional branch spreaders or alternative methods such as using twine and a stake to pull the branch into the desired horizontal plane as you develop your scaffolds. Water sprouts will be easily identified as they will be growing straight up from the horizontal scaffold branches,” he said.

As dwarf fruit trees mature, weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though young fruit trees may not produce apples for the first two or more years, orchardists will need to take care of insects and foliar diseases. Foliage-feeding insects reduce the canopy, reducing the amount of food that could go into growing and developing. Leaf diseases have a similar impact. If allowed to continue over the seasons, they could easily delay fruit production. Early pruning and scaffold selection encourages flowers and fruit set.   

“Where you place the home orchard on your property will make a big difference in how the fruit tree grows and performs,” Hentschel said. “A fruit tree requires full sun for best growth and production. A fruit tree uses that sunlight to both produce the fruits that we enjoy so much as well as create vegetative and fruit buds for the coming year.”

Another major consideration is the soil in the area where the home orchard will be planted. “Fruit trees are no different from other trees or shrubs in your landscape; they need good soil drainage. Placing the home orchard where water will drain away very soon after a rain event will help ensure that the roots have the needed soil oxygen to supply both the moisture and nutrients needed to the canopy for continued growth of the foliage and filling of the fruits,” Hentschel said.

“If the soil oxygen is displaced for an extended period of time, the roots will be unable to move the moisture and nutrients up into the tree. Soils that remain too wet will also promote root loss through decay, putting further stress on the fruit tree, potentially killing the fruit tree,” he added.

Besides soil drainage, another area overlooked is air drainage. Home orchardists can avoid late spring frosts to a great degree by placing the trees on a slope or at the high point in the landscape so the cold air settles to the bottom of the hill or slope, away from the fruit tree. “The concern here is preventing the most frost-susceptible flower buds from being damaged. While the weather is unpredictable in the late spring, we can reduce the risk,” Hentschel explained.

“Home orchardists can reduce the risk of damage from a late frost by delaying spring growth by mulching the soil late in the fall or early winter, well after cold weather has set in and after the ground is very cold or frozen,” Hentschel said. “This activity will keep the ground frozen and the root system cold, delaying the fruit tree from breaking dormancy even by a few days, which helps us get past the chances of damage from that late frost.”