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A.V. Walters

Orchard Dreams

Orchard Dreams

Though the ground is still frozen, we’re planning our “dooryard” orchard. It’s not a big orchard—enough mostly for our own eating and canning use. Fruit trees require some work and planning—and are often done wrong. Most nurseries have the same one-size-fits-all approach as big-box stores. They sell the fruit tree that’s “in” this year. To do it right, first you have to do your homework. Keep in mind that planting a fruit tree is a long-term investment—it will be three years before you see a serious harvest, and a fruit tree can live twenty-five to even hundreds of years

What kind of fruit do you want, and why do you want it? It’s probably not good to save this decision for the time when, cart full of other stuff, you’re standing in the gardening department at the big-box store, squinting at the little, fruit description labels tethered to spindly saplings in tubs. What kind of fruit do you like? What do you eat now? Don’t fixate (yet) on any specific cultivar (tree variety.) Just figure generally what you’d like. Then you can work on specifics and, more importantly, the realities. If you don’t eat fruit now, what makes you think that, three years from now, if this poor tree survives, you’ll want to eat its fruit then?

Let’s throw some other factors into the mix. How much land do you have for fruit trees? (As a general rule-of-thumb, you’ll need to have an area around each tree that is as big as the tree will be tall. And no, you cannot overlap the root space for trees.) Do you have good light? What kind of soil do you have? Are you on a slope—and if so, top or bottom of the slope? (For air movement.) Are you planting in a space where you can water (or are you depending on rain?) Can the tree survive in this area?

This is the big one. Where do you live? Start here.

Find your state and click on it. (My deepest apologies to my non-American readers, but your location will have similar information available.) Yes, the garden department at the big-box store will sell you a banana tree, but should you buy one? Figure out what climate zone you’re in and start from there. (Californians may prefer to use the more detailed microclimate Sunset Magazine zones.) Your temperature range is the single biggest factor in tree choice success. Armed with that, you could go online to find a fruit cultivar that will live in your location.

But wait, there’s more. Go online, armed with your zone and your fruit type, and you’ll find dozens of candidates. Maybe you want an apple that was your favorite as a kid? Maybe an all-around workhorse apple? How will you be using it? There are fruit that are bred for “eating” or market purposes, there are baking and culinary fruit and there are canning fruit. You might be considering drying it. Well, the same apple you use for lunches might not be the one for pie, and not the one for sauce. Especially, if you’re dealing with limited space, you’ll need to make some compromises and choices.

Now that you have a specific fruit type selected (say eating and baking apple,) look at your options and select for size, soil suitability (light or heavy, well draining or clay—though you can amend the soil some at the outset) pH, and disease resistance. Many of the newer hybrids are bred specifically for hardiness and that’s not a bad choice for a beginning gardener. Heirloom varieties are wonderful (and often “open pollinated,” but we’ll get to that) but if grandma’s Spartan is blight susceptible, you’re taking on a long-term project to grow it. I don’t advise against such a selection, only that you do so with your eyes open. Otherwise, several years down the road, you may find yourself opting to remove the tree you chose—losing money and time, in the process. Pick the tree for your conditions. (Note to my sister: If you’re a gypsy, don’t bother planting fruit trees. By the time they’re ready to bear, you’ll be long gone.)

In your selection, make sure you check whether your choice is self-pollinating, or whether you’ll require a companion variety in order to get fruit. Nurseries aren’t very good about warning you about this. (Even my own Mum planted a lovely, exotic French Gage plum, which has never given fruit because it’s not self-fertile and it doesn’t have a compatible pollinating partner.) The catalogs and online listings all look so lush and delicious—who’d think there are so many things to decide? When in doubt, Google your variety, with the words “pollinating partner.” Another fun feature, in today’s nurseries, is that they sell grafted dwarf varieties that solve the pollination issue for you. I used to think this was a gimmick—but it works well for the backyard gardener, and it has the added novelty of producing multiple types of fruit on a single tree.

Taking the time to pick the right tree(s) is more than half the battle, in growing happy fruit. We have a lot of space, and we’ve decided to grow four kinds of fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries and plums (and, probably a hazelnut hedge/windbreak, down the road.) We want them for eating, baking, canning and dehydrating, which we’ve taken into consideration in the types selected. Although there are some heirlooms in our picks, we also have some new, more disease-resistant cultivars in the mix, and we have researched the compatibility of our choices for their pollination partners. We’ve picked a total of fifteen trees—which is a lot for most, but we’ll have local, market outlets for any excess. We’ve even chosen varieties that spread our anticipated harvests throughout the season, so we aren’t overwhelmed at any given time with too much fruit. Now, we just have to wait for them to arrive (after all, the ground is still frozen solid.) Then there’s planting, watering, pruning and worrying, and then waiting again—several years—until we have fruit.

Of course, there’s the easy way. Just go to the farmer’s market (if you’re lucky enough to have one) for fresh and delicious fare, from your area.