I would never have a garden without at least a few fruit trees

Opinion: There is a lot to consider when adding fruit trees to your garden, but let me assure you that they are so worth it.

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Growing our own fruit trees, even in small gardens, is a wonderful gardening opportunity. Few things are as rewarding as picking a fresh apple, cherry, pear, plum or peach from your own tree year after year. However, for optimal production, we need to be creative in how and where we grow them.

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Access to plenty of sunshine is a key factor. During the summer growing season it is important that all fruit trees are exposed to the full intensity of the sun from at least 10am to 4pm. Good air circulation is also important to minimize disease problems. Good quality soil to a depth and width of three to four feet is essential to allow the roots to grow deep and have access to their own moisture, especially in hot summers.

One of the biggest obstacles for many people is the space required to grow fruit trees. This is of particular concern when two or more trees are required for cross-pollination. Because all trees, including fruit trees, can be grown in containers, it’s possible to grow them without the availability of floor space, but it can mean a lot more work, even with an automated irrigation system.

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Fortunately, a versatile mix of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees is available for the home and garden market today. In smaller spaces, most people prefer a compact tree, but dwarf rootstock is not always available. Most of today’s fruit trees are grafted onto different rootstocks, which determines their final size and strength and results in earlier fruit production.

I asked Joe Biringer, a Washington state fruit tree grower who ships a significant number of fruit trees to Canada, about the sizing issue. He said many different factors, including soil quality and growing conditions, affect a tree’s final size. Also, each tree species has its own unique power. Even when grafted onto short-statured rootstock, certain hardy strains will still grow well past their so-called dwarf range. Therefore, determining the ultimate size of a tree has always been a challenge, even for professionals.

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Biringer pointed out that with the right pruning and training, most fruit trees can be kept at a comfortable height for both tending and harvesting. He also mentioned that summer pruning is most important for keeping fruit trees in an ideal size range.

I asked Biringer if he could provide some approximate heights for a number of fruit trees. Regarding dwarf or compact fruit trees, he pointed out that while growers tend to choose from a proven selection of rootstocks, there can still be differences in height. On his M-27 mini dwarf apple rootstock, Biringer said trees typically grow to about 10 feet tall. It is a fairly weak rootstock and must be secured with either trellises or stakes to prevent the tree from snapping, especially when laden with a heavy load of fruit. He recommends the M-26 dwarf rootstock for a stronger, more resilient tree. A tree grafted onto this rootstock will grow in the 12 to 15 foot range.

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He grafts dwarf pears onto quince rootstocks and they grow to between 12 and 16 feet tall. Its juvenile rootstock Old Home 97 will set up pear trees in the 15 foot range, depending of course on the vigor of the strain. Most plums have fairly good vigor, so its St. Julien A rootstock will keep them nicely within 12 to 15 feet.

Cherry trees are the most aggressive in terms of growth, and the many varieties growing on the Gisela 5 dwarf rootstock will peak in the 12 to 15 foot range. Most growers use the Mazzard rootstock for cherries, and that means they often reach 25 feet in height without pruning.

For peaches, Biringer uses Marianna 2624 or St. Julien A stem, and although it is a juvenile, the peaches have such vigor that they grow 15 to 18 feet tall. According to Biringer, it’s important to prune all peaches heavily each year to keep fruit-bearing new growth down. He recommends that large, woody, old stems that produce little new growth be heavily pruned each year. Nectarines are simply downy peaches, so they need to be pruned the same way.

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Another big issue that confuses many people is pollination. For cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums, look for a self-fertile variety if possible so that you only need one tree for fruiting.

Most apples, pears, and plums require at least two different varieties for cross pollination. It is very important that both strains flower at the same time or at least overlap their flowering times to ensure good pollination. For smaller area gardens, choose a multi-grafted tree that has enough different cultivars to ensure successful pollination. A great BC gardener once told me that an excellent alternative to a multiply grafted tree is to plant two desired varieties in the same planting hole and grow them as a single tree. I’ve seen it and it works fine.

There is a lot to consider when adding fruit trees to your yard, but let me assure you that they are so worth it. I would never have a garden, no matter how big, without at least a few fruit trees.

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