The next step in our on-going creation of a garden at Spotts Garden Service is to plant our own orchard. It’s a little one, with trees that top out at just 8′ tall and wide, but it will give us fruit for five months of the year! Follow along as we show you how we chose what to include in the SGS orchard.
SIZING UP FRUIT TREES
Full-sized fruit trees have several drawbacks. Not only do they take up way more space than the average urban garden has, but big trees bring in a huge amount of fruit all at once–usually more than you can eat or process. Standard trees have fruit ripening at the top, where it’s almost impossible to harvest.
You can grow more human-sized trees either by choosing trees that have a dwarfing rootstock or by using summer pruning.
Most tree fruit are grafted onto a root stock; the rootstock determines how big the tree gets (among other things). While a standard apple tree may get 40′ tall, a tree grown on semi-dwarf rootstock may grow between 12′ and 20′ tall, while a dwarf apple tree may only grow 8′ to 10′ tall.
Summer pruning can control the size even of trees that are growing on standard rootstock. By giving a newly-planted tree a severe cut, we can ensure that its branching scaffold starts low on the trunk. And by pruning each summer around the time of the solstice, we can keep that tree at any size we want it.
We chose to use both techniques in our garden. Our apples and European pears are on dwarfing rootstock and will grow to about 8′ tall and wide. Our other trees are grown on semi-dwarfing rootstock, and we’ll keep them to about 6′ tall and wide with summer pruning.
STONES AND POMMES AND FIGS, OH MY!
We wanted to grow a variety of fruit types. Because we’re in the Midwest, citrus fruits are a no-go unless we bring them indoors during winter (although they can be a good choice for those in warmer regions).
Instead, we focused on pomme and stone fruits. Pomme fruits are those in the Malinae (apple) subfamily and include apples, pears, quince, and medlars, among others. Stone fruits have a pit in the fruit and include cherry, peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, and various crosses.
Our orchard includes apples, European pears, Asian pears, cherries, peaches, and plums. (Oh, and a hardy fig, which doesn’t fit into either category!)
Some fruit trees are self-fertile, which means that you can plant just one. Others, like almost all apples, require a pollinator: another variety that blooms at the same time. Pollinators should be planted within about 50 feet.
Cherries are divided into sour (pie) cherries or sweet cherries. Sour cherries are self-fertile. Sweet cherries usually require a pollinator, but some varieties, like ‘Black Gold’ or ‘Lapins,’ are self-fertile.
Peaches may be either self-fertile or may require pollinators. But even self-fertile ones may give you bigger harvests if you plant more than one variety.
Plums may be self-fertile or may need pollinators. Because plums fall into several categories (European, American, Japanese, damsons, etc.) be very careful to choose a pollinator that is appropriate for your tree, or choose one that is self-fertile.
European pears and apples need pollinators, so you must plant two pears or two apples that bloom at the same time. Trees are categorized into “pollination groups;” choose trees from the same or adjacent pollination group to be sure that flowers will be open at the same time.
If you have a crabapple nearby that blooms when your apple tree does, the crabapple can act as a pollinator.
Asian pears (which are more apple-shaped) may be self-fertile or may require a pollinator.
A good nursery will let you know whether your particular tree needs a pollinator and make suggestions for the best pollinators.
CLIMATE AND DISEASE
When choosing fruit trees, we choose ones that are disease resistant. We grow our fruits organically, so starting off with varieties that resist diseases is just good sense. Purdue offers a list of recommended disease-resistant apples. For pears, look for ones specifically resistant to fireblight.
Late frosts can destroy all the blooms on a fruit tree, which means no fruit for the year. So especially for stone fruits, we choose trees that are not just hardy to at least zone 6, but also that bloom late. With luck, late-blooming trees escape surprise late frosts.
Figs are tough to grow in areas with cold winters, unless you choose a hardy fig. Although they may die back to the ground each year, they’ll still fruit on each summer’s new wood. We chose the Chicago Hardy fig for our orchard.
THE LONGEST HARVEST
Full-sized tree fruits can take up to 8 to 10 years to mature and begin to bear. But trees grown on dwarfing stock or kept small with pruning bear more quickly, sometimes even within 3 years!
We planned our orchard to keep fruit coming in for as long as possible. Here are our final selections, along with their rough harvest order. (We purchased our trees from StarkBros; click on each fruit to get more information.)
- Cherry: BlackGold—mid-June
- Cherry: Starkrimson—late June
- Plum: Santa Rosa—mid-July
- Peach: Redhaven—late July
- Peach: Intrepid—mid-August
- Asian Pear: Hosui—late August
- European Pear: Moonglow—early September (pick in mid-August)
- Fig: Chicago Hardy—September to frost
- Apple: Jonafree—mid-September
- European Pear: Starking Delicious late September (pick in early September)
- Apple: Goldrush—mid-to late October
Stay tuned for future updates on the SGS orchard, as well as other developments in the SGS garden!