You can’t judge a book by its cover, so don’t select fruit trees for your home orchard from photos of fruit. Instead, go straight varietal criteria, and your chances of success skyrocket. Because late winter is dormant season planting time, those photos are strictly for sales. You must first determine if that particular fruit type, and more importantly the specific variety, is capable of bearing in your yard.
It’s important to know that bare root is the most economical way of creating a home orchard. The added weight of shipping soil with a fruit tree is costly, and that expense is passed on to you. Bare roots left at the end of the dormant planting season are potted up and sold in leaf and fruit for a lot more money. But when you buy bare root like all orchard farmers do, the saplings will get a better start in native soil and develop a more extensive root system.
Bare root season rolls around each year at the end of winter in your region. For milder winter zones, it begins in February, when the fruit trees start showing up in garden centers. They will be bare root, dug while dormant from fields and shipped before they begin to come alive again with spring.
Now that you know when to buy home orchard fruit trees, you must be sure to find the varieties that work for you and your micro climate. A quality local nursery should carry only varieties that are regionally appropriate, but that’s not guaranteed. Here’s what to look for:
Areas prone to late frosts in spring or inclement weather during bloom season often result in trees that flower but won’t fruit. It’s because those conditions prevent bees from flying that early or delicate flower parts freeze.
This is why each variety is designated early, midseason or late blooming. The problem is everybody wants early fruiters so they choose early bloomers, which is fine for super mild southern California, but few other locals. Those with late frosts need late bloomers so bees and flowers mate perfectly. Because it takes years for a fruit tree to bear well, you can’t afford to make this mistake. Think patience because unless you live in the low desert summer heat, late bloomers are safer.
Cherries don’t often grow in Florida because the winters aren’t cold enough for the trees to achieve full winter dormancy. Cherries have a higher chilling hour rating compared to other kinds of fruit. This shows how well they are suited to very cold climates. Double check with a local full service garden center to verify any you wish to buy are compatible with your winters.
Grafting allows growers to produce the same fruit tree in three sizes. Standard trees are large, require orchard ladders, are best in deer country, demand a lot of area, and crops are largest. Semi-dwarf trees fit better into yards, are easier to prune with all the benefits of a larger tree. Dwarf forms are optimal for containers, smaller homes or for obtaining more tree diversity in a limited area. No matter what size tree you choose, the fruit is always the same.
Garden centers that ship in bare roots en masse will heel them in sand or sawdust to keep the dormant roots from drying out because they’re very freshly dug. The sooner they go in the ground, the better they start, so shop early. These are often the local garden center’s tried and true varieties their customers have proven to do well locally. Selling bare roots in plastic from mass markets can result in a totally unsuitable plant already breaking dormancy and highly dehydrated by shipping.
A home orchard is one of the best home improvement projects because it yields for decades after the original plantings. It’s a great dad project to round up the data, discuss varietal options with the boss and dig in the early mud of the year. It’s all about the right choice so in just a few years you will have crops of healthy home grown fruit, large and perfect as a catalog photo.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com