Growing Fruit Trees In New England
Many homeowners already enjoy the challenge and reward of growing fruit bearing trees. Not only do these trees offer striking ornamental effects, in time they also yield the added benefit of fresh, home-grown fruit for the family. This blog is a brief introduction to cultivating fruit trees in the home landscape. There are many excellent books and websites that provide detailed information for each type and cultivar of fruit tree.
Size: Final height and spread depend upon site, pruning, and maintenance.
Standard – “Standard” fruit trees grow 15-30’ high.
Dwarf – “Dwarf” trees grow 10-15’ high. A dwarf tree is either a graft of two trees or a graft of three trees. In one type the root stock is from one tree with a second tree grafted onto it. In the other type, the root stock is from one plant; the stem or trunk from a second; and the head from a third. Heavy bearing dwarfs may require staking to support their fruit load.
Genetic dwarf – “Genetic dwarf” trees usually grow 5-6’ high and 8-10’ in spread. They are the dwarf offspring of parent stock with desirable dwarf traits. Genetic dwarfs may be more susceptible to trunk borers. Heavy-bearing genetic dwarfs may require staking to support their fruit load.
Semi-dwarf – “Semi-dwarf” trees grow 15-20’ high.
Spacing: Fruit trees are traditionally given ample space in orchards but can also be planted in the smaller home landscape. Dwarfs and genetic dwarfs do not take up much room. Any tree can be carefully pruned as an espalier or to a trellis to reduce space requirements. Remember that self-unfruitful types require a second pollinizer within 100’. (Pollinizers are pollen-compatible plants. Pollinators are the insects that carry pollen.)
Site selection: Fruit trees need sunlight. A full day is best (more than 6 hours), but they can make do with a half day’s sun. The ideal soil for fruit trees is deep, fertile, well drained, and not too heavy. If existing soil conditions are poor, it is very important to dig a large planting hole and amend the soil. For example, if the soil is too heavy, add peat moss to lighten it. The future of a fruit tree is directly related to the care taken during the hour or two it takes to plant it.
Selection of a site with good “air drainage” is extremely important. A tree in a low-lying area will likely be damaged by the cold air and moisture which settle there. The goal is to find a site which is not in such a pocket and, at the same time, not exposed to the worst winter winds. Look for clues. If you have a Forsythia intermedia that blooms reliably and well, it is more than likely a good area for a peach. They both need good sun and the buds of both are damaged by similar winter conditions.
Planting: Follow our “Planting Guidelines”. In addition, several points are worth emphasizing.
When planting never let the root system dry out. If you are in the process of planting and are called to the phone, make sure the roots are covered with moist soil or cloth.
Do not fertilize when planting the tree. The small developing root hairlets will not be capable of absorbing the fertilizer at that time and can actually be damaged. You should, however, add bonemeal or superphosphate while planting.
Stake the newly planted tree. Unless you stake, the wind will blow through the head and loosen the developing connections between root hairlets and the soil.
With all grafted types, make sure that the graft point is never buried.
Container-grown trees can be planted any time during the growing season. Bareroot trees can be planted in the fall when dormant, but spring planting is preferred.
Mulching: Weeds and grasses around the base of a fruit tree compete for nutrients and the attention of bees and also provide a safe haven for rodents to eat the bark and girdle the trunk. All fruit trees benefit from mulch over their root area, although some do fine in turf. Be careful not to mulch too close to the trunk which can, itself, create a perfect haven for overwintering rodents. We recommend leaving 12-24” around the trunk clear of mulch.
Watering: All fruit trees should be given adequate water through the growing season. Peaches, especially, need to be watered under drought conditions.
Fertilization: It is best to start by finding out what your soil is made of. You can contact the Extension Service ( www.umassgreeninfo.org ) and have it tested or you can purchase a home soil testing kit. Identify deficiencies in the soil and then correct them.
Never fertilize when planting a new tree. Wait until the next growing season to begin feeding the tree once annually, either organically with manure and compost or with a commercially prepared fertilizer specifically for trees. (There are also concentrated fertilizers formed in spikes which release over a longer period of time.) Follow all manufacturer’s directions carefully. If you choose an organic approach, get a good book on the subject and watch for plant clues. For example, if the leaves turn very dark green, you may be adding too much nitrogen.
Timing of the application depends on how the weather will affect growth; you have three choices. Fertilizing in the early spring, immediately after the ground has thawed, will push tender new growth that will have enough time to “harden off” before harsh, hot, dry summer weather. Fertilizing in the early fall will push new growth that will have a chance to harden off before the drying winter wind and cold appear (not recommended for cherries or peaches). Fertilizing in the late fall after the tree has gone dormant is in effect the same as fertilizing in the early spring.
Pears should be fertilized only sparingly; overly lush growth is susceptible to fire blight. Excessive nitrogen fertilizer on any fruit tree may promote vegetative growth at the expense of blossom.
Pollination: Fruit trees bear fruit only if their flowers are successfully pollinated. In general, fruit trees fall into two groups: self-fruitful and self-unfruitful. If a tree is self-unfruitful it can not pollinize itself; you must plant a different variety within 100 feet of it for pollination to occur. The closer the better. A good bee population is invaluable to pollination. Keep weeds and flowers to a minimum around fruit trees so that bees concentrate on pollinating the trees. Standard, dwarf and genetic dwarf trees will cross pollinize.
Apples – usually self-unfruitful; plant two varieties. Winesap and Gravenstein are not good pollinizers for other apples. Closely related varieties such as Macoun and McIntosh will not pollinize each other.
Apricots – self-fruitful. Because apricots are not very hardy, planting two varieties will ensure a good crop even if some frost damage occurs.
Cherries – Sweet cherries are usually self-unfruitful; plant two varieties. There are some self-fruitful varieties. Sour cherries are self-fruitful but will produce better if pollinized by another sour. Sour and sweet cherries will not pollinize each other.
Peaches – self-fruitful except for the variety J. H. Hale.
Pear – Asian pears are self-fruitful. European pears are mostly self-unfruitful; plant two varieties. Bartlett and Seckel will not pollinize each other.
Plums – Several European varieties are self-fruitful. Japanese varieties are generally self-unfruitful; plant two varieties.
See listings further in this document for pollinizing characteristics of specific fruit varieties.
Pruning: The technique for pruning will depend on the type of fruit tree. An apple tree, which fruits on older wood, will be pruned in one fashion; but a peach, which fruits only on new wood, will be pruned differently. Consult a good reference book or the internet for diagrams and descriptions on how to prune different types. The goal during the first three years is to create a good framework rather than to encourage fruiting. Note that, for all fruit trees, growth suckering from the base should be removed. Pruning is best done from late fall, when the tree is completely dormant, to early spring when it just awakens from dormancy. Pruning tools should be sharp and cleaned between cuts with a disinfecting solution (1/4 c. bleach to 1 gal. water). There are four reasons to prune yearly:
– Pruning increases fruit color and quality by admitting light to both fruit and leaves throughout the tree. With better light, the fruit is better supplied with carbohydrates (principally sugars) beyond those required simply for growth;
– Pruning helps increase the size of fruit, especially in combination with thinning;
– Pruning stimulates new growth by keeping fruiting wood young and vigorous. As fruit-bearing wood ages, it produces less and should be replaced by new growth;
– Pruning assists in controlling insects and disease. Good air flow through the tree allows it to dry quickly, reducing fungal diseases. Accessibility to all parts of the tree allows thorough spraying for insects when needed. And removal of crossing, dead, and injured wood allows for better healing and removes vulnerable sites for insects and diseases to attack.
Thinning: Reducing the number of immature fruit can produce better mature fruit. Thinning requirements vary for different types of fruit trees. Trees planted for three years or less generally should have their fruit removed so that they develop good vegetative growth. Most mature fruit trees will naturally drop excess fruit that they can not support to maturity, once or twice during the growing season. Genetic dwarfs may produce fewer fruit in general.
Diseases and pests: There are four approaches to disease and pest control.
– Many disease and pest problems can be tremendously reduced by good clean-up practices. Fallen leaves and fruits that can harbor both fungus spores and insects (overwintering adults, larvae or eggs) should be removed thoroughly.
– You can spray individually for each disease and pest as it occurs; the two best materials will be dormant or all season oils (for insects and disease) and lime sulfur or an all purpose fungicide that lists fruit trees on its label (for disease). Dormant oils should be applied after freezing weather is past but before buds begin to open (usually sometime in March). All season oils are lighter in weight and can be used from the dormant season throughout the growing season. Lime sulfur can be applied starting in spring as foliage emerges. Combinations of some sprays can damage plants; follow all directions and restrictions for all products carefully.
– You can, as an alternative, use any one of a number of products that combine disease and pest control in a single all-in-one spray.
– Or, you can apply dormant oil, in early spring, followed by an all-in-one orchard spray later on.
Read all labels carefully! Small errors can have major effects. For example, spraying when the tree is in full flower will kill many of the bees necessary for pollination. Another example, some varieties of fruit trees may be damaged by certain products under certain conditions. Success with pest controls depends upon using the correct products and using them correctly. Time applications carefully and make sure coverage is complete.
MOST COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT FRUIT TREES
How soon after I plant the tree will it bear fruit?
In general, the dwarfs will produce a crop after two years and the standards after three years. They may produce occasional fruit before this, but it is best to remove it in order to allow the tree to develop. Some trees are called “precocious” meaning they fruit within two years.
Will a dwarf fruit tree pollinize a standard one and vice versa?
Is the fruit smaller on a dwarf tree?
No. Standard and dwarf produce the same size fruit. Dwarf refers to the final height and spread of the tree. Genetic dwarfs may not bear fruit as heavily.
I only have room for one tree. Which type can I plant?
You can plant the types that are self-fruitful: peach, apricot, sour cherries, specific sweet cherries, some of the European plums.
How often do I have to spray the trees?
This varies with the type of tree you have and the products you want to use.
How much sun do fruit trees need?
They will do best in full sun, six hours of good sun at a minimum.
I have a wet area in my yard. Can I plant a fruit tree there?
No, not in that area. Fruit trees like a well drained soil. This does not mean a dry area, just a well drained, friable soil.
My soil is very acid. Will fruit trees tolerate this?
Fruit trees generally like a relatively neutral soil. A pH of 7.0 is neutral. Higher numbers indicate alkalinity and lower ones acidity. If the soil is in the 4.0-5.0 range, sweeten it with lime.
APPLES (Zones 3-9)
Size: Standard 20-30’; dwarf 15-18’; genetic dwarf 5-6’ tall and wide.
Spacing: Standard 25-30’ on center; dwarf 15-20’ on center; genetic dwarf 8-10’ on center.
Pollination: Apple trees are generally self-unfruitful, requiring pollinizing by another variety. Yellow Delicious and Jonathan are two of the best pollinizers. Winesap will not pollinize any other varieties or itself. Gravenstein is also not a good pollinizer.
Diseases and pests: Apples are attacked by many organisms, but the home gardener will have the most trouble with codling moth and other fruit spoiling pests. To control codling moth spray with carbaryl (Sevin) or following manufacturer’s instructions. Remove and destroy all fallen apples and debris. Pheromone traps can also be used. Cedar Apple Rust can be controlled with lime sulfur or a fungicide labeled for this disease. Complete clean-up of all fallen leaves and fruit is essential. A good all-in-one orchard spray may be used instead for both disease and insects and should be applied per manufacturer’s instructions. Macintosh, Golden Delicious, Jonathan and certain other varieties may be injured by sulfur application under certain conditions.
Pruning: Like all varieties of fruit trees apples can be trained to a special shape such as an espalier or trellis. In general the tree should be trained to a strong basic scaffold. Because apples bloom primarily on wood at least 2 years old, the oldest branches should be removed when age or shade begins to cut their production. Pruning an aging tree will stimulate the growth of new, heavier bearing wood.
Thinning: Fruit bearing usually starts in the third year. The fruit will be larger and better colored if during years of heavy fruit set the excess fruit is thinned off when about 1.5” in diameter. Remove all double and triple apples. Space the remaining fruit 6-8” apart. Apples tend to bear heavier every other year.
Soils: Apples will grow well on a wide range of soils in our area. You should avoid planting them in shady, low-lying, poorly drained areas. If your soil is very heavy, lighten it by mixing in peat moss. Preferred pH is 5.5-7.5.
APRICOTS (Zones 4-7)
Size: Standard 20-25’; dwarf 12-15’.
Spacing: Standards 25-30’ on center; dwarf 15-20’ on center.
Pollination: Although most varieties of apricot are self-fruitful, we strongly suggest that two varieties be planted. Apricots flower early; a hard late frost will consequently remove many of the young blossoms or fruits.
Diseases and pests: Brown Rot will cause ripening fruit to shrivel, forming mummies that must be removed by hand. Spray with a fungicide labeled for brown rot, following manufacturer’s instructions. Do not use lime sulfur on apricots. Clean up and destroy all debris including mummies. Plum curculio beetle will attack the fruit right after blossom time. Spray with carbaryl (Sevin) or another product specific for this pest. Pick up and destroy all fallen fruit.
Pruning: Apricots are produced on wood that is two to three years old. To prune, therefore, head back new whips about halfway and remove some of the oldest fruiting wood.
Thinning: Expect first fruit in 2-3 years. Apricots will normally thin themselves; but if you get a very heavy fruit set, you should thin to 2” between the fruit.
Soil: Apricots require no special soil but will do better if given a good supply of organic material (peat humus). They do prefer adequate moisture but should not be planted in poorly drained low-lying areas. Danger of frost damage to this early-flowering tree is higher in these types of areas. Preferred pH is 5.5-8.0.
CHERRIES (Zones 4-9)
Size: Standard 15-25’; dwarf 8-10’.
Spacing: Standard 25-30’ on center; dwarf 10-15’ on center.
Pollination: Sweet cherries — Usually self-unfruitful. Two varieties should be planted together if no other sweet cherry trees are present on the site. Some self-fruitful varieties are available. Sour cherries — Self-fruitful and will not pollinate sweet cherries.
Diseases and pests: Birds are the most serious pest. If you wish to harvest the fruit, you should spread netting over the tree. Cherry slug (pear slug), the larva of a fly and not a slug at all, can skeletonize leaves, but damage is usually only unattractive. If there are few larvae, wash the foliage with a strong spray of water. Spray with carbaryl (Sevin) or spinosad if extensive defoliation seems likely, following instructions carefully.
Pruning: Cherries need no fruit thinning and very little pruning after the first two years of growth. Remove crossing or weak branches and suckers as they appear.
Thinning: Expect first fruit in 2-3 years. Cherries usually require no thinning.
Soil: Cherries, like most fruit trees, will not thrive on heavy or poorly drained soils. Do not fertilize cherries in the fall since new foliage may be slow to harden off. In late fall, apply four to six inches of bark mulch over the root system (staying 24” away from the trunk) to protect it from winter damage. Remove winter mulch in spring after danger of freezing has passed. Preferred pH is 5.5-8.0.
Note: When picking, avoid damaging spurs.
NECTARINE and PEACH (Zones 5-9)
It is said that nectarines are essentially smooth-skinned peaches, without the fuzz. That is true. Both are of the species Prunus persica; nectarines are of the subspecies Prunus Persica nucipersica. They share most of the same horticultural characteristics.
Size: Standard 15-20’; dwarf 8-10’; genetic dwarf 5-6’.
Spacing: Standard 20-25’ on center; dwarf 10-15’ on center; genetic dwarf 8-10’ on center.
Pollination: Most varieties are self-fruitful except for a few such as the J. H. Hale peach. Because of the abundance of blossoms on a mature tree (25,000) a good bee population aids in pollination.
Diseases and pests: Brown rot disease will cause ripening fruit to shrivel, forming mummies that must be removed by hand. To control, spray with a fungicide labeled for brown rot, following manufacturer’s instructions. Clean up and destroy all debris including mummies. Plum curculio beetle will attack the fruit right after blossom time. Spray with carbaryl (Sevin) or another product specific for this pest. Pick up and destroy all fallen fruit. All-in-one orchard sprays can also be used.
Pruning: Fruit forms only on wood that grew the previous summer. New growth should be encouraged by thinning and heading back some of the growth and by removing any weak or damaged branches. A bowl-shaped spreading crown with an open center should be encouraged. Trees are easiest to maintain and harvest if kept at about 10’ or less tall.
Thinning: First fruit, 2-3 years. Trees will produce an abundance of fruit — it can’t all stay. Part of the crop will be lost to frost damage and part to natural fruit drop. If the tree still appears too heavy with fruit, thin to 6-8” between fruit when they are 1” in diameter. Because of the heavy fruit production, trees may require staking, especially when young. Any fruit during the first two years should be removed.
Soil: Nectarine and peach trees can grow in very sandy soils and do not like poorly drained soil. If a clay condition exists where the tree is to be planted, it is best to change the location or seriously amend the soil. Preferred pH is 5.5-7.5.
Fertilization: Apply fertilizer after growth begins in spring and again about 6 weeks later. Do not over-fertilize; excessively lush growth is weak. For peaches in particular, the greenness of the leaves is a good indicator of overall health.
Mulching: Nectarines and peaches like to be free of grass and weeds within their root area and benefit from mulching (staying 24” away from the trunk).
PEARS (Zones 4-8)
Size: Standard 20-25’; dwarf 12-15’.
Spacing: Standard 20-25’ on center; dwarf 15-18’ on center.
Pollination: All European pears are self-unfruitful. Two varieties must be planted together. Bartlett and Seckel are incompatible and will not pollinize each other. Asian pears are self-fruitful. European and Asian pears will not pollinize each other.
Diseases and pests: Fire-blight is the most serious problem. This bacterial disease is spread by insects during the blooming period and shows later as the new growth wilts and dies. It will spread and can kill the tree. There is no control other than cutting off the infected branches – at least 12” behind visible damage into apparently healthy wood and sterilizing pruners or saws after each cut. Copper sulfate may be used in the early spring as a protective measure. Fire-blight is not a major problem in our area at this time and should not be a reason to avoid pears. Anjou, Comice and certain other varieties may be injured by sulfur application.
Pruning: Fruits on 2 year old wood. Train the young tree to three or four main scaffolds. Once the tree starts bearing, prune lightly except when a branch is blighted.
Thinning: First fruit in 2 years. You shouldn’t need to thin; but if a very heavy fruit crop sets, remove damaged, undersized, double and triple fruit to space remaining fruit 6-8” apart. This can be done after natural fruit drop up to a few weeks before harvest.
Soils: Pears will grow in a wider variety of soils and will probably do better on heavier, wetter soils than almost any other fruit. It will still do best, however, on the ideal fruit soil: deep, fertile, well-drained, and not too heavy. Pears do very well growing in sod; keep the area right around the trunk clear, however, to avoid rodent damage. Preferred pH is 5.5-8.0.
Fertilizing: Fertilize sparingly. Too much nitrogen produces soft, succulent twig growth which is highly susceptible to fire blight. Until the tree matures, use only half the amount of fertilizer used on other trees.
Harvesting: Pears should be picked while they are full size but still light green and firm. Hold in a cool, dark place if you intend to eat them within a few weeks. For fast ripening place several in a plastic bag together. Tree ripened pears will break down and turn soft and brown at the core.
PLUMS (Zones 4-9)
Size: Standard 20-25’; dwarf 12-15’.
Spacing: Standard 25-30’ feet on center; dwarf 15-20’ on center.
Pollination: There are several types of plums, among them the European varieties which are characterized by small, egg-shaped fruit. Blue is the most common European plum color. Fruit is dry and sweet. These are partially self-fruitful, and there are self-fruitful varieties, but it is still suggested that two different varieties be planted to ensure pollination. Japanese plums always do best with two varieties.
Diseases and pests: Very similar to peach, but plums are more susceptible to plum curculio beetle. The beetle will cause malformed fruit and should be sprayed with carbaryl (Sevin) or any pesticide specific for this pest, following manufacturer’s instructions. Pick up and destroy all fallen fruit.
Pruning: The European varieties will probably not need any pruning after the first few years.
Thinning: First fruit in 5 years. European varieties will probably not need thinning.
Soils: Similar requirements as apple and peach. Plum trees will do well growing in sod and can be used as an ornamental in a lawn area.