Fruit trees are an attractive and practical addition to a home garden. Whether you plan to eat the fruit yourself, or share it with wildlife, there are plenty of choices for the Kingston area. This week, Master Gardeners Astrid Muschalla and Joyce Hostyn chatted about tips and challenges for those wanting to plant for a harvest of edible fruits.

Right Plant, Right Place

Before your purchase consider the place in which you plan to plant. Conditions such as sun and wind exposure, soil type, moisture/drainage  and the amount of space available to you will shape your decision as to the type of tree you purchase. That said, in our hardiness zone (5b-6a), many types of fruit trees do well – apple, plum, cherry, pawpaw, peach, pear…. and more. As with growing vegetables, the best advice is to plant what you love to eat.

Now that you’ve opened your favourite catalogue, you’ll see a bewildering array of possibilities. Size, rootstock, heritage variety or latest cultivar, self fertile or not….. help!

Bare Root Trees

When ready to buy, Joyce and Astrid advise purchasing “bare root” trees rather than those available in various gallon sized pots. Bare root choices are available from specialist tree nurseries and are dug up when dormant (ie. no buds, leaves or flowers). The roots are wrapped in moist material such as mulch to protect them, then in plastic to preserve hydration, boxed and shipped to you for planting as soon as possible.

While potted trees are tempting, as they appear to have a head start on growth, bare root plants have improved long term survival and within a few years, surpass the potted trees in size. n addition they are generally more cost effective since shipping costs are lower. Bare root trees need to be planted in early spring or late fall while in winter dormancy. 

Rootstock

Most fruit trees are grafted. The grower chooses a rootstock for characteristics such as preferred soil type, disease resistance and ultimate tree size. A scion (top portion which will bear flowers and fruit) is then grafted on. Nurseries will list rootstock name in their catalogues so that, with a little digging, you can choose the type best suited to your growing conditions. This is another advantage to buying bare root – you can choose your rootstock.

Image credit: Finegardening.com

Tree Size

The rootstock will determine, among other things, tree size, usually described dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard. Astrid’s advice is to avoid dwarf varieties (the smallest trees) as they tend to be less hardy and more disease prone. In her own garden she has semi-dwarf varieties that produce considerable amounts of fruit. At Lakeside Community Garden, they have also planted semi-dwarf varieties. Standard size fruit trees are ideal for those with a large lot and long ladder!

Varieties

Whether you are planting vegetables or fruit trees, the best advice is to plant what you like to eat. There are dozens of different types of apple trees available, for example, so consider whether you would like an early, mid or late fruiting variety, or space permitting, all three!  

Perhaps you would enjoy a local or heritage variety, which has proven itself a winner over many years, or maybe a unique type that you cannot find at a grocery store or local market, adding a little biodiversity to your yard.

Image credit: Cape Breton Spectator

Pollination

A discussion about fruit trees would not be complete without understanding a bit about pollination, which is necessary of course,

 for the plant to set fruit. Fruit trees will be described in a catalogue as needing a pollenizer or as self-fertile. In the former case, two or more trees of the same species are needed, that is two apple trees or two plum trees.  The variety may or may not be the same, for example a crapapple will pollinate an apple tree. However, in order for cross pollination to occur, the two trees must flower at the same time.

Some varieties will be descried as self fertile, which means that they pollinate themselves – only one tree is needed for fruit production. Interestingly, some trees are self fertile, but will produce larger crop yields if a pollenizer tree is nearby. 

Image credit: GeorgSchober on Pixabay

Of course, none of this happens without insect assistance, so ensure your yard is a bee friendly environment by avoiding toxic chemicals. Many native bees are excellent pollinators, especially for early spring crops. Bare ground, old wood and hollow stems are ideal nesting habitat for many of these solitary species.

Resources

Trees grown at a nursery in our region will be more adapted to our environment compared to those shipped from distant growers and raised under conditions that may be unlike ours. The resource page below lists just some of the fruit tree nurseries in Ontario and western Quebec.  Be warned though – order early as many varieties are already out of stock

Rideau 1000 Islands Master Gardeners Resource page

And, while there are plenty of excellent online resources to help you get started, here is one of Joyce’s favourites:

The Permaculture Orchard (Stefan Sobkowiak)