By Jeff Kanters, EMGV
I am the wisest man alive,
For I know one thing,
And that is that I know nothing
Ever think about planting a fruit tree in your yard or helping in an orchard? I did. As a new Extension Master Gardener, I joined Durham’s Briggs Avenue Community Garden teaching orchard as a volunteer and co-leader in February 2022. Initially, my knowledge specific to orchard management was limited. But soon, I found myself catapulted into acquiring and applying a vast new knowledge base. One great truth for me is that the more I learned, the more I realized how much more there is to learn. I am excited about this new series of articles on fruit-tree management where I can share what I learn with you. Maybe you, too, will be ready to dive head-first into growing fruit trees.
Conditions for Planting and Growing Fruit Trees
I was first introduced to the orchard in mid-February 2022 with other prospective team members to get instruction and hands-on practice at the winter pruning of newly planted orchard trees. I learned the history and organization of the orchard: how, what, and where new trees were planted. Given the heavy compacted clay soil of the orchard area, in 2020 elevated rows or berms were created from quality soil consisting of a mix of topsoil, compost, and soil amendment that was brought in.
My takeaway: Some fruit trees, like peaches, need well-draining soil.
The long berm rows were constructed 7-feet wide and elevated 2-feet from the ground and oriented in a north-south direction. Dormant small new fruit trees were planted on top of the respective berm rows in December 2021.
My takeaway: Best to plant or transplant new fruit trees when dormant, usually winter to very early
To stabilize the new berms from erosion, reduce weeds, hold moisture, and buffer the tree roots from the summer heat, the orchard team settled on covering the berms with shredded pine mulch. We preserved a 2-foot diameter well around each tree topped with Permatil® to deter voles from chewing at the base roots and trunks of the new trees.
Getting to Know the Orchard
After understanding the core berm construct, I familiarized myself with the planted orchard trees. The orchard is currently divided into two sections, the larger south orchard and the smaller north orchard. The large south orchard trees are planted along 6 specific rows based on the type of fruit tree and their root stock:
- Row 1 consists of plums (Prunus domestica) and peaches (Prunus persica), both members of the Rosaceae or Rose family.
- Row 2 are apples (Malus domestica) of the Rosaceae or Rose family
- Row 3 are pears (Pyrus communis) of the Rosaceae or Rose family
- Row 4 are persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) of the Ebenaceae family
- Row 5 are elderberries (Sambucus sp.) of the Adoxaceae family
- Row 6 are paw paws (Asimina triloba) of the Annonaceae family
My takeaway: Fruit trees need to be spaced far enough apart to maximize sunlight penetration into each tree at its mature size and so that the tree canopies do not grow into each other.
The north “mini” or small orchard consists of two curved berms shaped like parentheses and oriented north to south. Each row holds an assortment of plum, peach, apple, pear, and persimmon trees. At the far north end of the small orchard flanking the small shed are planted a regent serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Regent’) of the Rosaceae or Rose family and a pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana) of the Myrtaceae family. Between the north and south orchard, near the entrance of the beehive area are planted two cultivars of pomegranates (Punica granatum) of the Lythraceae family. And planted across from the pomegranates between the north and south orchards is a weeping mulberry (Morus alba) of the Moraceae family.
Understanding Scions and Root Stocks
If that’s not enough, I needed to acquaint myself on the specific root stocks grafted onto the applicable scions of peaches, plums, apples, pears, and persimmons, and what they contribute to a fruit tree’s growth. I was shown how to identify the graft union between the rootstock and scion, and the optimal planting position of the tree so that the graft union was only 2-3 inches from the ground level. That meant educating myself on a few key terms that would be helpful for you to know as well:
- Scion pertains to the visible top growth, above-ground trunk, and canopy. The scion determines the fruit variety, characteristics, flavor, aroma, texture, ability to stay viable on and off the tree, uses (fresh picked, for juicing, or cooking), season of ripening, and disease and pest resistance or susceptibility.
- The root stock is selected for interaction with soil, providing the roots or supporting underground structure. It obtains the necessary water and minerals, drought tolerance, and resists the relevant pests and diseases. These are factors to consider whether a tree is planted in the heavy clay soils of Durham County or the sandier soils of Franklin County. Moreover, the root stock may also have a dwarfing effect on the scion and result in a smaller than expected tree if it were growing from its native root. This can be desirable for a number of reasons, including planting in small spaces and having fruit produced lower so that it’s easier to pick.
Another layer of knowledge I had to grasp and apply is the training of fruit trees via pruning and spreaders. I came to understand that while the root stock may influence the vigor and size of the scion grafted to it, tree pruning was the greatest driver in managing the size and shape of the tree. Below are some important factors to keep in mind.
- Pruning needs to start as soon or soon after the sapling is planted, preferably in winter or very early spring while still dormant. Pruning is an active process and continues every season during the life of the tree. There are 2 key times of year fruit trees are pruned. Winter-prune when the tree is dormant for shape and vigor. This includes removal of diseased, dead, or damaged wood as well as crossing branches. Summer-prune around the time of the summer solstice for size, shape, removing upright and vigorous current season’s growth. This helps to maintain and open tree shape for maximum photosynthesis and fruit development.
- Pruning shears must be sharp and as free from contamination as possible between cuts and trees. I clean-sterilized tools with 70% alcohol or Lysol® to prevent the introduction of any cross contamination between cuts and trees.
(Left to right) Before pruning and after summer-pruning of a young peach tree.
(Image Credit: Jeff Kanters)
In addition to proper pruning, I needed to learn and apply the ‘training’ part of the equation. This entails the use of limb spreaders to train new pliable growth at a crotch angle of 45-60% from center or leader of the tree, like a wide vase or bowl shape. Why? To keep the center of the tree as open as possible to maximize fruit production. They say practice makes perfect, so after a few failed attempts I began to analyze a particular tree and see where a spreader could be set to widen a branch angle. Nice thing, the spreaders do not stay in place forever, as typically after 1 to 2 years of growth the branch being trained has stiffened to its angle of growth and the spreader may be removed.
My takeaway: The objectives of pruning and training are to achieve maximum tree life and productivity.
(Left) Spreaders applied to an apple tree to widen branch angle and maximize sun penetration and fruit yield. (Right) Regular scouting for pests like Japanese beetles on this apple tree is an important task. (Image Credit: Jeff Kanters)
Pest and Pathogen Management
And last but certainly not least, I am only beginning to touch on the vast knowledge needed for orchard management regarding pests and diseases. This came to light especially with our recent horrific Japanese beetle (Popilla japonica) infestation of all the orchard trees that began this May. I can attest that all of the team members became adept at manually popping beetles off tree leaves into soapy water. In general, mechanical methods like handpicking destructive insects such as Japanese beetles have proven both a sustainable and effective way to control pests.
And with this, my saga is just beginning. Looking forward to taking you on my journey of challenges, knowledge gained, and lessons learned in orchard management. We will dig deeper into all facets of orchard management and growing fruit trees. Fasten your seat belts and stay tuned.
Additional Resources and Information
“Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small Space, Easy Harvest Fruit Trees,”
by Ann Ralph. December 30, 2014.
Check out North Carolina State University’s Production Guide for Smaller Orchard Plantings.
North Carolina Extension Gardner Handbook, Chapter 15 Tree Fruits and Nuts is an excellent resource on fruit growing for the home gardener.
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