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April 9, 2014

Enjoying the fruits of your labor

Fruit trees are popular, but proper care is essential for bountiful harvests

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

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Michigan State University Extension horticulture educator Gary Heilig said pear trees probably have the fewest pest problems of all fruit trees, but that managing all potential threats is crucial to growing healthy trees and reaping bountiful harvests.

Maybe you want to harvest a specific variety of heritage apple at home. Maybe you’d like to know where your fruit comes from and control how it’s grown. Maybe you’re looking to master the challenge of producing perfect pears.  Or maybe it’s all about the flavor of fresh, homegrown fruit.

Whatever your reason, one expert said you should ask yourself a simple question before growing a peach grove or setting out to reclaim that forgotten cherry tree in the backyard.

“People need to decide why they’re doing it,” Michigan State University Extension horticulture educator Gary Heilig said. “People will grow fruit trees simply because they might want to do it as a family project. They may want to do it because they want to be able to control what’s sprayed on their fruit. People like history, and they may want to try some unusual variety they can’t get anymore. Some people want to do their own canning and freezing. If you grow a lot of it yourself, it can save you some money.”

In a world with 3,500 main cultivars (varieties) of apples alone, it’s safe to say there are fruit trees for everyone and for every purpose. And whether you want to grow apples, cherries, peaches, pears or plums, Michigan is a great place to do it.

Once you know why you want to plant an orchard, your attention should turn to the details. Indeed, there are several more things growers need to consider when starting with new trees.

Heilig said fruit trees need full sunlight for most of the day, so site selection is key. They also need plenty of space to grow, and they do best in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH that is between 6.2 and 6.8.

For those unfamiliar with soil testing, more information is available through the MSU Extension at www.msusoiltest.com. A soil test report reveals the soil’s pH and its plant nutrient levels.

Hardiness, or the tree’s ability to tolerate low winter temperatures, is another consideration, and it varies between species and cultivars of fruit trees.

And you’ll probably need more than one tree because most require cross-pollination to bear fruit, although there are exceptions.

Once a suitable site, species and cultivar are selected, Heilig recommends working with dwarf trees.

“They’re smaller. They don’t take up as much room. They’re easier to work with,” Heilig said. “They’re still very productive. You can put a lot more of them in a smaller space.”

Harvesting from a new orchard could begin in three or four years if you plant the largest dwarf trees available. Truly industrious growers can also transplant much larger fruit trees by using a tree spade, a specialized machine used to relocate trees and their root balls. 

With proper pruning, dwarf trees can be kept as low as 10 feet, making them easier and safer to manage, whereas some traditional apple trees can grow to reach 40 feet.

Heilig suggests beginning with trees purchased at a nursery near home because the climate will be familiar to them. If the trees are potted, he said to use your hand to check the soil for plentiful, healthy roots.

He also suggested selecting disease-resistant varieties but stressed that only proper care can ensure a successful harvest. Pests and disease are always threats and need to be properly managed.

“One of the things you have to realize, if you are going to grow an orchard, you’re going to have pest problems,” Heilig said. “Of all the fruit trees, probably pears have the fewest pest problems. If you don’t treat for pests, you’re not going to have a decent crop. If you’re not good at following it, and attention to detail, you’re not going to have success.”

Heilig pointed out that even certified organic growers spray to manage pests, although their product arsenal is limited.

All growers also need to know when the conditions are right for particular diseases to develop and what to do about it.

“If you’re not good at following through on those types of things, you might not want to even start the project,” Heilig said.

If your goal is to reclaim an old orchard or a single fruit tree, Heilig suggests first learning what you can about the tree or trees.

“The first thing I’d do is ask the homeowner if they know anything about the trees, what the varieties are,” Heilig said. “If you know the names, you can talk to somebody in the Extension, and they can tell you if those varieties are worth reclaiming the tree for.”

In the absence of solid information about existing trees, Heilig suggested assessing the fruit at home by using it — use the apples to make applesauce, for example — to see how it performs. If the fruit proves worthwhile, reclaiming the trees shouldn’t be an issue through proper care and pruning.

“You can reclaim the trees and bring them back into production,” Heilig said.

Pruning can be done at once or a little bit at time, and it is best done well after the tree goes dormant. Late winter is a good time to prune most fruit trees. Wood loss is not an issue, but regrowth can be an issue if you prune heavily all at once.

While successfully growing tree fruit is challenging for even the most experienced gardeners, Heilig said the end result is satisfying.

“It’s not that hard to grow a tomato. To grow good, quality fruit, it can be a challenge,” Heilig said. “There’s nothing like getting fresh, ripe fruit off of your trees.”

Bordine’s team leader and sales associate Mark McGuire said he has sold fruit trees for 10 years at the nursery in Rochester Hills. He said the trees are always popular, particularly apple trees, and that 90 percent of the fruit trees they sell at Bordine’s are dwarf varieties.

The nursery sells trees in 15-gallon pots for $59.99 and smaller pots for a little bit less.

McGuire said the new trees “sleep, creep and leap” over the course of three years. He said growing fruit at home is doable and suggested planting at least two trees to ensure adequate cross-pollination in most cases.

“We sell a lot of fruit trees,” McGuire said. “Come into Bordine’s, and we’ll make a gardener out of them.”

Sound daunting? The good news is that the MSU Extension is available to help fruit tree growers. A bounty of resources is available online at www.msue.anr.msu.edu. Tips and tutorials on just about everything related to growing in Michigan are available at the Gardening in Michigan website at www.migarden.msu.edu. MSU Extension staff members and volunteers are available to answer questions through the “Ask an Expert” link online and by phone at (888) 678-3464.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.