Starting your own backyard orchard

State Fair of Texas greenhouse manager, Drew Demler
State Fair of Texas greenhouse manager, Drew Demler

With the “grow-your-own-food” movement continuing to gain popularity, I decided it was time to pass along some tips on starting your own backyard orchard! Be warned before you get started, this is not always easy. Growing fruit trees can be tough. The trees need care, bugs are always waiting to attack, birds want their share of the fruit and oh don’t even get me started on the squirrels. But if you plant the proper varieties and are willing and able to give the trees the care they require, growing your own fruit can be one of the most rewarding experiences a gardener can have.

Now is the perfect time for planting fruit trees for two reasons. 1) Fruit trees are totally dormant at this time of year and they can be transplanted without risk of shock. 2) Most garden centers have their best selection of the year right now. When you go to a store to purchase fruit trees they may be sold in two different forms – bare root or container-grown. Either option is great for planting now, but you want to purchase a container-grown tree if you plant further on in the spring. Container-grown trees are just what the name implies – they have grown their whole life in a pot and have all of their root system intact. On the other hand, bare root trees have been grown in a field, then are dug up in the winter once the trees go dormant, cured for a time and then sold to nurseries. Oftentimes bare root trees are packaged with their roots wrapped in saw dust or planted in a pot. Bare root trees are often cheaper to purchase and sometimes offer a better branching structure than container-grown trees. Be sure and ask if the tree you are purchasing is bare root or container-grown.

With a few exceptions, most fruit trees are actually made of two parts – the rootstock and what is called the scion. The scion is the specific variety of fruit the tree will produce. For example, a Granny Smith apple or a Redskin peach. Rootstock, as you might think, is the part that grows below the ground and supports the tree. The two parts of the tree are attached to each other through grafting. Grafting will leave a funny looking knot where the two parts of the tree meet. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Different rootstocks can give the tree different characteristics, such as dwarfing the tree’s height or making the tree’s fruit larger. Sometimes different rootstocks are used because they are better adapted to a particular soil type. More on varieties and rootstocks later. For now, back to basics.

Planting technique is slightly different for each form of fruit tree. When planting a bare root tree you want to first remove whatever packaging it may come in and get down to the root system. Next you want to dig a hole roughly the same width and depth as the root system. When you place the tree in the hole make sure the roots are sitting relaxed, not crowding or circling the hole. Once you have the tree in the hole, slowly back fill with the soil you dug out. Once you fill the hole in half way, thoroughly water it and let the water settle. Next fill in the rest of the hole with the remaining dirt and again water it thoroughly. This helps eliminate air pockets around the roots. Don’t add potting soil to the hole and don’t use too much compost or soil amendment. If the soil is too rich it can damage young roots and cause root rot. Lastly, cover the top of the hole with a two-inch layer of mulch and construct a berm around the outside of the hole to help guide water to the young tree. When planting a container-grown tree, simply dig a hole twice the width of the pot and of equal depth. Once you take the tree out of the pot, use your finger tips to loosen the outer roots of the root system. Back fill the hole exactly as instructed above and again mulch in the tree. With either method make sure you don’t plant the tree too deep. It is critical to keep the graft line (that funny looking knot) above the grade of the soil. It is better to plant the tree an inch or two too high than too deep.

Not all fruit trees can be grown in all areas. Some varieties need to be adapted to the area where they are grown. One of the most important factors of whether or not a fruit tree will work here is the tree’s chill hour requirement. What are chill hours you ask? Chill hours are the number of hours that the temperature is between 32 and 45 degrees. Each variety requires a certain number of chill hours to properly break dormancy and be able to produce. The Dallas area gets on average between 750 and 850 chill hours in a year. When purchasing trees make sure you know their chill hour requirement.

If properly watered, the Gala variety of apple produces well in north Texas.
If properly watered, the Gala variety of apple produces well in Texas.

Some fruit trees are especially needy. Peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots are high care primarily because bugs find these fruits irresistible. In our area, these varieties usually need to be on a tight insecticide spray schedule. Without proper sprays insects can quickly ruin an entire season’s crop. Apples and pears are usually a little easier in regards to insects and don’t need to be sprayed as often. Pomegranates, figs and persimmons can be grown without spraying.

There is another even greater problem lurking out there for homeowners – critters! Birds and squirrels are a constant threat to fruit and are my own personal arch nemesis. All varieties are susceptible to this problem. As a general rule, gardeners in urban neighborhoods have a tougher time with this than those in rural areas, though critter pressure can be bad anywhere. Oftentimes a gardener may have to resort to pretty drastic measures to combat these fruit thieves. Netting trees, using fake snakes or owls and hanging reflective tape from trees are tricks one can use to discourage wildlife from ruining your crop. I have even seen cages of chicken wire built around trees to keep the fruit safe! I encourage you to research this topic and be ready to deal with this problem if you want to grow fruit trees.

There is a lot to this topic. My goal was to give you the basics today. Hopefully I haven’t overwhelmed you. Next week I am going to post more info on this topic and include a list of varieties that I like for growing in this area. If you have any questions about this info please post them. I’ll be sure and get you an answer. That’s all for now – stay tuned for next week!

Drew Demler,

Manager, Errol McKoy Greenhouse on the Midway

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