Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Selecting the Healthy Fruit Tree or Berry Bush

You have stud­ied your cli­mate, tested your soil, iden­ti­fied the per­fect plant­ing site, and decided what fruit it is you want to plant. The time to actu­ally pick out your berry bush or fruit tree has arrived. But, how do you make sure you are get­ting a good healthy ones?

First, buy from a rep­utable source. High qual­ity, good ser­vice and selec­tion, and a respected rep­u­ta­tion usu­ally go hand-in-hand with a busi­ness’ longevity and suc­cess. Spe­cialty nurs­eries are most likely to offer disease-free plants that are true to name. Word of mouth may help you find favored sources among expe­ri­enced gardeners.

As for what to order and look for if you are deal­ing with a mail order catalog -

  • One year old trees and bushes usu­ally adjust best to transplanting.
  • Look for trunk diam­e­ters between ½” to ¾” inches on apple, apri­cot, cherry, pear, and plum trees. Peaches tend to have diam­e­ters from  ¾” to 1½.
  • Big­ger is not always bet­ter. Often it means a large branch area to sup­port with a lim­ited root sys­tem, leav­ing insuf­fi­cient energy for adjust­ing to trans­plant­ing. Research has shown that smaller trees and bushes over­take larger trans­plants within a few years. This has been attrib­uted to less trans­plant shock.
  • Dor­mant trees and bushes, in most cases, sur­vive ship­ping best.
  • Most mail order nurs­eries ship trees “bare root.” You should expect a bal­anced, sym­met­ri­cal root sys­tem; no badly bro­ken major roots or cracked tap root. Roots should be kept moist with damp sphag­num moss or shred­ded paper and pos­si­bly a plas­tic wrap. Although a very minor bit of mold may be vis­i­ble, roots should not be heav­ily infested or rotting.
  • Some smaller berry bushes may be shipped in small pots, which is fine.
  • Tis­sue cul­tured bram­bles are often sent as plugs in trays. These are not dor­mant and must be pro­tected from cold and wind. They should be hard­ened off like any other ten­der seedling.
  • If you are shop­ping at a local gar­den cen­ter most of the above rec­om­men­da­tions are still applic­a­ble. Since you can see the plants before buy­ing, look for a few addi­tional qualitites -
  •  Tree trunks should be straight; prefer­ably with no branches below knee height. You should remove any low branches at plant­ing time.
  • The graft union — where the root­stock and vari­ety scion are joined — of dwarf trees should be well devel­oped and healed. It will look like a bulb shaped thick­en­ing in the trunk a few inches above the soil level.
  • Fruit­ing bushes and trees at gar­den cen­ters are often pot­ted rather than bare root. Look for a good sup­ply of  plump, actively grow­ing roots. Remove the plant from the pot for a peek if possible.
  • Check that pot­ted plants are not root­bound. Roots wrap­ping repeat­edly around them­selves in the pot or grow­ing out of the bot­tom can be an indi­ca­tion that these where actu­ally poorly grow­ing plants held over from a prior sea­son. They will not grow as well as vig­or­ous one year stock.

A few things to look out for are branches with dark, sunken areas; old dead leaves remain­ing at the tips of branches; or ooz­ing dis­col­ored bark. These could all indi­cate dis­ease. You do not want to bring this home and get your home orchard off to a bad start or intro­duce dis­ease spores to your healthy gar­den. Borer dam­age will appear as holes or tun­nel­ing around the bud union. This can be a preva­lent prob­lem on stone fruit and some apple rootstocks.

Regard­less of where you pur­chase your plants, there are a few other considerations -

  • These are peren­nial plants. They are an invest­ment that will be liv­ing in your land­scape for 10 or more years. Choos­ing vari­eties adapted to your con­di­tions will allow them to pro­duce to their best potential.
  • Choos­ing dis­ease resis­tant vari­eties will save you time and work. It is also good for the envi­ron­ment as fewer pes­ti­cides will be needed to con­trol pests or diseases.
  • If you are a com­plete new­comer to fruit grow­ing, start­ing with the tried and true will be your best bet.
  • Once you have gained fruit grow­ing expe­ri­ence you might want to try suit­able fruit types and vari­eties that are not read­ily avail­able at local gro­cery stores and farm markets.
  • One of the great adven­tures of home fruit grow­ing is enjoy­ing some of the nov­el­ties that are oth­er­wise unobtainable.

©2013. Adapted from the Back­yard Berry Book: A hands-on guide to grow­ing berries, bram­bles, and vine   fruit in the home gar­den and the Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home  gar­den by Stella Otto.