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.

The Perfect Place for a Fruit Garden

How sim­ple it would be if all yards pro­vided the ideal site for grow­ing fruit. The good news is with a lit­tle bit of atten­tion to pre-planning and the right selec­tion, many can come close. If one were to define an ideal site for a fruit gar­den it would likely be:

  •     sandy loam or loam type soils with a pH range of 6.0 to 7.0
  •     good soil drainage with easy access to water
  •     at least eight hours of sun­shine daily
  •     weed free
  •     gen­tly rolling to flat ter­rain, per­haps ele­vated above sur­round­ing topography
  •     some pro­tec­tion from harsh win­ter winds and extreme temperatures
  •     a min­i­mum 150 frost-free day grow­ing sea­son allow­ing for a wide choice of fruit varieties

If this sounds much like your yard, plant­ing time could be near! If you answer “not so much,” read on. What fol­lows will help get you there!

First, well drained fer­tile soil is impor­tant to good plant growth. Those that are less than ideal can often be improved over time. Organic mat­ter is the name of the game here. Whether too sandy and quick to drain needed mois­ture or too heavy (that is high in clay con­tent) and prone to hold­ing too much water, either soil can be helped by the addi­tion of organic mat­ter. This can come from adding and turn­ing in com­post. Plant­ing and then spad­ing or till­ing in a soil build­ing cover crop or “green manure” will do the trick too but takes more time and work. Improv­ing the soil with com­post or green manure will give it a bet­ter struc­ture with proper pore spaces for hold­ing or drain­ing mois­ture as needed. Addi­tional organic mat­ter pro­vides sites for nutri­ent ions to bind to so that they can become more avail­able for uptake by plant roots and also pro­vides a healthy grow­ing envi­ron­ment for ben­e­fi­cial soil myc­or­rhiza and bacteria.

Soil pH is impor­tant because it plays a part in soil chem­istry and the release of nutri­ents to the roots.  A major­ity of the nutri­ents that fruit trees and berry bushes need are most read­ily avail­able for release from the soil when the pH is in a range from 6.0 to 7.0. Blue­ber­ries have a higher need for iron than most other fruit. They are also adapted to require the ammo­nium form of nitro­gen. Both of these nutri­ents are avail­able at more acid pH ranges, hence the need to grow blue­ber­ries in a pH 4.5 to 5.5 soil.

Water can be both a bless­ing and a curse to fruit plants. They need some — as a rule of thumb 1 inch per week. Yet too much water sit­ting in heavy, poorly drained soil will rot roots, weaken plants, and some­times lead to suf­fo­ca­tion and death. For your plant’s health choose or cre­ate a site with ade­quate soil drainage. For you own con­ve­nience, try to plant fruit trees and berry bushes within easy access to a water source or irrigation.

For proper growth and devel­op­ment of plen­ti­ful flower buds fruit­ing plants need an aver­age of at least 8 hours of sun­light daily. Keep this in mind when choos­ing a gar­den loca­tion. Take some time to see where the shad­ows fall from build­ings and  neigh­bor­ing trees (even large ones that may not be on your prop­erty) at dif­fer­ent times of day.

Weeds and grass cre­ate intense com­pe­ti­tion for nutri­ents and water needed by grow­ing fruit tree or bushes. It is best to elim­i­nate this com­pe­ti­tion before plant­ing. Non-chemical means of weed removal include hand pulling or dig­ging and, in hot cli­mates, soil solar­iza­tion where the area is cov­ered with black plas­tic and the result­ing heat is used to kill the grass and weeds beneath it. Spray­ing Round-up® her­bi­cide, wait­ing 10 days to 2 weeks and then remov­ing the dead veg­e­ta­tion is a com­mon prac­tice for achiev­ing quick results. If you go this route, be very care­ful though. This her­bi­cide will severely dam­age or kill any other green veg­e­ta­tion it comes in con­tact with. Use it only on a com­pletely wind still day.

Ten­der fruit blos­soms need frost free sites. These are found in sev­eral loca­tions — spots ele­vated above sur­round­ing topog­ra­phy so that cold air will drain to the low spots; some­what northerly expo­sures that delay warm­ing up and bloom emer­gence in early spring; prox­im­ity to build­ing that may give off some heat. The right loca­tion can also offer pro­tec­tion from cold dry­ing winds. A mere few degrees dif­fer­ence in tem­per­a­ture at crit­i­cal bloom stages can mean the dif­fer­ence between bounty or bar­ren come har­vest time.

One of the joys of home fruit grow­ing is the fresh-from-the-garden fla­vor that sur­passes all else. To fully ripen top qual­ity fruit, it is impor­tant to match the vari­eties you choose with the length of grow­ing sea­son in your loca­tion. Although you may tech­ni­cally be able to grow a Granny Smith apple in north­ern Michi­gan, it will be rare to have a grow­ing sea­son long enough to bring it to its best. Bet­ter to grow a Hon­ey­crisp that is much bet­ter adapted to the con­di­tions and enjoy a really tasty fruit!

©2013. Adapted from the Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home gar­den by Stella Otto.