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.