Toronto Star column – published June 7, 2014
There has been a ground swell of interest in growing fruit in recent years. An organisation called ‘Not Far From the Tree’ will send volunteers to your home to pick excess fruit and nuts from your tree and even clean up the usable ones from the ground for use by other people who do not have access to fresh fruit. Who knows, maybe you have a food bank growing in your front yard. You can contact them at http://notfarfromthetree.org/.
After the winter storm this past December, many people have been taking a long hard look at their existing tree canopy. In the absence of an old tree specimen and large limbs that fell out of the canopy, many yards and gardens are now bathed in a wealth of sunshine: the perfect opportunity to grow some fruit trees.
Fruit Trees 101
Here is your Fruit Tree Primer: 101. Armed with this information you can wade into your local garden retailer and look over the selection of choice trees with confidence that you know something about the subject. Note that this is the best time of year to buy fruit trees [and most nursery stock] as the selection just doesn’t get any better as the season wears on. I have been looking for a Honey Crisp apple tree for five years and this was finally the year that I found one… but I had to get there early!
The #1 choice in Southern Ontario for tree fruit is the apple. The McIntosh apple [the one you eat, not the computer] was developed here.
The most asked question is, “Do I need two apples to produce fruit.” The short answer is yes. A lonely apple tree without a mate might produce SOME fruit but if there is an apple tree nearby, in full flower at the same time as said tree, both will produce a lot more apples. I call this ‘maximizing the fruit bearing potential’ of a tree. Truth is, here in Toronto there are so many crabapples and fruiting apple trees that pollination will occur most anywhere that you plant a single tree.
The second most asked question relates to insects and disease: “Should I spray my tree?” and the short answer on this one is also yes. I have 40 apples in my 10 acre garden and I spray them all with dormant spray in April before the blossoms break open and after blossom drop [around the beginning of June]. I apply a combination of End All insecticide and garden sulphur or the lime sulphur that comes in the dormant spray kit.
There is a ‘but’ to this answer too. First of all, if you are growing a fruit tree of any kind in isolation of other trees of its family, the bugs and diseases will have a hard time finding it. At our previous home I grow one espalier apple at the front door, on the wall of the garage, where I never sprayed it and it never had problems with pests or disease. There it was playing a game of hide and seek with insects and diseases and the tree was winning.
Imagine, I could pick fresh apples from an apple plastered against a brick wall as I walked up to my front door, “Hi honey, I’m home! Want a fresh apple?” And there was virtually no work involved in the process. I was living the dream.
Pears, cherries and plums also fall into the ‘cross pollination’ category and need mates in order to maximize their fruiting. However, sour cherries, like Montmorency are self fruitful and a Canadian introduction called Stella, which is classified as a sweet cherry, does not need a mate.
Speaking of other fruits, pears are the easiest fruit to grow. They generally do not like to be pruned, they are the least susceptible to insect and disease problems and every second year they are overloaded with pears, for the most part.
Cherries are easy to grow but birds love them. The #1 question from cherry growers is how to avoid this problem, as the birds inevitably know your cherries are ripe before you do. The answer is to drape a bird net over your tree and tie the four corners of it to the trunk to keep hungry birds from flying underneath the netting and getting trapped [and sometimes drunk on spoiled cherries].
Plums are interesting. There are Japanese plums (the red ones) and European plums which are purple. Prunes are plums first. They become prunes when they are dried up. There are ‘prune/plum’ varieties. In other words, if you want to grow plums to dry into prunes, you had better buy a variety that is bred for this purpose. This is also true of grapes that you wish to dry into raisons. As previously noted, all plums require cross pollination, therefore planting more than one is always a good idea.
Plums are a member of the ‘prunus’ family as are flowering cherries and the popular ‘Purple Leafed’ plum. If your plum flowers at the same time as neighbouring ornamentals in the prunus family, you are in luck. Bingo, the bees will make sure that pollination occurs and you will get fruit. God bless the bees. Plant lots of bee attracting flowers this summer to preserve them.
Self fruitful fruit include peaches, apricots and nectarines. You only need to plant one to get lots of fruit. They like to be pruned back hard after winter. I assess the winter damage on my trees each spring [now!] and prune out any dead wood, then I open the tree up to the sun and wind by pruning out the heaviest wood right down into the heart of the tree. This makes for odd looking trees but great fruit.
Peaches are winter hardy in Toronto but only just. I speculate that many will have died back due to the severe cold this winter [it dropped to minus 27 on January 7 this year. That is cold for a peach.]
Apricots are the most winter hardy and can grow in Ottawa [zone 4] while nectarines fall in between the peach and apricot in this regard. Birds can be interested in fresh peaches, apricots and nectarines, I find people to be a bigger nuisance. I have a lovely ‘peach of a peach’ growing next to the sidewalk in Unionville at my wife’s yarn shop and every year we are lucky to get a small basket of fresh fruit from it, in spite of a prodigious display of productivity.
Buying Fruit Trees
Buy Canadian grown fruit trees. This provides some assurance that the tree is hardy to your area and suitable for growing in your weather and soil conditions. Read the label. Apples are usually sold as ‘dwarf’ or ‘semi dwarf’.
Fruit trees are usually two years old when you buy them. They stand about a meter and a half to two meters high in the pot. I have seen larger trees offered for sale but they don’t transplant well. You are more likely to get earlier production from a young tree than an old one, due to the time it takes for the more mature tree to get over the transplant shock.
Plant all fruit trees in open, nutrient rich soil. Peaches really enjoy a soil mix that is 50% sand. Never plant a fruit tree in a depression where water accumulates as none of them enjoy wet feet. Plant high, dig a wide hole about a meter in diameter and use 3 or 4 bags of quality planting soil mix. Stake your trees for the first 3 or 4 years and in the fall put a spiral plastic rodent protector on the trunk to prevent rabbit damage.
The current trend of growing fruit is a wonderful throw back to the pre-war years when every yard in Toronto had a fruit tree or two. The big difference is that we now have some wonderful improvements in the varieties that ensure greater production and fruit quality.
For a good read I recommend the new book Growing Urban Orchards by Susan Poizner. Susan explores the ups, downs and how-to’s of fruit tree care in the city. She knows something about it, as she is the Director of Orchard People at Ben Nobleman Park. Details at www.orchardpeople.com