Tuesday January 15, 2013 | 09:32 AM

 

David Buchanan’s book Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter describes the work of plant collectors, preservationists, small-scale farmers, and breeders, with an emphasis on restoring rare and unusual regional foods to our fields and tables. 

David helped found and for three years led the Portland, Maine chapter of Slow Food. He now serves on its national Ark of Taste Biodiversity Committee, which evaluates and helps preserve endangered heritage foods from around the country. Taste, Memory describes the trajectory of David’s preservation work since planting his first gardens nearly twenty-five years ago in central Washington State. Today he manages Old Ocean House Farms in Cape Elizabeth, and he is also developing a farm conservation center 20 minutes north of Portland in Pownal. He grows more than 250 varieties of fruit as well as herbs, heirloom vegetables, and nursery plants. His current focus is the collection of rare heritage American apples, with an eye toward creating a hard cider business.I asked David to share some of his vast knowledge of fruit trees (and more to the point the ordering of) with us. With his advice you can begin your journey of raising peach, cherry, and other fruit trees.

What questions should a first time fruit tree buyer ask when visiting a nursery? I read in Stella Otto’s The Backyard Orchardist, reputable nurseries will protect roots from drying out by using a damp wrap. Is there anything else one should look for?

The first thing that buyers should know is that they have two alternatives for purchasing fruit trees. One can either buy directly from a local nursery, or order dormant stock through the mail over the winter for early springtime planting. Some advantages of the former are convenience and accountability, while the latter brings far greater selection and generally a cheaper price. Buying directly from a local retailer allows you to plant any time through the season, since nursery trees will be potted with well-developed roots. These trees are also typically larger and older than trees shipped through the mail. Mail order, on the other hand, offers access to all sorts of fruits that a local nursery can’t afford to carry due to lack of space or market demand. Both approaches can yield high-quality trees.

Some of the most important questions to ask a nursery are the characteristics of the tree’s rootstock (which determine how large it will grow, particularly in the case of apples), what it’s pollination requirements are (many fruits require a second variety to set fruit) and how disease-resistant its fruits will be. Some fruits are inherently much easier for the backyard orchardist to grow successfully. Liberty apples, for example, are bred for disease resistance.

In addition to climate, space, soil, length of the growing season, and sunlight what is essential to consider when choosing which fruit tree(s) to grow?

It’s important above all to think about how much fruit you really need, and what you plan to do with it, before ordering trees. And remember that there are all sorts of wonderful fruits that aren’t available in the supermarket, but that grow very well in the home orchard. I’m always a bit surprised when people select readily available varieties for their own gardens. If you’re willing to go to the trouble to produce something yourself, why not consider fruit that isn’t available from commercial sources? Maybe you love to bake, and need the perfect apple or pie cherry? Or you’re craving a really ripe, juicy peach?

Which fruit tree is your favorite to grow?

I love apples, particularly for the hard cider they produce, and other trees like cherries, despite the work involved in harvesting and preparing them. But nothing beats a good peach. Peach trees grow very quickly, often yielding substantial crops in their third or fourth years, and varieties like Red Haven and Madison produce excellent fruit in the Portland area. You won’t get a crop every season, and diseases like leaf curl and brown rot can be serious problems, but all in all if I had to choose just one tree (and unlike many fruit trees, peaches are self pollinating, so they don’t require a second variety to set fruit), it would probably be a Red Haven peach.

I’ve heard it can take a minimum of five years for a standard apple tree to bear fruit and three years for a dwarf fruit tree. Is that correct? What other primary differences are there between standard and dwarf apple trees?

Yes, depending on the variety, it can be closer to ten years for some standard apples. Northern Spy, for example, is notoriously slow to come into bearing (although it’s worth the wait!). Whereas some dwarf trees will begin to bear an apple or two even in their second year. Apple rootstocks fall on a continuum for sizes, ranging from standards that can grow over 20 feet tall at maturity, to fully dwarfing trees that may be only 5-6 feet tall. In addition to size, each rootstock will have slightly different growth characteristics. In general the smaller the tree, the quicker it will come into bearing and the easier it will be to pick and prune. But smaller trees bear less fruit, of course, and they’re shorter lived, have shallow root systems that don’t compete well with grasses and other understory plants, (requiring heavy mulch or weeding) and typically need to be staked and tied to permanent supports.

How much should one plan to invest in the planting and maintenance of their fruit trees?

The answer depends on how much work you’re willing to take on yourself. The cost of the tree itself will fall usually between $25-$50. Once it’s in the ground, it will require annual pruning and probably some kind of spraying, depending on the fruit. With the right choices, and tolerance for a few blemishes, spraying can be pretty minimal. But the level of care will depend on the season — we’ve had a few wet springs that have been especially difficult for fungal disease control. All in all, with the right location and a bit of patience, growing fruit trees isn’t a large investment, and it can be very rewarding.

When ordering trees are there are any must-have tools one should also purchase if they don’t already own?

Any gardener should consider investing in a good pair of Felco pruners. It just isn’t worth trying to cut with second-rate alternatives, which are frustrating and slow, often leaving rough cuts that aren’t good for the plants. I also like to use a Japanese handsaw for larger cuts. Timber blades from Tashiro Hardware in Seattle are amazing, they cut nearly as quickly as a power saw. Just watch your fingers...

Should one expect a company to deliver seedlings? What is a reasonable charge?

When buying through the mail, delivery isn’t very expensive. Young trees are quite small, often just a single 4’ long shoot or “whip”, so they pack tightly into shipping boxes. While this may seem like a slow way to grow trees, it’s actually a good practice, in part because year-old seedling will have plenty of time to establish a strong root system before setting fruit (when buying trees, look for healthy roots above all else, because these drive the growth of the tree. The shape of the branches can always be altered later). If you buy from a local nursery, shipping cost will depend on the size of your order and location. Many customers prefer to pick up and inspect their trees, and usually with a little creativity these will fit into even the smallest cars. I’ve sent customers home with as many as five 6’ tall, potted fruit trees poking out the windows of their subcompact cars.

Fruit Tree Sources

Images by David Buchanan of trees at Old Ocean House Farms.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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