When planting a fruit tree in your backyard, you have to decide whether you want fruit quickly or for a long time.

John Bunker of Fedco told a group at the Portland Flower Show last Sunday that the first question most people ask when buying a fruit tree is how soon it will bear. The tree that will bear first, he said, is a peach — sometimes producing a few peaches the second year after it is planted.

With apples, Bunker was less definite. He said it’s as difficult to predict as when his daughters will have children.

“You enjoy the trees as you enjoy a young person,” he said. “You prepare a good site and feed them, and before you know it, you will see fruit.”

Getting fruit earlier is one of the advantages of planting dwarf trees — sometimes as soon as three years, Bunker said.

“Besides early fruit, the advantages of a dwarf tree for the yard is that they are smaller and take up less room, they are easier to pick and you don’t need a ladder,” he said.

The advantage to standard trees — the old-fashioned big ones — is that they are hardier and live longer. Professional orchardists consider 10 years the production time of a dwarf apple tree, although they will produce some apples longer than that.

A standard tree, properly cared for, can produce apples for 100 years or more.

Locating a tree is simple. If there’s full sun and well-drained soil, you have the perfect location.

“A tree is like a solar panel,” Bunker said. “It gets its energy from the sun, and would like the maximum amount of sun all day long.”

Some people, he said, aren’t willing to cut down a huge pine tree or tear down a building so their fruit trees get maximum sunlight. They should pick a site where the tree will get the most sun possible, and just accept that you won’t get as many apples as you would from trees that get full sun.

The only soil that won’t work is clay, he said, because if you dig a hole in clay and fill it with a good planting solution, it will hold water and damage the tree’s roots. Sand isn’t ideal, but you can amend the soil and live with it. Anything in between will be pretty good.

Another requirement is air flow — for a number of reasons.

“It helps to have some air drainage,” Bunker said. Last year, a May 11 frost killed a lot of apple blossoms, but apple trees on the side of a hill with a downward flow of cold air often escaped damage.

In addition, Bunker said, almost all apple diseases are fungal, so good air flow will let the leaves dry quickly, lessening the chance for fungal diseases.

Pollination requirements vary among fruit trees. Peaches and European plums are self-pollinating. Apples need a different species of apple nearby, but not necessarily in your own yard — a close neighbor’s yard will work. Most pears need a different species of pear nearby.

Japanese plums need to be pollinated by an American plum, because most of the Japanese plums are hybrids and do not produce pollen.

When planting a fruit tree, dig a hole deep enough for the roots and have the trunk flare just barely above the ground. Make the hole wide — three times the root ball if there is one. The soil should be loosened about 6 inches below the surface all around the tree, because most of the roots will be within 6 inches of the surface.

Add compost when you return the soil to the hole, Bunker said, and, somewhat surprisingly, also add rock powder.

Apple trees grow well on top of granite, and Bunker said there are a number of commercial rock powders that can be added to provide minerals to the tree. Fruit trees hate grass, so remove grass around the tree and add mulch, which will help keep the grass down and promote beneficial fungi.

Bunker said you should put a tree guard up in late fall and remove it in early spring to prevent damage from moles and mice.

When pruning a fruit tree, remember that it’s a solar collector. The fruit needs sun to ripen properly, so make sure the canopy isn’t so thick that it blocks the sun.

And if you want, you can prune a long-life standard tree to keep it shorter and easier for picking.

The deadline for ordering trees from Fedco online has passed for this year, but you will be able to pick up some trees at Fedco’s annual warehouse sale in Clinton on May 6 and 7. Go to fedcoseeds.com for directions.


To Bee or Not to Bee, the garden created by Landmarc’s and O’Donals, was voted the People’s Choice winner at the Portland Flower Show. The judges selected Once Upon a Time by Skillins Greenhouses and Pray’s Landscaping as Best in Show.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

[email protected]