Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Your Own Fruits And Nuts. Part 1

For new home owners, some of their happiest dreams and saddest disillusionments have to do with food trees. On the land they have bought will stand some specimens which, as a rule, are alleged to bear bounteously. Or in the warm glow that comes with planning and planting their first home grounds, the newcomers will set out young stock, usually fruit trees, and sit back with every expectation of luscious harvests to come. When blossoms appear, hope soars. When fruits fail to follow, or they come off scabby and rotted, Nature's broken promise seems rank betrayal. The purposes of this chapter are to assure the inexperienced: 1) that the growing of palatable fruits of any kind, on trees young or old, is a chancy business; 2) that it is, however, quite possible to weight the chances in your favor, provided that you are prepared to cultivate, prune, spray, and otherwise pamper your trees with unremitting diligence. Since trees already grown present the new owners' most immediate problem, these will be discussed first. Exceptional are fruit trees which, when inhabited land changes hands, have been properly cared for over the past year or two. In most cases their pruning will have been neglected, their spraying and feeding omitted entirely.

Improving the structure and vigor of such mature trees will be your first concern. If they are badly overgrown, this must be gone about in easy stages or, instead of fruiting wood, your pruning will produce chiefly sucker growths. Besides repairing wounds and cavities as best you can, your first efforts should focus on removing deadwood, stubs, and obviously extraneous whole branches. Leave your thinning and shaping of sound branches until you have seen the trees through one summer and autumn. Meantime break up the ground around them, feed them, mulch them for the winter, and get ready to spray in earnest the following spring. Fruit trees tired and neglected beyond a point can never be brought back into full bearing, but that point can be surprisingly far along in their lives. And even if you fail to revive its yield after a couple of years of trying, an old fruit tree will reward you with blossoms and shade until you decide to replace it. Two factors have basic bearing on fruit production. One is chemical.

All tree fruits grow best in soil just slightly acid, from pH 5.5 to 6.5. (Some bush fruits, such as blueberries, require pH 4.8 to 5.0.) Testing your soil's acidity and adjusting it with lime or aluminum sulfate is thus a must for fruit culture. The other basic factor is germinal. Some trees are self-fruitful; that is, their own pollen can fertilize their own pistils. Nearly all the citrus fruits, most peaches, nectarines, and figs, and all the sour cherries, quinces, apricots, and European plums are self-fruitful. All they need is bees to help them bear. Most apples and all the pears, sweet cherries, and Japanese and American plums are self-unfruitful. They require the proximity of another variety from their family, and not just any variety will do. For example, Bartlett and Seckel pears cannot pollinate each other. Winesap, Baldwin, and Northern Spy apples are poor pollinators of other varieties as well as impotent among themselves. These intimate relationships oblige new home owners to have an orchardist identify their mature fruit trees at the outset. In most communities, a county agriculture agent is at your service, free. He may find that an old Macintosh or Jonathan that used to pollinate your other apple trees has died or been cut down, and you need a new one. Your Bartlett and Seckel pears may be fruitless because they never did have a Gorham, Bosc, or other good pollinator to help them out.

Two other causes of fruit trees failing to bear are effects of temperature and timing. If the thermometer drops to the lower twenties after blossoms open, expect no fruit. Contrariwise, without passing through at least 700 hours of weather colder than 45° F. in the course of a winter, hardy fruit trees will lack the stimulus to break out of dormancy. Their spring growth, blossoms, and fruit will be delayed and irregular. This accounts for northern fruits doing poorly below Mason and Dixon's line except at high elevations. Fine apples are grown around Winchester, Virginia, elev. 725 ft., but not around Annapolis, Maryland, at sea level. Once they are brought into or restored to bearing, the pruning, feeding, and spraying of fruit trees vary little with their age. Hence our further discussion of fruit production will apply to all ages. So let us begin with the selection, planting, and rearing of young stock, which is what determined owners will come to eventually. And, since this book seeks to serve primarily those new owners whose land is limited, let a distinction be drawn between standard-size and dwarf trees, in favor of the latter. Standard-size apple and pear trees must be spaced 30 to 40 feet apart. Dwarf apples and pears can be grown at half those intervals or even less, as close as 6 or 8 feet in rows spaced 15 feet. Standard trees take from four to seven years to start bearing. Dwarfs take only two or three years. The standards are hard to keep less than twenty feet high, with consequent difficulties in pruning, spraying, thinning the fruit and harvesting it. Dwarfs are easily kept within arm's reach. Apples and pears are the fruits chiefly grown as dwarfs in America. Peach, plum, cherry, apricot, and nectarine are less available in dwarfed sizes, but standard trees of these stone fruits (except sweet cherries) can be kept semidwarf by watchful pruning. Apart from its handiness and economy of space, a strong attraction of dwarf culture is the decorative function to which dwarfs can be put. They can be grown "cordon" (single stem with spurs but no branches) in a close line to form a hedge; or formed in "espalier" patterns, flat against a trellis or wall. The only drawbacks to dwarfs are that they cost about twice as much as standards and bear about half as long. Creating tiny fruit trees by grafting or budding desired species onto dwarfing rootstock is a fascinating and not difficult hobby for people with the patience to undertake it. Instruction on how it is done is contained in some of the textbooks on fruit culture listed at the end of this chapter. But beginners would do well to familiarize themselves first with dwarfs bought from nurseries. For such purchases a few guidelines will be useful.

Dwarf apple trees used to be created in America (and still can be) by grafting thrifty scions (segments of one-year wood, with buds) to rootstock found stunted naturally in the wild. The Paradise and Doucin, grown to type in England and France, were considered the best wild stocks for dwarfing. Nowadays a strain called East Mailing, perfected in England, is preferred. The EM types are numbered to distinguish their characters. EM II grows a semi-dwarf about three-fourths standard size. EM VII is twothirds standard, little larger than a standard peach tree. EM VIII is widely used as an interstem piece (grafted between a root and scion of the desired species) to produce a full dwarf, sometimes called Clark. EM IX, a rootstock, is considered the best EM dwarfer of all. It produces a tree that will not, with proper pruning, exceed six or eight feet in height after twenty years and will bear a bushel a year.