Everyone dreams of having a bountiful harvest from fruit trees and shrubs each year, but not everyone gets to enjoy that because the trees become afflicted by pest and disease. Many questions arise as to what can be done to change this, and sometimes the solution isn't easy, and it's costly.
Whether it is expensive fungicidal sprays that require a special applicator's license or a three-year rejuvenation program that requires you to dose your tree with a shot of penicillin every season, some treatments are injected by syringe, seriously. The cost is often too much for the homeowner, who just wants enough fruit to make a few quarts of preserves and a couple of pies.
What can you do to be proactive and minimize the chance that your fruit trees and shrubs will become ill and produce less fruit?
Simply put, become informed and choose wisely. Before you buy a fruit tree or shrub to plant, consider the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision. Fruit trees are an investment and skimping on that investment will cost you. This article aims to provide you with a foolproof method for ensuring you can have fresh fruit each year.
• Consider native options. Because not all native fruits are typically found at the grocery store, people often forget to consider them as an option for the backyard orchard. Native North American species, such as the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), red mulberry (Morus rubra), American red plum (Prunus Americana), and serviceberry or sarvisberry (Amelanchier arborea) all make great plantings because they are less likely suffer from as many pest and disease issues as conventional, non-native fruit trees and shrubs do. This means they are regarded as low maintenance - i.e., only light, routine pruning needed to maintain a desirable shape or let them grow wild.
• Consider non-native options with good genetics. Some of the aforementioned fruit are more of an acquired taste therefore they may not be the best choice for your home orchard if you have a picky eater. In that case, consider a more conventional fruit tree or shrub that is bred for pest and disease resistance. Purchasing a cultivar that is bred for any amount of pest or disease resistance (whether that be a pear, apple, peach, cherry, etc.) will be more expensive upfront but not near as costly as attempting to save your diseased trees years later.
• Select the right plant. Whether you opt to plant native or non-native fruits, you should always select the most well-suited variety available. Consider the plant's cold hardiness rating - it is marked on every tag at the garden center or nursery - and choose accordingly. In Northeast Oklahoma, we are mostly rated for Zone 6, so plant for Zone 6. All fruit trees and shrubs that are retail available have a rating for "chilling hours," sometimes called chilling units. This is the number of hours a plant must endure in temperatures below 45 degrees to achieve an adequate fruit set. In NE Oklahoma, a plant that requires 800 to 850 chilling hours is regarded as suitable.
• Maintenance is key. It is easy to "set and forget" any ol' tree and shrub out in the yard, but fruit trees and shrubs require more attention than that. Just as you would tend to your cattle, child, or dog, you should tend to your fruit trees. Peaches, for example, perform best when they have been pruned to have an "open center," which requires consistent, routine maintenance. Canopy management can help to ensure you achieve a satisfying fruit set each year by allowing good air circulation and light interception within the canopy which decreases disease pressure. And housekeeping is a must. When the leaves fall from your fruit trees, clean them up and dispose of them or use them as mulch in another area of the yard to reduce the risk of pathogens near your tree.
Variety is the spice of life; do not just plant one fruit, but mix it up. Five apple trees together are asking for a pest to come and feed on them, but one blueberry, one pawpaw, one serviceberry, one apple, and one peach allow for a nice mix of pies at Thanksgiving and decrease the pressure of pest and disease.
A lot of knowledge goes into growing a successful backyard fruit crop, but only at first. Once you become familiar with the concepts of fruit production, you will feel more confident in yourself and be on your way to growing and feasting. For more information, consider reading "The Backyard Orchardist" by Stella Otto, and please contact the Cherokee County OSU Extension Office with questions.
Garrett Ford is an agriculture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.