PLANTING THE HOME ORCHARD
by Keith C. Hansen, Extension Horticulturist, Smith Co.
If you have been contemplating walking out your back door and harvesting fresh blueberries, peaches, blackberries or other culinary delights, mid to late winter is the time to plan and plant for those future harvests. Nurseries receive fresh shipments of fruit, nut and berry plants in January, ready for planting.
Before rushing to make that purchase, you first need to do some homework. Make sure that the fruit variety you select will grow and produce for you – and that you are able to provide the attention required ensuring you’ll have something to harvest.
Type and Variety Selection
Fruit Types: Not all types of fruits and berries will grow well in East Texas. Some are easier to grow than others. For example, rabbit-eye blueberries are very well adapted to East Texas conditions, as are blackberries and figs. Raspberries are not as adapted as blackberries, but there are a couple of varieties that produce fair quality fruit here. Only certain grapes will perform in our area, while the majority of high quality table and wine grape varieties are susceptible to a life-shortening pest called Pierce’s Disease. Muscadine grapes, which are native to the South, grow exceptionally well here.
A few popular grocery store fruits and nuts may appear in catalogs that provide tempting pictures and descriptions, but are not adapted to our region. Reasons could include temperature-related problems (early/late freezes, not enough winter chilling, summers too hot), plus humidity and disease limitations. A few to avoid for East Texas include almonds, pistachios, cherries, filberts, gooseberries, currants, and kiwis. The apricot tree is hardy, but fruiting is very inconsistent.
Varieties: Proper variety selection is a key ingredient for a successful harvest. Make sure the varieties you select are adapted to our climate, have a proven track record and offer the most disease resistance possible. A Fruit and Nut Variety List is available at every County Extension Office with varieties specifically adapted for your county.
Pollination: Several fruit types require more than one variety to ensure proper pollination and fruit set. These include apple, blueberry, pear, plum and some muscadine grape varieties. When selecting these types, be sure to include more than one named variety in your yard or orchard. Pecans also benefit from having more than one variety close by. However, since the pollen is carried on the wind, if there are pecans in the neighborhood, you could rely on those if orchard space is tight.
Peaches, the most popular backyard fruit, do not require a second variety for pollination.
Harvest Dates: With careful selection, you can extend your harvest season by planting more than one variety. For example, you could harvest peaches from late May through early August by choosing the right varieties. On the other hand, you might end up with fruit rotting on the ground by planting too many trees with similar ripening dates.
Rootstocks: Peaches, plums and apricots should be grafted onto Nemaguard rootstocks to help prevent root knot nematode damage to your trees. Apples may come on dwarfing rootstocks that keep the trees to a smaller, more manageable size.
Site Selection: Picking the best planting spot is very important. All fruits, berries and nuts need full sun for the best yields. Less than maximum sunlight means a reduced harvest and more pest problems.
Well-drained soils are crucial for the success of every fruit and nut species. Few fruit types thrive in poorly drained soils. Mayhaws are an exception to this rule and tolerate poorly drained soils, although they also do best in moist, well-drained soils. Poorly drained soils lack the oxygen necessary for the roots to function at their peak potential.
Here’s a simple test to determine your soil’s internal drainage. Dig a hole 3 feet deep with a posthole digger and fill it up with water. If the water is gone within 24 hours, you’ll have no trouble growing fruit and nut trees. If the water is gone within 48 hours, the soil is acceptable but can give problems. If water is still in the hole after 48 hours, grow vegetables or flowers instead.
If you are planning a home orchard, pay attention to spacing between plants. Give your trees enough room to grow to their full size without crowding. Crowded plants compete for light, water and nutrients, and eventually yields are reduced and disease and other problems occur.
Nearly all fruit and pecan trees are grafted or budded. When planting a tree, do not confuse the graft union (a slight bend in the lower trunk) with the original soil line. The original soil line is indicated by a transition from brown to grey on the trunk. Dig the hole and plant the tree no deeper than the original soil line.
Keep at least a three-foot diameter circle around the tree free of competing grass and weeds. This will not only speed the growth and development of your new tree, but will help provide a little spring frost protection for flowers on older trees.
After planting, water your trees (in the absence of a good, soaking rain) every 4 days for 2 weeks, then every 5 days for 2 weeks, and so on until you can water the tree every 10 to 20 days without placing the tree under stress. The key to watering ESTABLISHED trees is to water deeply and infrequently. Lawn sprinklers set for 15 minutes every other day will not wetting the soil sufficiently for producing trees.
Newly planted trees should be pruned back rather severely to compensate for loss of roots during transplanting and to begin the process of training the new growth into a good form for that particular type of tree or vine.
Texas AgriLife Extension Service has a number of publications for the most common fruits and nuts grown in Texas. These provide establishment and cultural information, along with a wealth of other information for successfully growing your own fruit. These are available both at your local county Extension offices, and online at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu – look under “Home Lawn & Garden” -> “Vegetable, Fruit & Nut Production”