Trying For Trees

THE REAL DIRT

April 03, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I can spend all weekend planting a fruit tree.

My neighbor Angelo needs two minutes.

I dig a hole big enough to swallow the house. Angelo barely scratches the soil.

I'll deliberate for hours in a garden center before selecting a tree. Not Angelo. He eats some fruit and saves the seed.

I spend all afternoon fussing over my new tree, positioning it in the ground just so. Angelo participates in none of these shenanigans.

He drops in that seed and walks away.

Guess whose method works best? We've both planted peach trees. Mine, obtained from a nursery, died in adolescence after ,, bearing one crop. But Angelo's tree, raised from a pit, cranks out thousands of sweet, juicy peaches each year. I've tasted none better.

Of course, Angelo's success is the exception, not the rule. Orchardists say the odds of raising a productive fruit tree from seed are slim. Most trees are finicky hybrids and, as such, are reproduced from grafts of existing rootstock.

Not Angelo's tree. He planted the pit of an Elberta peach, and he got an Elberta. Now this was not a high-class peach pit. It didn't hail from a roadside stand. It came from a supermarket.

I envy Angelo's good fortune. What are the odds of this happening to an acquaintance, much less the neighbor of a klutzy garden writer who kills his own trees with kindness?

Angelo could strut around the neighborhood like the rooster who lives down the street. But he doesn't. He shrugs off success with a terse "just luck."

Luck, right. Angelo's lawn is a dream; his garden, a jewel. It didn't happen overnight. Angelo studied gardening, took horticultural classes offered by the county extension service and graduated a "master gardener" -- the equivalent of a Ph.D.

Most weekend gardeners don't have Angelo's expertise. But that shouldn't stop you from planting a fruit tree or two. Here are some tips for people like me, who aren't ready to attempt growing a tree from seed.

* Choose a reputable nursery that guarantees its trees. Avoid discount stores, which sometimes mislabel stock. Apple trees all look the same for several years, until they bear fruit. Imagine waiting three years to find your Red Delicious is really a Yellow Transparent.

* If space is limited, select a self-pollinating tree.

* If time is tight (most homeowners move within seven years), consider dwarf or semidwarf trees. They produce fruit more quickly than those of standard size.

* For ease of care, select the most disease-resistant trees. Some new varieties are virtually pest-free, offering great savings of time and money. But is the fruit to your taste?

* Pamper the new arrival. Prepare a hole large enough for expanding roots, and fill it with rich soil and compost. It's easier to feed a fruit tree at the planting stage than when the hole is filled.

* Plant trees clear of any underground pipes, wells or drain fields that may eventually need repair. I lost a plum tree when our septic system failed.

* Resign yourself to spending several weekends each spring maintaining your fruit trees: pruning, spraying and thinning them. Much of this is tedious work, but miss one assignment and risk crop failure for the year.

* Invest in high-quality equipment, particularly pruning tools and orchard sprayers. A cheap pruner can wreck a tree; inexpensive sprayers are often clogged.

* Limit use of chemical sprays as much as possible. Seek advice from local orchardists about fighting pests organically, using sticky traps, natural insecticides, etc.

* Protect young trees from the ravages of summer (baseballs, Frisbee disks, etc.) and winter, e.g. mice, deer and rabbits that can strip or damage bark.

* Lower your expectations. Novice gardeners expect to raise picture-perfect fruit; I've known folks who discarded apples because of a single blemish. Home-grown fruit will have some quirks, unless it is sprayed with the same polysyllabic-named pesticides as used on supermarket produce. Cut out the bad spots and savor the harvest; be content in the knowledge that wormy apples are better for the kids than shiny store-bought ones coated with floor wax.

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