Stone Fruit: Growing Fruit Trees
By Cindy Murphy
Treats like peach cobbler, apricot tarts, plum crisp, nectarine melba, and, my-oh-my, homemade cherry pie help make up the fabric of our culture. Fresh, preserved, or made into delectable desserts, stone fruits have been part of our diet since early homesteaders brought them to America in colonial times.
As the country grew, the quest for new varieties and higher yields led to pomology, the study of fruit production and the first specialized branch of horticulture in America. Until then, not even agriculture was a science distinct from the all-encompassing broad field of horticulture.
You don’t have to be a pomologist, homesteader or full-time orchardist to grow stone fruit. Whether it’s one apricot tree in the backyard or a cherry mini-orchard, growing fruit trees can be a satisfying hobby providing healthy, homegrown fruit for your family while enhancing your landscape. Just imagine walking out your door to the beauty of cherry trees in full bloom or the sweet fragrance of peach blossoms, or experiencing the warm juice of a sun-ripened nectarine dripping from your chin.
Growing fruit trees
A wide selection of stone fruit cultivars range from new to the heirloom variety your great-grandmother grew. While the heirlooms are often considered more flavorful, the modern varieties are generally more disease resistant. But don’t get out Great-Grandma’s famous peach cobbler recipe or set out your roadside fruit stand just yet. Before those visions of sugar plums start dancing in your head, please realize that growing fruit trees takes work and can be a challenge to even the most experienced gardener.
The life span of fruit trees is typically 12 to 60 years. Stone fruits tend to be on the lower end of that range, with peaches and plums having the shortest life spans. Stone fruits aren’t as winter hardy as other trees, and they are susceptible to insect and disease problems.
The trees are generally hardy in Zones 4 to 9, but peaches, sweet cherries and apricots aren’t dependable fruit producers below USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Fruiting wood and flower buds of peaches and nectarines are vulnerable to winter cold damage. Apricot trees are better able to withstand cold winters, but because they bloom in early spring, frost often results in the tree failing to develop fruit.
The fruit of many varieties of peach, nectarine and apricot are prone to bacterial spot. Japanese plums aren’t as winter hardy as European plums. Birds can completely strip a cherry tree of fruit in a very short time.
These problems can be minimized or eliminated, however, by choosing the right type of fruit, cultivars hardy for your growing zone, careful site selection, proper planting, and yearly maintenance. A realistic expectation goes a long way – understanding that some years your apricots may be lost to frost will make your harvest in other years taste that much sweeter.
Choose the best spot to plant
Site selection is a significant aspect of ensuring success in harvesting those juicy peaches or tart cherries. Choose an area with at least six to eight hours of full sun; trees won’t produce fruit without adequate sunlight. Low spots such as the foot of a hill should be avoided. Cold settles in these areas, and frost is likely to damage flower buds and blossoms. Strong winds are damaging to plant tissue, so plant your fruit trees in a protected area, out of the winter winds.
Stone fruits aren’t particularly needy when it comes to soil type, but prefer a fairly fertile, well-drained soil with an optimum pH of 6.5, though pH levels from 5.5 to 7.5 are acceptable. Soil test kits are available at most garden centers, or soil samples can be submitted to your county Cooperative Extension Service. Determining the pH level and whether your soil has adequate drainage should be done before you plant. Stone fruits shouldn’t be planted in heavy clay; peaches, nectarines and sweet cherries are especially intolerant of poor drainage.
Ensure proper pollination
Whether you’ve decided to grow sweet cherries, or it’s plums you desire, good pollination is vital. Some stone fruits require cross-pollination to produce fruit, while others are considered self-fruitful.
“Self-unfruitful” means that flower pollen from a tree won’t fertilize flowers of the same tree or another tree of the same cultivar. At least two different varieties must be present to achieve pollination. Most varieties of sweet cherries and Japanese plums are self-unfruitful. With some exceptions, such as Stanley, most European plums require at least two different cultivars for pollination.
Peaches, nectarines, apricots and tart cherries are self-fruitful, meaning they don’t need a tree of a different variety for cross-pollination. All fruit trees do, however, need bees.
Fruit tree pollen is sticky and is not carried by the wind; it’s mainly honeybees and wild bees that transfer the pollen from one flower to another. Cool or wet weather and strong winds can prevent bee activity, resulting in poor pollination.
Size up the situation
When it comes to growing fruit trees, ultimately size matters. Fruit trees are available as standard, dwarf or semi-dwarf. Dwarf or semi-dwarf are preferred over standard trees by most backyard fruit growers as well as full-time commercial orchardists. They require less space, are easier to maintain, and bear fruit earlier. Standard, or full-size trees, typically grow 25 feet tall and wide, and can take six to eight years to bear fruit.
In comparison, dwarf trees grow 6 to 10 feet tall, and semi-dwarf trees grow 11 to 15 feet, yielding fruit one to three years after planting. When planting dwarf trees, allow at least 6 to 8 feet between trees, and 14 to 16 feet between semi-dwarf varieties.
Careful purchase and planting
Purchase only healthy, disease-free trees hardy to your zone, from reputable nurseries. Fruit trees are grafted or budded so that genetic characteristics of the cultivar stay true. Seedlings are not typically true to the cultivar, so starting stone fruit trees from seed isn’t a common practice.
Successful future harvests start at planting. Proper planting is essential in ensuring your tree remains healthy. Stone fruit trees come either bare-root or potted. Container-grown trees can be planted from early spring to late fall, but bare-root trees should be planted only in spring while the tree is still dormant. Store bare-root trees in a cool place, keeping the roots moist, or heel them in the ground temporarily until you are ready to plant. Soak roots in water, or a solution of water and root stimulant mixed according to the product’s instructions, for 12 hours before planting.
For both bare-root and container-grown trees, the planting hole should be twice as wide, but no deeper than the root system, with the root flare at soil level or slightly higher. Mix organic matter such as peat moss or compost with your existing soil to use as backfill. Avoid planting your tree too deep, or mounding soil around the base of the tree. Fruit tree grafts, also called bud unions, must be 1 to 2 inches above soil level.
Firm the soil around the roots to remove air pockets. Starter fertilizers with a root stimulant will help establish the tree more quickly than dry fertilizers added to the planting hole. The fertilizer can be used at planting and once per week for two weeks afterward, mixed with water according to product instructions. Water your trees consistently; don’t overwater or underwater.
Keep ’em healthy
Maintaining healthy trees maximizes fruit yields and minimizes the effects of insects and diseases. Healthy and well-maintained trees are naturally more resistant to insect and disease problems.
Properly fertilizing your fruit trees helps keep them healthy. Fertilizers only produce favorable results when used according to need. Recommendations vary greatly due to soils, pH levels and available nutrients. Testing your soil every few years to determine the need for fertilizing is advisable. Over-fertilizing can result in poor quality fruit and have adverse effects on your tree and the environment.
Pruning is an important part of maintaining the health of your trees. Young trees are pruned to shape and develop a strong framework. Older trees are pruned to remove dead, weak, diseased and broken branches, and suckers; to promote growth of young fruiting wood; and to increase the size and yield of fruit by allowing sunlight and air circulation throughout the tree.
Pruning is an art; it’s a science. And it’s probably a backyard grower’s most feared practice. Rest assured, though improper pruning can reduce fruit yields, it’s rare that a tree is killed from over-pruning. Scores of excellent pruning guides are available to aid in learning proper techniques.
Crop thinning is another valuable pruning method. Trees may bear fruit the first year they’re planted. Resist the temptation to let it grow. The energy a young tree expends to produce fruit is better spent developing a strong root system and branch structure. Removing fruit when it’s no larger than pea-sized for the first few years not only ensures a healthier, stronger tree, it also prevents the weight of fruit from ripping young branches from the trunk. In subsequent years, thinning ensures bigger and better quality fruit.
Remove diseased fruit, leaves and pruning refuse, and keep the area around your trees free from weeds. Weeds harbor insects and diseases, and they compete with your trees for moisture and nutrients. Removal of sources where insects and diseases breed reduces potential pest problems.
Control insects and disease
Although keeping your trees healthy helps them fend off insects and disease, it may still be necessary to apply pesticides or disease controls. Insects and diseases that affect stone fruit are categorized as being “direct” or “indirect” – those that affect fruit directly, and those that attack the tree.
To treat a problem you must know exactly what you’re treating. Properly indentifying a disease or insect is crucial in order to control it. Treatments for fungal, viral and bacterial diseases differ. Some diseases and insects can be a problem during specific periods; others may be present the entire season. Many beneficial insects feed on fruit tree pests, and being able to identify them guards against mistaking them for harmful insects. Once a pest or disease has been identified, specific measures can be taken using the least toxic control available, whether it’s chemical or organic, preventive or curative.
Stone fruit growers also may have to contend with bark-loving deer, rabbits and voles. Protect trees from damage with steel mesh cages around the trunks, or by spraying repellents. Cherry growers want to net trees just before fruit ripens. Birds seem to have a sixth sense concerning the exact moment you’re ready to harvest, and they will gobble up a season’s hard work in a single day.
Who can blame them? It just goes to show, there is a stone fruit for every taste.
They not only taste good, stone fruits are good for you. They’re low in calories; are packed with minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and soluble fiber; and help reduce cholesterol … unless, of course, they’re made into those decadent desserts. But one slice of homemade cherry pie can’t hurt that much!
Writing from the center of Michigan’s Fruit Belt, Grit Blogger Cindy Murphy resides in a small town touted as the birthplace of the world’s most popular peach, the Red Haven.
Peach vs. nectarine: which came first?
In poultry circles, the age-old question is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Stone fruit enthusiasts have a similar dilemma: Was it the peach or the nectarine that came first?
The answer to that question is as fuzzy as the skin on a peach. Is the contention true that nectarines are just peaches without fuzz?
One hypothesis states that a nectarine is a mutant form of the peach. Botanically, there is no essential difference between them. The fruits are so similar that only one gene separates the two – the gene that produces fuzz. Charles Darwin first noted that peach trees will occasionally produce nectarines, and a peach can appear on a nectarine tree. Both fruits growing on the same branch of either tree points to somatic mutation, which you can learn about in genetics class.
Instead, Darwin saw the peach as a modification of the almond, leaving some to believe that it’s possible that peaches are a cross between almonds and nectarines.
During his career in the late 1800s and early 1900s, botanist and horticulturist Luther Burbank created more than 800 varieties of fruits, including eight varieties of peaches and five varieties of nectarines. Considered America’s most famous pomologist and a revolutionary in agriculture, Burbank contends that the peach evolved from the smooth-skinned nectarine, developing fuzz as protection against the elements, insects and fungi.
Others say because peaches are recorded as having been cultivated in China since 2000 B.C., and because the first known usage of the word nectarine did not make its appearance into English until 1616, that the peach had to come first.
This claim, as well as the popular belief that nectarines are a naturally occurring cross between peaches and plums, is considered false by those in the know.
The question of which came first may never be answered with any certainty. One thing is definite though. The claim that a nectarine is just a fuzz-less peach is inaccurate – at least when it comes to our senses. Along with a richer color, nectarines are sweeter than peaches, and the flesh of peaches has a more melting quality than do nectarines. When compared, peaches and nectarines have a distinctly different flavor and aroma.
Not your typical stone fruit
Can’t make up your mind between growing apricots or peaches? You don’t need to choose one over the other – just plant a peachcot.
Or how about trying a peacotum, a hybrid cross of peach, apricot and plum?
Stone fruits have been crossed and hybridized to give us some pretty unusual fruit. Plumcots, a cross between a plum and an apricot, have been recorded for centuries as a natural occurrence, but it was famous pomologist Luther Burbank who first hybridized them and gave them their strange-sounding name.
Since then, fruit breeder Floyd Zaiger and Zaiger’s Genetics have taken the plumcot, crossed it with another plum, and come up with the popular pluot, a fruit with more plum-like characteristics. Apriums are plumcots crossed with apricots to get a slightly fuzzy fruit that is more apricot than plum. These are called interspecific hybrids, a term for crossing different but related types of fruit. Other Zaiger creations are the peacotum, nectarplum, nectarcot and cherum.
What will pomologists come up with next? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be an unusual fruit with an unusual name to match.
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