Selecting Fruit Trees
Dustin Blakey, Inyo-Mono Farm Advisor
Fruits are always favorites in the garden. Eat a fresh peach or plum and you’ll be obsessed with getting your own source of ripe fruit that you can share with the crows. If you are interested in growing your own fruits, fall is the season to get started.
Impulsive acquisition of fruit trees and berries while out on a shopping trip often leads to disappointing results. Not every variety of fruit can be grown on the Eastside. Plants bought on a whim or chosen because you recognize the name may not thrive in our climate or produce the best possible fruit. I am always amazed by how many ‘Red Delicious’ apples get planted in gardens each year, yet I have never met a person who actually likes to eat them!
There are two tried and true ways to get fruits (trees or berries) for your garden: you can go to a local, knowledgeable nursery in spring and buy containerized plants, or you can order bare-root plants in fall for shipment in spring. If you elect to order fruits from a mail-order nursery, you should make your selections in fall. If you snooze, you lose! Variety choices become meager as spring approaches.
As a rule, bare root trees are cheaper and because you can choose from many vendors, selection is best. The nurseries know when to ship, and you will get your plants still dormant. The disadvantage is that you need to be ready to plant when they arrive or they may die.
Some fruits will need to be cross-pollinated. Most catalogues and websites will mention this and will provide a pollination chart to help you choose.
The following are helpful hints in selecting what fruits to plant:
- If they are adequately watered, brambles (canefruits) are probably our best fruit crop. Look into planting modern cultivars. You may reminisce about a certain berry you once ate in your youth—and it may be great—but great breeding work has been done on blackberries and their kin in the past 30 years.
- Stone fruits are the least reliable of our fruit choices. They tend to flower early and get zapped by cold. Apricots and almonds are especially bad. Try to choose late-flowering types; these tend to be late-bearing as well.
- Apricots, peaches, nectarines, and sour cherries do not require cross-pollination. Sweet cherries do. Apples, pears, and most plums need cross-pollination.
- Even if a crop doesn’t require cross-pollination, having more than one variety can extend your season and a few self-fruitful crops like blueberries do better with cross-pollination.
- Most table grapes do fine here. We don’t raise them, but muscadine grapes will grow here and are a unique treat. ‘Carlos’ and ‘Noble’ are good muscadines to start with.
- If you order figs and they arrive before nights are consistently over 40°F, pot them up and keep them inside until it is safe. ‘Mission’ is not reliably hardy here.
- In most cases, when you have the option to do so, choose a dwarf rootstock.
- Pomegranates are hardy in the Owens Valley but may have issues with frosts and too short a growing season, especially in Bishop, for some varieties. Plant with caution.
- Remember that grocery store fruit is not being grown locally. In most cases, the variety you should grow in your garden will not be the typical ones seen in the produce department.
- Common California varieties and growing information can be found at The California Backyard Orchard.
I thought gardeners (and game show enthusiasts) would appreciate this comic from XKCD.com.
Since Halloween is just around the corner, it seems like a good time to discuss an autumn favorite: pumpkins.
Since humans began farming, there has been a continuous process of improving plants and animals for domestic use. It’s remarkable what we can accomplish through a good breeding program. For instance plants like corn are so different from their wild progenitors that they cannot survive on their own without humans planting them. We even have thornless blackberries!
Crops and livestock seem like good choices for improvement, but what would inspire someone to breed an irritable, pocket-sized dog? Fortunately for you readers, I have a theory about where Chihuahuas come from: someone was obviously looking for a way to make barking Jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
It seems to me that any amateur obsessed with fitting a dog in a Jack-o-lantern would consider two methods: either
- Miniaturize the dog; or
- Make the pumpkin bigger.
Clearly those with a sense of humor chose to make a smaller dog. Everyone else bred giant pumpkins.
Other than that time I accidentally left the gate in the back yard open when I was 11, I really don’t have any background in canine genetics, so let’s just talk about giant pumpkins instead. This is a garden blog, after all.
The pumpkin is the perfect plant to inspire creative thought, after all the inside of a pumpkin does resemble gooey brains. After you scoop out all that “gray matter” you are left with a hollow cavity that’s just aching for something to be put inside. And what would be scarier than a barking Jack-o-lantern?
Before you run out and try to be the first person to patent the amazing barking pumpkin, I feel I have to warn you about the difficulty involved with the endeavor.
First, the Chihuahuas will tend to climb out since most won’t appreciate being left alone in a damp pumpkin. Second, people have been highly successful at growing huge pumpkins; in fact, the world record is 2,032 lbs! But it turns out their hollow cavity isn't a whole lot different from a regular pumpkin and you'd have a hard time carving in a scary face. Clearly, we're not quite ready for barking pumpkins. (However progress continues.)
Modern Jack-o-lanterns (the non-barking kind) are an old European tradition with an American twist. The original Jack-o-lanterns were carved from potatoes or turnips, which were more common in the British Isles than virtually anything else.
The story goes that there was a fellow named Stingy Jack who was partying with the Devil. Jack didn’t have any money to pay for his whiskey which is why he was hanging out with Satan in the first place. So being resourceful, he talked the Devil into turning into a coin to pay the tab. Poof! So far so good, but being stingy, Jack decides to pocket the coin instead of paying, which trapped a very unhappy Satan. Finally it’s agreed that Jack will let the Devil go for the promise to not pester him any more about mooching booze off everyone.
It shouldn't surprise you to find out that Stingy Jack dies soon thereafter. Maybe it was a pickled liver? In any case St. Peter tells him he’s too evil for heaven so Jack heads on down to Hell. When he arrives the Devil remembers Stingy Jack and doesn’t let him enter Hell, either.
I’m no expert in this sort of thing, but, according to the Internet, the in-between space between Heaven and Hell is pretty dark, leaving Jack to wander in the darkness. Anyone that’s stubbed their toe in the middle of the night knows that getting around in total darkness is anything but quick and easy. Well, to speed his departure the Devil tosses him a hot coal that Jack places into a potato to keep from burning his hands. So now we carve Jack-o-lanterns and try to scare impressionable, young children each Halloween to commemorate this important occasion.
In researching this post, I discovered that pumpkins weren’t exactly the rage in Ireland, which is why we don’t hear of the great pumpkin famine. But when these immigrants came to America they quickly upgraded to pumpkin Jack-o-lanterns for obvious reasons.
It was fortunate that Native Americans were growing and improving pumpkins for centuries as a food crop. Without pumpkins Halloween would be as scary—and awkward—as Grandparents’ Day.
Naturally, if you're going to have pumpkins all over the place, it's just a matter of time before some genius on a candy-induced sugar rush is going to find a need to make pumpkins bark.
I often get asked about whether fall is a good time to prune the landscape. While the mild weather makes it attractive to work outside, it's probably a good idea to wait, but you won't usually kill a plant outright by pruning. I don't even think about pruning until late winter. (In cold winters, I have seen some winterkill on fall-pruned plants that should have been hardy, but these are usually new plants or have other issues.)
On large orchards, practicality makes the pruning season start fairly early so that the job can get done in time, but homeowners have a lot more flexibility. Don't set your pruning schedule based on what you see in the Central Valley or down south.
Here are some pruning tips for the Eastern Sierra.
Summer-flowering trees & shrubs, modern roses, and grapes: Wait as late in winter as you can bring yourself to do, but before it gets warm. It's fine to do some light pruning early on, but wait to do the final pruning. I'm lazy and only want to prune once. March works well in these parts. An advantage to waiting is you can see what was damaged during winter and remove that. Low desert folks will do this in January.
Spring-flowering ornamentals and once-blooming roses: Wait until they flower and then prune them then.
Perennials: Do not cut back the dead foliage in winter. Leave it. Pretend it's a desireable feature if you must. The foliage protects the crown and roots from freeze damage. Remove the dead stuff just before the new growth starts. Early March is probably good. This goes for ornamental grasses, too. Folks near Lone Pine and points south can do this a bit earlier.
As a couple examples, in my admittedly non-scientific trials in Arkansas (USDA Zone 7) garden mums always made it through their first winter if not pruned even without mulch, and maybe 80% made it through if they were pruned in fall. Lantana camara always survived better if I waited until it was absolutely positively dead. I always waited until spring in my yard. Whenever I hacked it back in fall, it failed to overwinter. (Always mulched this.)
Hydrangeas: Even though their name means water-lover, they are still grown in the Owens Valley. Whatever you do, don't remove those ugly, "dead" sticks. That will be spring's flowers. Wait until they have finished blooming. The only time they need pruning is if they get too big. Same reason you'd need a haircut. When I'm sure those sticks are really dead, I remove them. Usually May. Get it done before June 25.
Palms? Not too many here in Bishop but here's some info. Maybe south Inyo folks will find it useful. I've seen a lot of mis-pruned palms there.
Remember, just because you have a plant and a set of pruners, that doesn't mean the two need meet up. Most plants do not need annual pruning. Always have a reason since you can't just glue the branches back on. Homeowners with pole pruners often do more harm than good.
Big, sick, dead, ugly, dangerous, or fruit/flower management are all good reasons. Because your neighbor does it is not a good reason. Nor is having a pruner in the garage.
Contact our help line if you have questions on specifics.
As our nation expanded from sea to sea, homesteaders took apples with them. And eventually some of those settlers ended up in bear-infested Arkansas. The hilly terrain of the Ozark region wasn’t well suited for row crops, or much else for that matter, but it did grow apples well. At one time Benton County was the known as a leading apple producing region and not as Wal-Mart's headquarters.
Arkansas's heyday of apple production has long since passed, but there are a few remnants of the past that are still around Ozarks including a annual festival in Lincoln, whose orchards have since been converted to houses. It may sound surprising but there is a large following of enthusiasts of antique apple varieties, all of which seem to have a backstory. (Well, maybe it's not that surprising. If there are folks that get excited about daylilies, anything could be interesting to someone out there.)
Gardeners interested in heirloom varieties should consider growing ‘Arkansas Black’ apples. This apple was found in a nursery in Benton County around 1870. Most experts in these sorts of things believe that this variety was a chance seedling of ‘Winesap’, another favorite with heirloom aficionados.
‘Arkansas Black’ is named for its famously dark skin color. Other than color the other defining characteristic of this variety is its extreme firmness. At harvest in October, ‘Arkansas Black’ could probably substitute for a baseball. Ozark farmers would raise this apple and then store it in straw-lined pits for months before attempting to eat it. Long storage was definitely a positive attribute in those days, and in January the fruit was soft enough for the dentally challenged to enjoy the flavor of this apple.
My grandfather grew this apple in his front yard in Lake County. He lost his teeth in WWII and couldn't bite this apple with his dentures, so several times he tried to graft it to a softer-fleshed variety. As far as I know, his tree still survives.
Today 'Arkansas Black' has reemerged as a popular hobby variety. While not everyone appreciates an apple that bites back, like fine wines the unique flavor and firmness of ‘Arkansas Black’ mellows with age.
I have this variety in my back yard in West Bishop. It seems to do fine in the Owens Valley, assuming your kids don't do you a favor and harvest your crop in July. As it ripens in October, it probably isn't the most reliable choice at higher altitudes. Last year mine were perfect November 15, but they probably should have been harvested before Halloween.
The widespread planting of apples in this country is testament to the simple demands of the apple tree on the gardener. Like roses, a gardener can make apple growing a complex endeavor with spraying and pruning, or they can elect to let nature run its course and see what happens. Of course the most satisfactory results are usually found in well-tended orchards.
As a rule, apples need to be planted with a pollinator in order to set fruit. Most apple varieties will suit this purpose so if you already have an apple or crabapple, you should get good pollination assuming you do not kill bees with insecticides during the bloom period. If you need to get a pollinizer and can't decide which to use, I would suggest ‘Golden Delicious’. While it is not the most remarkable or unique apple variety, it has a long bloom period and produces a lot of pollen.
Apple trees will grow in all sorts of light levels, but if you want any fruit, you will need to plant them in a place they will continue to get lots of sun. A good rule of thumb for a home orchard would be to space trees as far apart as the canopy will be tall. An apple tree on its own roots can easily get 30 feet tall so this wouldn’t leave a lot of room in most yards.
The solution to finding enough room for an apple tree comes from selecting the correct rootstock. Gardeners can easily find rootstocks that can keep a tree 11 to 18 feet tall and pruning could further influence the ultimate height.
Most garden catalogues sell dwarf plants which are usually on a rootstock called M9, but home gardeners seldom have the option of selecting a specific rootstock. While full dwarfing is a nice convenience, home gardeners would be well-advised to select one of the taller semi-dwarf rootstocks such as M106 or M111 if given the option. They provide better anchorage and drought-tolerance: a real benefit here with our wind and dryness.
There are as many opinions as to the best way to train an apple as there are apple growers, but generally the best results come from a tree shaped like a Christmas tree. Whatever shape you choose the important thing is to be consistent every year. It's hard to go from a vase to a pyramid.
‘Arkansas Black’ is a unique heirloom variety that has a lot to offer the amateur orchardist. Excellent storage, great fresh flavor, and good cooking characteristics make it an apple well-suited for gardens. And it tastes different from what you'd get at the store.