As more home gardeners seek to expand their harvests -- having enjoyed the delicious freshness of their herbs and vegetables, and saved a bundle in grocery money -- there's a growing trend for planting fruit trees, as well. The tartness of freshly picked limes, the sweetness of oranges and peaches, the excitement of kids who get to pluck the fruit from the trees -- the allure is strong for new fruit tree and bush plantings.
Also enticing gardeners to plant fruit trees is the vast list of expected and surprising fruits that can be grown in a home garden: apples, apricots, blueberries, cherries, figs, jujubes, lemons, limes, mulberries, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, pomegranates and quinces. Your local nursery or home-supply store will stock popular hardy fruit trees, and you can also order online specialty fruit trees, such as variations of Asian fruit trees that are popular now.
Horticulturists work magic with fruit fusions, such as pluots (plum-apricot hybrids) and similar plumcots and apriplums, resulting in new gourmet flavors recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Before selecting any fruit trees online, though, it's important to know which fruit trees are best for your region. "The possibilities vary dramatically depending on where you are," says Ellen Evans, sales clerk at Bay Laurel Nursery, a top source for ordering bare-root fruit trees for planting. "You have to know how many 'chill hours' your region gets, since that's an important factor for each fruit tree."
"Chill hours" is the term for how many hours the temperature reaches below 45 F, and many fruit trees need exposure to these chilly temperatures. "If you pick a tree that doesn't get enough chill hours, you won't get fruit," says Evans.
To find out how many chill hours your area gets, Evans suggests calling your local nursery or state agricultural office for the current numbers they measure. You can also check the interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map at usda.gov. You plug in your ZIP code, and it tells you which zone you're in. The Bay Laurel Nursery website lists the number of chill hours needed by each variety of fruit tree (and lists low-chill fruit trees) to help you identify which trees would thrive in your yard.
*How to Plant Fruit Trees
Bay Laurel Nursery suggests the following steps:
--Dig a hole. In a location that gets the amount of sun prescribed on the fruit tree label, dig a hole that is at least wide enough for the roots of the tree so that none of them is bent. A wider hole is ideal, to give roots the room to extend and grow. For depth, again, follow the label directions, being sure that all roots will be covered. Then use your shovel to loosen the soil around the outside edges of the hole so that roots can continue to grow.
--Drive in a stake. If your chosen tree requires a sturdy stake, "use at least a 5- or 6-foot garden stake hammed about 2 feet into the bottom of the hole, a little off center on the southern side, if possible," says Bay Laurel Nursery. Driving in a stake after the tree has been planted can damage roots.
--Make a soil mound. Use the soil you dug for the hole to create a mound a few inches high in the center of the hole, and pat it down gently.
--Place your tree. Carefully place your loose-roots tree in the hole, centered on the mound, and spread its roots gently. "The tree has a graft union (sometimes called a bud union) visible where the root stock is grafted to the trunk. This should be placed slightly above the existing ground level. It is better to plant a little high than low, since trees often settle," says the nursery.
--Fill the hole with soil. Check with your garden center for the recommended nutrients and organic additives for your soil's pH level and nutrient needs, and add as instructed. Add this amended soil into the hole, covering over just the roots. Gently pat down the soil, and then water to help the soil settle around the roots. Continue adding layers of soil and gently watering to help settle and secure the tree, until the soil reaches original ground level.
--Build a circle. Use any leftover soil to build a raised circle around the tree, about 4 feet in diameter, to keep water in. "Placing organic material such as leaves, mulch or bark inside the circle can help protect the tree's roots and help water retention. Make sure that you keep any mulch away from the trunk of the tree," says Evans, because mulch in contact with the trunk can create harmful rot or disease to the tree, lessening or eliminating your fruit harvest.