Let’s talk about growing your own fruit. I have been doing it on a small to medium scale for about 20 years. First off, like everything else I have ever had an actual interest in learning about, it is more complicated than it appears at first glance. I started reviving a small neglected orchard (about 250 apple trees) which came with the home we had just bought. I killed many a tree with my “pruning” methods before I got my first apple. In that time I devoured everything I could find at the library on apples, then the agricultural extension agent helped me, but the real breakthrough was the internet. This was the late 1990s and university research programs were just starting to get their info online. I found out that “organic” doesn’t mean just letting the damn things grow on their own. At least in Tennessee, we have more pests and diseases than other areas, and you will not harvest an apple without some type of spray program. Over the years I became competent if not an expert, and I definitely know that I don’t have an answer for every problem. I will start with apples. A lot of the lessons from apples applies to other tree fruit. There is a lot of information, and I thought to break it down into four segments: Planning, Planting and Training, Pest Control, and Pruning and Harvest.
What? I don’t plan, I just plant and reap bushels of natures bounty! Err, No. This is the time to make decisions. Things are complex. The very basic thing you need to know is how much land you have and how much fruit you want. Is it on a hill or in a valley, clay or loam soil, wet or dry? A gentle hill is best, with clear air drainage path to allow cold air a path away from the trees. Any soil that has trees can support tree fruit, but you may need to have supplemental support for certain rootstock/soil types (more on this later). Wet soil is pretty much a no go, the roots of fruit trees are prone to root rots which thrive in wet soils.
So how much fruit do you want and when? The smallest trees at maturity will produce a bushel (about 45lbs) of apples each. A medium size tree may produce between 4 to 10 bushels. In most cases, all the apples on the tree will be ripe at the same time. What are you going to do with it all? Apples are the most versatile fruit. You can eat it fresh, dry it, make cider (sweet and hard), can it, and store it; but you need a plan. If you just have three medium size trees of different apples, but they all ripen at the same time, you could have 500lbs of fruit to do something with! If you want more than one type of apple, which you should, try to select cultivars that ripen at differing times of the year. This allows you to utilize each apple to the best of its ability. In general, summer apples don’t store well and turn mushy very quickly. They should be eaten quickly, dried, or used for cooking. Fall apples are your mainstay. They will vary, but will usually keep fairly well and are good for most purposes. Winter apples store the best, and storage may actually improve their flavor and sweetness. Cider of varying quality can be made from any apple. Cider making can be very simple, but good cider making is again, complex.
Now you know where you are going to plant and how much fruit you want, here comes the technical part. What size trees do you want? Since apples reproduce sexually, the seeds of the fruit are not copies of their parents, and their fruits are usually nasty tasting, small, and bitter. Apples are propagated by grafting, meaning that the living limb (scion) of a selected cultivar is attached to the root (rootstock) of another tree, allowing the tree to produce the selected cultivar. In this way, the genetic material from the first cursed red delicious tree is still alive in the orchards of Washington. Most stores and some online retailers list trees as being “dwarf”, “semi-dwarf”, or “standard”. These definitions are based on the type of rootstock the trees are on. A “standard” rootstock is usually just a tree grown from seed with the scion grafted to it. The size is unknown but could be anywhere from 20 to 40′ tall. That’s a big tree. “Semi-dwarf” refers to a range of rootstocks that produce a tree anywhere from 10 to 25′ tall. There is a large number of rootstocks in this category. It would do you well to know what the rootstock is exactly. An ELMA 26 rootstock will grow a tree of about 12′, an ELMA 111 rootstock will grow a tree of about 25′, both are considered semi-dwarf. “Dwarf” rootstocks can usually keep the tree under 10′ and are the mainstay of new commercial plantings. They absolutely require support and are not free-standing, but can produce quickly and in great quantities per acre.
The mature size of the tree must be taken into consideration prior to planting. If you are planting a “standard” size orchard, the trees need to be at least 30′ apart. That’s a lot of unused space for the first 10 years of the trees life. In my opinion, smaller trees are the way to go. They are easier to prune, spray, and pick fruit. ELMA 26 or ELMA 7 on 10 or 12′ spacing makes for a tree that can be mostly managed without a ladder and doesn’t need support.
All of this comes before you decide what apple variety to buy. There are a lot of really good varieties that work well in some climates and not at all in others. I can’t grow Macintosh, it is simply too hot here and they fall off the tree before ripening. The best bet would be to investigate a local orchard and see what they are growing or ask for recommendations from other fruit growing people in the area. The big box stores here sell Honeycrisp apple trees, which are notoriously difficult to grow even in their preferred northern climate, and wouldn’t have a chance in the southeast. Speaking of where to buy your trees, I would recommend mail ordering bare root trees. The box store trees sold in pots may have been in those pots for 2-3 years, are likely rootbound, and you usually cannot tell what rootstock they are on. Also, a bare root branchless tree (a whip), will usually outperform a larger tree from a pot planted in the same ground. The larger trees do not adapt as well to the shock of transplanting.
Now that you have a planting plan, it is time to think about equipment. If you have less than 20 trees, a backpack sprayer is probably all you need. Any more trees than this and I would suggest that you have some type of power equipment, such as a pull behind sprayer on a garden tractor or, for bigger orchards, a tractor with an airblast sprayer. You will also need good quality bypass loppers for pruning, tree support stakes for the early years, and string to train the tree branches. But most importantly, you need to keep the deer away from the young trees. The bastards will eat every leaf and then rub their antlers on the tree, snapping every branch. I hates deer.