Do you dream of harvesting sweet plums, apples, pears, or other delicious fruits from trees in your own backyard? You can begin growing your food forest right now because winter is the time to plant deciduous bare root fruit trees!
In this how-to guide, we’ll focus on deciduous bare root fruit tree selection in part one and planting strategies in part two. Throughout the year, we’ll discuss how to care for your new tree throughout the seasons.
Before you head off to the nursery, there are a few questions for you to consider that we’ll explore in this post:
1. What fruit do you want to grow, and does it grow well where you live?
2. How will you harvest your fruit, and what are your harvest goals? What are some limiting factors in your landscape aside from climate?
3. Where will your tree grow best in your landscape?
4. What materials do you need to gather for planting day?
5. How do you actually plant the tree in the ground?
Let’s get started!
Scion Selection: What fruit do you want to grow, and does it grow well where you live?
The world of fruit trees is vast and delicious, but not all fruit trees are grown or even planted in the same way. In this article, we’re focused on deciduous fruit trees, which includes four main genera: Malus (apples), Pyrus (pears), Prunus (prunes, plums, peaches, nectarines, cherries, almonds, apricots, pluots, etc.), and Cydonia (quince). It also includes persimmons, figs, and many other fruiting trees, but not citrus or tropical fruits.
Within each genera are numerous varieties to consider, which are determined by the fruit tree scion. Orin Martin, the Garden Manager at the UCSC Chadwick Garden, writes in Scion Basics:
“The managed temperate zone, deciduous fruit tree is composed of two genetically distinct individuals fused together via budding or grafting. These two parts are the scion and the rootstock, collectively referred to as the ‘stion.’”
A scion is one-year-old wood taken from a tree during dormancy. It determines the variety of fruit, which affects taste, texture, and other qualities of the fruit itself. The rootstock, which we’ll explore more later, affects the height, roots, yield, and other factors of the overall tree.
In the image above, Santa Cruz Permaculture Director David Shaw is holding the rootstock in his hands and the scion with his mouth in preparation for grafting the two together. Photo credit: Larissa Mueller — Sentinel
A close-up of the Comice pear graft. Photo credit: Larissa Mueller — Sentinel
Two completed grafts. Photo credit: Larissa Mueller — Sentinel
Climate and Chill Hours
A primary factor in selecting what fruit and which variety to grow is the climate where you live and number of chill hours, or hours during the season when temperatures are between 32℉ – 45℉.
If you select a variety that requires chill hours significantly different from where you live, the tree will not thrive, may not provide you with any fruit, and could even die if it comes out of winter dormancy before the threat of frost had passed.
For those who live in Santa Cruz County, “Reliable Fruit Tree Varieties for Santa Cruz County” produced by the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems has a useful list of varieties known to grow well on the Central Coast.
To learn more about chill hours throughout the U.S. and chill hour requirements for different kinds of fruit, explore these chill hours maps produced by Midwestern Regional Climate Center or this chill hours website produced by the UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information Center.
Why plant a fruit tree?
Once you’ve narrowed the list of possible fruit trees varieties down to those that do well in your climate, consider why you’re planting a tree. As with any permaculture design, identifying your vision early on helps to ensure you’ll achieve what you’re setting out to do.
Some questions to ask yourself in order to identify your vision and purpose include:
– Why are you planting a fruit tree?
– Who are you feeding with your fruit tree(s)?
– If you’re planting for your own enjoyment or to give away to friends and neighbors, what kind of fruit do you and your neighbors enjoy?
– Do you want to eat the fruit right off the tree, store it for eating later in the season, or process it into a pie or canned fruit?
– What varieties are you unable to find locally or inexpensively in your region?
– If you’re planting in order to sell and make a profit for your livelihood, what fruit has a high return on investment or is in high demand in your region?
– What factors are most important to you in a variety: flavor, texture, harvest time, or something else?
– Will you have the resources to harvest, sell, process, or eat your fruit at the time it’s ready for harvest every year for many years to come?
– Are there varieties that produce earlier or later than the main season crop, allowing you to charge more because there is less competition?
This harvest calendar from GrowOrganic.com shows the variety of different harvest windows for different kinds of fruit.
You’ll also want to find out if the kind of tree you choose to plant requires another tree nearby for pollination, or if it’s a self-pollenizer. This SF Gate article “Fruit Trees That Require No Pollination” lists some options for self-pollenizers if you’re hoping to start with just one tree. (Notice we say “start” because once you plant one tree, you might find yourself planting trees in every available space in your landscape!)
If you decide to plant more than one tree for pollination, make sure the varieties you select will actually pollinate each other effectively.
Multi-grafted trees are another option if you have limited space but want to plant something that requires another pollenizer. You can select multiple varieties, or scions, and graft them onto one rootstock. An art professor at Syracuse University was so excited about multi-grafted trees that he developed a tree with 40 different kinds of fruits that will bloom in a variety of colors in the spring–listen to the NPR story about this “Tree of 40 Fruit”.
Rootstock Selection: How will you harvest your fruit, and what are your harvest goals? What are some limiting factors in your landscape aside from climate?
In addition to the purpose of planting a fruit tree that you identified earlier, what are some measurable goals? These could be in pounds of fruit per season, how many years into the tree’s life you are willing to wait to harvest fruit, and how much time or money you want to spend on labor during the harvest season. These factors, while not independent from variety, are largely affected by the rootstock you select.
The rootstock is quite literally the root and stock of the tree–it’s the root system and the lower portion of its trunk that has a significant influence on the tree’s overall growth habit. According to Orin Martin in this detailed exploration of rootstocks:
“Rootstock choice is probably the most critical and dominant factor influencing the type of fruit tree you’ll end up with, as it influences both tree size and the ratio of tree canopy to pounds of fruit. This is referred to as cropping efficiency. It ‘rolls’ like this: While a bigger tree produces more pounds of fruit, per tree, the dwarf tree produces more fruit per area of canopy. As dwarf trees can be spaced closer together, they out-yield bigger trees on a per-area basis (note that in this article the term “dwarf” also refers to semi-dwarf trees).”
Some nurseries that sell bare root fruit trees might have limited combinations of scions and rootstocks, but if you’re grafting your own scion and rootstock together, there are many options.
Rootstocks and Tree Size
Tree size can range from 20–30’ tall for full-size rootstocks to 3–5’ for mini-dwarfing rootstocks. Pruning and training strategies can also aid in keeping fruit trees to a manageable size, but that’s a topic for another blog post! You can also join us February 3, 2018 for our winter fruit tree pruning course to learn more about pruning.
Dwarfing rootstocks are easier to harvest from the ground, which is safer and less labor intensive, and their size allow you to plant more trees in a smaller area. They also produce fruit much earlier in their lives than full-size rootstocks, but as a result, they tend to have shorter lifespans.
Other Rootstock Factors
Rootstock selection should also take into account disease and pest concerns, the type of soil you have and how well it drains, irrigation approach, and more. Orin Martin provides a thorough explanation and comparison of rootstocks in “Rootstock Basics.” He also writes about other factors to consider when purchasing a tree from a nursery in this article.
A small, easy-to-harvest apple tree at Everett Family Farm in Soquel, CA in late September. Note: Your bare root fruit tree won’t look like this for quite a few years after planting.
Once you’ve selected which tree you want to plant, you’ll need to consider possible planting locations. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll dive into what questions to consider when selecting where your tree will live, flourish, and produce fruit for years to come.
Before you read the next post: you’re invited to register for our February 3, 2018 Winter Fruit Tree Pruning Workshop in Sebastopol, California. This daylong workshop covers the basic goals and techniques of winter pruning deciduous fruit trees, including apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums and more. The workshop includes lecture, demonstrations, and an opportunity for you to gain hands-on practice pruning. You can register through our website. Please note that the last day to register is Tuesday, January 30th. We hope to see you there!
– “Apple Trees for Every Garden” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS (Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems)
– “Chilling Hours” (UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information Center)
– “Chilling Hours Maps – October 1 Start” (Midwestern Regional Climate Center Vegetation Impact Program)
– “Choosing and Growing Stone Fruits” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)
– “Reliable Fruit Tree Varieties for Santa Cruz County” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)
– “Rootstock Basics” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)
– “Scion Basics” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)
– “Selecting and Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)
– Web Soil Survey (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service): U.S. soil maps and data