Margaret Lauterbach

Learn how to make the right choice when it comes to fruit trees

You might find that semi-dwarf apple trees work best for where you live.
You might find that semi-dwarf apple trees work best for where you live.

After we moved to Boise in 1971 and bought a house with a large yard, I set out to grow everything possible. I made some mistakes, and you can avoid them by reading about mine.

At this time of year we begin to think of fruit trees, brambles and shrubs. They’re less costly if you can buy them bare root instead of containerized. A major consideration, if you’re to harvest any fruit, is whether fruit will set and remain on the host plant until harvest. There is an abyss in difference between whether the plant will survive and whether it will set harvestable fruit.

I set out to grow hardy kiwi fruit, and having read about the heavy crops some growers were facing in other parts of the world, we built a very sturdy arbor. Then we planted the vines, two females to one male. There is at least one self-fruitful variety, but self-fruitful fruiting plants often don’t produce heavy crops. I had no doubt the vines would survive our winters (and they did), but when I saw them break into blossom so early in spring that fruit was doomed, I realized my error. Vines are hardy, but we won’t get fruit.

Some experts advise planting fruit trees on the north side of dwellings to delay blooming. Our winter sun lies to the south, and it is still in that predominant attitude in spring, so a dwelling could shade a north-planted tree or shrub, possibly delaying blossoms. I didn’t have a place for such a vine on the north side of my house, and even with that delayed spring for a plant, it couldn’t have delayed blossoms long enough to escape many spring frosts.

Another mistake was my insistence on full-size apple trees. Semi-dwarf apple trees begin bearing fruit much sooner than full-size ones. The estimate for full-size apple trees is to bear in five to eight years, three to five years for semi-dwarf. Semi-dwarf trees are almost as tall as the full ones, estimated at 18 to 25 feet high for full, 12 to 15 for semi-dwarf. Semi-dwarf trees will not bear fruit quite as heavily, but for a family’s use, the difference wouldn’t be noticed. If you plant a tree that bears only every other year, such as my Gravenstein (notorious for this bearing habit), you can try to get it to bear fruit every year by judicious thinning when it does bear fruit. Or just resign yourself to canning two years’ worth of applesauce every other year.

For fruit tree purchases at any time, pay attention to:

1) Their USDA hardiness zone (USDA says we’re in zone 7, but you’re safer to assume zone 6).

2) Their soil preference (most of the Treasure Valley has alkaline soil, parts of the valley bottom have more acidic soil, but use a pH test to determine your soil’s alkalinity) and rooting habit (if it’s a tap-rooted tree, you should dig the hole then chisel through caliche hardpan before planting such a tree).

3) Resistance to pests and diseases.

4) Flowering time, and if your proposed tree or shrub is not self-fruitful, you’ll have to buy two different trees or shrubs with close to the same flowering times (pay heed to what will pollinate what, for I belatedly found that Bartlett pear does not pollinate a Seckel pear).

5) Fruit quality and harvest time (some fruits are to be harvestable in November, and I think that’s far too late for this area that experiences frosts in October, and sometimes in September).

Once you’ve decided on varieties you want, check around locally owned nurseries for them, since they’re apt to carry trees that are climatically adapted to this area. Locally owned garden stores and nurseries such as NEON, Edwards Greenhouse, Franz Witte, Far West, DuRite and Fruitland Nursery may carry what you’re looking for. Shop globally, but buy locally.

Send garden questions to melauter@cableone.net or Gardening, the Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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