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Get the Freshest Fruit by Starting Your Own Backyard Orchard

With a little patience and some space, even a newcomer to planting can begin seeing a payoff from their own “backyard” fruit orchard in as little as two years. Fruit from one’s own orchard is fresher than store-bought fruit. It’s also convenient, cost-effective, and rewarding.

In deciding to plant fruit trees, first consider the sunlight — full sun is ideal — and space on your land. Elberta peach trees, for example, can have a spread anywhere from 8 to 20 feet, so they ideally would need to be placed about 20 feet from any adjacent tree. If available space in minimal, consider planting dwarf fruit trees; though the yield is less, pruning and gathering fruit is much easier.

Preparation for planting is the most critical part of the process, says Dr. David Lockwood, a University of Tennessee extension agent.

Most fruit crops grow best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of about 6 to 6.5, but a lot of soils are more acid than that. Getting your soil tested to see what it needs and adding the necessary amendments can create ideal soil conditions for your young trees.

Select a type of fruit and rootstock that is adapted to your region. A rootstock — the “working” part of the plant — already has an established root system and is used for grafting a cutting from another plant with the desired properties for the fruit.

“Literally all of our fruit trees are grafted or budded (a type of grafting) trees,” Lockwood says. “We select a rootstock based on its ability to help a tree’s longevity and tolerance.”

Most fruit trees require cross-pollination from a different variety within a species such as apples and cherry, but some are self-fertile, such as apricot trees, which do not require other trees for pollination. Cross-pollination, however, is urged.

“You've got to have two or more varieties for cross-pollination or else you won't get a crop,” Lockwood says. “For example, with apples and pears, I always suggest having a minimum of at least two varieties.”

“Apples are one of the more reliable crops no matter where you are in the country unless you go into the Deep South,” Lockwood says. “The reason for that is that they are more winter-hardy when the blooms are in bud than most other fruits. They tend to bloom a little later than a lot of other tree fruits.”

When planting a grafted tree, the depth of the hole should be deep enough to cover the roots but not the graft union, Lockwood says. Fruit trees should be planted during the colder months when they are fully dormant.

“When we set a tree, the graft union needs to be above ground but only by a couple of inches,” Lockwood says. “If you set the tree at about the same depth as it was in the nursery, and you can usually see that by looking at the texture of the bark and the color of the bark, then you will be in good shape.”

By Colleen Creamer

Illustration by Tom Milner