Pick the Right Tree and Enjoy the Fruit of Your Labors

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

One day, when I was about four years old, my father asked me to "help" him plant an apple tree in our front yard. Dad dug the hole and carefully spread the roots of the small stick-like plant. I remember the smell of the earth and the mud as we watered the sapling in. I also remember my own amazement that this twig could eventually produce something as wonderful as the bright red apple pictured on the label. It seemed magical; I'm sure that I woke up the next morning and peeked out the window hoping for our first crop.

The idea of picking fruit from our own trees holds tremendous appeal for even the most urbanized among us. It seems both practical and romantic at the same time- who hasn't dreamed of strolling down the garden path and harvesting fresh fruit for the breakfast table? The appeal is so strong that we often forget to do our homework and buy the first fruit trees we see in the nurseries. Believe me; however, there will be no sliced peaches in the cereal bowl if you buy the wrong plant.

February is the best month to select and plant fruit trees since this is when they are most readily available in our local nurseries. Most fruit trees are sold as "bare root" plants, meaning they have been grown in a field, dug, and their roots are literally bare of soil. Be sure to inspect the roots as well as the top of the plant, if they look healthy with plenty of intact "hairs" they will probably perform well, if, on the other hand, you see obvious signs of rot, fungus, or bacteria give them a pass. When you purchase a bare root plant, it is imperative that you get them in the ground as soon as possible. If you can't plant the tree right away, cover the roots with mulch and keep them moist. Do not leave their roots exposed to the air and cold.

All of that may sound a bit daunting, but don't let it deter you, bare root plants perform well. There is an important exception to the rule however- never buy a bare root plant after late March, no matter what the nursery sales folks tell you or how tempting the price may be. Plants that sit in the nursery for a prolonged time, and leaf out there, will have a great deal more difficulty establishing themselves in your garden. Container grown fruit trees are becoming more readily available and can be planted at any time of year, but as of yet, the selection is much more limited.

Speaking of selection, choosing the right variety of fruit tree is just as important as choosing a healthy one. Most fruit trees require a certain amount of "chilling hours" for flowers and leaf buds to develop normally. If the buds do not receive enough winter hours with temperatures below forty-five degrees, they may develop a variety of problems including delayed bloom, reduced fruit, and poor fruit quality. This may sound very mysterious, but, fortunately, the local extension service has done the math for us and has developed a list of recommended varieties based on our average winter chill, and the requirements of the plants. All of the varieties recommended below are proven performers with the appropriate chilling requirements for the Austin metropolitan area.

I grew up in apple country, and though there are apple trees that do well in certain parts of Texas, here in Austin they are susceptible to disease. That hasn't stopped me from trying a few in my garden, but I cannot recommend them to everyone. When it comes to performers here in Austin, I always think of the grand triumvirate of the P: peaches, plums, and pears. (Pomegranates and persimmons have all applied for membership in the brotherhood, but are counted as exotic relations at best.)

Peaches have a special claim to fame here in Central Texas, and have proved themselves well adapted to our climatic extremes. The varieties recommended for Austin include: TexStar, La Feliciana, Springold, June Gold, Bicentennial, Sentinel, Harvester, Redgold, and Dixiland. If you live in the hills of Western Travis County, you might also want to try Loring.

The best plums for the Austin include: Methley, Morris, Ozark Premier, Alfred, and Bruce.

Pears are probably the easiest fruit trees to grow in our area and require the least amount of pruning and insect control. The extension service recommends trying Ayers, Magness, Orient, Maxine, Keiffer, LeConte, and Moonglow.

One big final question that you have to ask in the nursery is whether the trees you are buying are self-pollinating or need a pollinator. If they require a pollinator, you must choose a different variety of the same fruit tree to plant.

Many fruit crops can be grown in Austin, but space has limited me to the "big three." Be on the lookout for the Fruit and Nut Tree growing guide from TreeFolks of Austin or check out the web for more information about other varieties and the planting and care of fruit trees.

Here's to that first crop of peaches to grace your breakfast dreams!

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