- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Many people simply want to grow plants with pretty flowers, but John Campbell has taken on a harder task. He cultivates trees that bear fruit.

Mr. Campbell has 50 cider apple trees on 11/4 acres, along with myriad other fruit trees. The Annapolis man also has a greenhouse with various plants, including cherry and lemon trees.

In 18 years of growing trees, Mr. Campbell says he has learned through trial and error. He knows, for example, that advice from catalogs should be taken with a grain of salt.

“There is an apple we have here, a Dutch apple called Karmijn De Sonnaville,” Mr. Campbell says. “If you read the catalog, it says it’s a wonderful apple. When you do a little research, you realize it’s only suitable for Northern climates, like New York state. I will only get a handful of the apples here because I believed the catalogs, and it’s highly susceptible to the disease apple scab.”

Growing fruit trees can be a tricky business. Not only do the right trees have to be grown in the right geographic climate, but they usually must be sprayed and pruned — and one fruit tree may be needed to pollinate another one.

Pine voles — small rodents that eat the roots of fruit trees — are among the worst obstacles Mr. Campbell has encountered. He digs a 5- to 6-foot space around a tree with a ring of rat wire circling it. Then he fills the dirt back in the hole.

Scarecrow sprinklers keep away squirrels and deer, Mr. Campbell says. The sprinklers, activated by motion, spray water across a 30- to 40-degree angle.

Though it works well scaring the animals, “the mailman isn’t very fond of the sprinkler,” Mr. Campbell says.

Because most plants are dormant in the winter, that is a good time to buy and plant fruit trees, as long as the ground isn’t frozen, says Michael McConkey, owner of Edible Landscaping in Afton, Va. Also, trees that come in pots can be planted easily in the summer when they are fully leafed, he says.

Mr. Campbell has bought many of his fruit trees from Mr. McConkey, who ships them to customers by United Parcel Service.

“Our fruit trees are part of our family,” Mr. McConkey says. “It’s a ritual. The kids go outside and pick cherries, blackberries and blueberries. You make them part of your diet. I made a persimmon smoothie this morning.”

Beginners should start with small fruits, says Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist at the Home and Garden Information Center with the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension in Ellicott City. Fact sheets about growing fruit can be obtained from the organization’s Web site (www.hgic.umd.edu).

Blueberries, currants, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and grapes don’t have as many pest problems and don’t take up as much space, he says.

Many people like to plant fall-bearing raspberries, because they can be cut to the ground during the winter months, Mr. Traunfeld says. The next spring, new shoots grow, and the plant bears fruit in late summer and into the fall.

“If you have a small yard, there are some really good things that can produce fruit,” Mr. Traunfeld says. “If it’s not doing well, you can pull it out without a problem. If you plant a tree, it will be there for a while, and you will have a much harder time removing it.”

In addition, figs, European plums, sour cherries and Asian pears don’t have as many pest problems as some other plants, he says.

However, gardeners should think twice before planting peach or apple trees, Mr. Traunfeld says. Fire blight is a common bacterial disease of apples. If someone really wants to plant trees, he or she should learn how to deal with the pests specific to the trees before they are planted.

Further, gardeners should test their soil for the pH level, he says. It will determine how well the plants receive their nutrients. For instance, blueberries need a very low pH. For optimal results, the soil must be more acidic before blueberries are planted.

“Each tree would have a little bit different care,” Mr. Traunfeld says. “It’s pretty involved. You need to read up on it.”

Gardeners tend to grow whatever they want whether or not it will be difficult, says Monica Lear, an extension agent at the Virginia Cooperative Extension (www.ext.vt.edu) in Arlington. She holds a doctorate in plant pathology.

For those brave enough to plant a large tree, she says, apple, pear, peach, plum, quince and cherry usually grow best in the area.

“If you want a fruit tree, you will have to be willing to work for it,” Ms. Lear says. “You will have to pay a lot of attention to it.”

When selecting a good place to plant a tree, consider air drainage and movement, she says. Because cold air moves downhill, fruit trees in low spots are more likely to be damaged by frost than those on a slope.

“Avoid places with frost pockets, low wet spots and any place with very strong prevailing winds,” Ms. Lear says. “South-facing slopes encourage early bud development and can sometimes result in frost damage.”

Further, it is best to have a well-drained soil of moderate fertility, she says. Sandy loam and sandy clay loam soils are best for fruit trees. Water should not rest at the trunk of the tree; the soil should allow for adequate water drainage. Appropriate spacing between trees also is a consideration.

When researching a fruit tree, gardeners should take into account whether it needs to be cross-pollinated with another variety. For instance, apple, pear, plum and sweet cherry varieties usually need to be cross-pollinated. Sour cherry, peach and nectarine usually can pollinate themselves and might be better for people with less space for planting.

Pruning is extremely important on young fruit trees, Ms. Lear says, as it improves the fruit size and the quality of the fruit. It should be done in the dormant season, before active growth in the spring. To protect against fungal and insect problems, spray treatments usually begin soon after flower buds appear.

Although it takes devotion to grow fruit trees, most of them can live a long time and be very productive, she says. A standard apple tree can live 35 to 45 years. However, it can take many years until a tree produces fruit. The bearing age of the standard apple tree is between ages 6 and 10.

“You must be on top of it from the minute they start to flower,” Ms. Lear says. “Fruit trees require work. There is no other way to put it. It requires a lot of time. The people who are interested in doing it will do what they have to do to make sure their trees look great.”

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