Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fruit Tree Selection for the Backyard & Home Orchard in North Texas

Wild Mexican Plums
Well, ready or not, the 2012 gardening season is upon us! We set out 30 bunches of onions and 88 broccoli and cabbage plants several weeks ago. Now it’s time to plant potatoes, strawberries, asparagus crowns and fruit trees. With the mild winter we’ve had, many fruit trees in this part of Texas are already in bloom. The twelve trees in our own small orchard look as if they’re about to burst into a profusion of buds and blooms. And we are SO thankful for all the rain we’ve gotten so far!

If you live in the Bridgeport area, we’re fortunate to have a growing number of businesses catering to the home gardener. The new “All Wise Garden Center” has become one of my favorite haunts. In fact, I just brought home twelve more fruit trees Friday and I have four more on order. They also have asparagus crowns, onion slips and seed potatoes. The fruit tree selection is still kind of small, but they’ll be bringing more in as the weather settles.  Their prices are very reasonable. Strawberries will also be available soon and they already have most garden seeds available in bulk. They are located just past the 380/101 traffic light going towards Chico and their number is 940-683-1061.

Seed orders have been placed with a few companies. This year, what few seeds we need will come from Baker’s Creek, Tomato Grower’s Supply, Totally Tomatoes and of course, our local Willhite. I perused the seed racks at Wal-mart last week and was sorely disappointed with the selection. It used to be you could grow a fairly decent garden with their selections, but not this  year.

And we’re already looking to the spring garden. I pre-ordered 17 flats of peppers and strawberries from Bridgeport Feed. I’ll be picking them up this week and transplanting the peppers into larger pots for setting out next month. We have several hoophouses to keep the plants under until all danger of frost is past. Bridgeport Feed had a really good selection of peppers and tomatoes last year at very good prices. They still have onion slips and seed potatoes. It’s possible they will also have strawberries but I haven’t confirmed that yet.


Our Tree-Watering System

When we first set out to start an orchard, we really didn’t know what we were doing. In fact, I’m surprised that most of the trees are still alive, getting bigger and starting to bear fruit! I’m hoping to simplify what I’ve learned over the last few years so you can choose varieties of trees that will give you fruit and pleasure for many years to come. Keep in mind that volumes have been written about this subject and these few guidelines are just a starting point.

To begin with, if you are only buying a few trees, I strongly recommend that you do NOT buy them from the mega-garden centers like Walmart or Lowe’s. Yes they have beautiful trees every year (and most of my trees came from those places), but you take your chances that the variety you think you are buying is not really what you are getting. For instance, I planted a nectarine a few years ago that is bearing fuzzy fruit. It was labeled as a nectarine, but it’s actually just a peach. And I have no idea what variety of peach! It’s not a big deal on my place as I have plenty of room to plant more, but if I had a small backyard and had to make my selections carefully, I would not be happy at the mix-up. (I’ve also had this problem with bulbs and plants purchased from them.)

In the case of stone fruits (apricots, plums, peaches) which are usually (but not always) self-fruitful (meaning they don’t need a pollinator), you probably won’t mess up too badly, but when it comes to apples, pears and pecans, you need to be absolutely sure of what you’re buying.

Also, just because a variety is offered in this area, doesn’t mean it will grow well here or produce fruit. Or that it’s disease-resistant. One example is the Bartlett pear. Every garden center offers it, but it’s not recommended for our area due to its intolerance to fire blight. That being said, I have a Bartlett pear tree that’s still doing fine after 3 years. Every summer, all of the leaves blacken and fall off, but they come back a few weeks later with no apparent harm done. But the tree has not attempted to bear fruit yet. I wouldn’t have purchased the tree at all if I had only a small space to grow it.

Luckily, no matter where you buy them, most trees are now labeled with important information such as the number of chill hours and whether or not they are self fruitful. It is also helpful to know if they bloom (pollinate) early, mid-season or late, and at what time of year the fruit is ready to harvest. A good garden center will be able to tell you all of this information. But I believe it’s better to be prepared before you walk through their door. I keep a notebook full of information I’ve printed out from various county extension sites and on-line nurseries so I know what I’m looking for when I get there. And of course, if you have a net-surfing phone, you can easily look up any information you need while you’re shopping.

Another consideration you should keep in mind is knowing exactly what you plan on doing with the fruit that you’ll be harvesting from your trees. Will you be canning it, drying it, eating it fresh, making cider or juice, jams and jellies? Do you want tart fruit or sweet? This is when it really pays to do a little research before you head out to buy the trees.

In some cases, you may also want to know at what time of year the trees bear fruit. Perhaps your job keeps you away from home more at certain times of the year or you are busier during certain months/seasons than others. In the case of apples, those that ripen early are suitable only for eating fresh or canning/drying/preserving quickly as they only keep for a few weeks, even in cold storage (or so I’m told). So make sure you’re going to have time to deal with the fruit when it’s ready to harvest.

So let’s start with the issue of pollination. A tree that is “self-fruitful” requires no other varieties of trees nearby in order to produce fruit, although the yields may be greater when a pollinator is present. If a tree is not self-fruitful, it requires a pollinator, that is, another tree of a different variety planted nearby. Simple enough, right?

Where it gets complicated is when trying to match pollinators that shed their pollen at the same time and that have overlapping bloom periods. Just because a certain variety of tree is listed as a “good pollinator” doesn’t mean it will shed its pollen at the same time as the tree you’re trying to pollinate. So you must know if the tree blooms early, mid-season or late. Luckily, apples and pecans are the only area where this can get complicated and there are a number of charts available on the net to help in the selection of a pollinator. I suggest you print them out and take them with you to the garden center so you’re well-armed, or at least have the sites bookmarked so you can pull them up quickly on your phone.

Chill Hours
From Wikipedia: “Stone fruit trees and certain other plants of temperate climate develop next year's buds in the summer. In the autumn the buds go dormant, and the switch to proper, healthy dormancy is triggered by a certain minimum exposure to chilling temperatures. Lack of such exposure results in delayed and substandard foliation, flowering and fruiting.”

What this means is that some trees need exposure to a certain number of hours of very cold temperatures in order to set fruit. Bridgeport has approximately 800-900 chill hours. It is recommended that we select varieties within this range or as much as 20% less, which would be in the 640-720 range. Generally, the number of chill hours for a variety can be located on the plant’s nursery tag when it’s relevant.

Keep in mind that these hours are not set in stone. We’ve had such a mild winter, I’d be surprised if we’ve had our average number of chill hours this year. And while it’s better to err on the side of selecting varieties with lower chill hours than the part of the state they’re being planted in, if you select a variety with too few chill hours, there’s a good chance the tree will bloom too early and get nipped by frost. This is especially true with cherries. Sadly, there are few varieties of cherries we can plant here because most varieties are outside our chill range – some too low, some too high.

That’s the important stuff. Now I’ll give a brief listing of possible varieties to select for this area and links for pollination charts and other helpful information. Keep in mind that not all trees will produce fruit every year and none of this is written in stone. And don’t be afraid to try other varieties not listed here or by County Extension. State agricultural/mechanical colleges tend to focus on all the latest, greatest, most disease-resistant, highest-yielding varieties while letting the older heirloom varieties fall out of favor. If a variety meets the chill hours and pollination requirements and you have plenty of space to experiment, there's no reason not to try it. There are thousands of varieties of fruit trees and no one can possibly have grown all of them!

Yes, we can grow apples here! I’ve seen them in this area with my own eyes. Unfortunately, we are limited to only a few varieties, but that makes the selection process easier. The County Extension site has some good information, but I’d limit my selections to trees that bear fruit very late in the year, at least October or November.

Many commercial orchards use European Crabapples as pollinators. (Don’t confuse them with the green warty things we call “crabapples” in Texas!) Golden Delicious is a good pollinator for many varieties. Here is a pollination chart for apples.

Recommended Varieties:
Arkansas Black, Braeburn, Caville Blanc, Goldrush, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Fuji, Winesap, Jersey Mac, Gala, Mollie’s Delicious, Ozark Gold. (Some are self-fruitful – check the tag.) My personal favorites are Braeburn, Granny Smith, Fuji and Winesap. Here is an excellent list of the self-fruitfulness and uses of some of the more common apples (note that they may not all be self-fruitful in Texas just because they are in California):

There are tons of apricot varieties available and we can grow a lot of them here. Decide in advance how you’ll be using the fruit and when you want to harvest them. Some varieties are best dried or canned, some are best eaten fresh and many are multi-purpose. Apricots are usually self-fruitful, but check the tag or Google it to make sure. I prefer the old heirloom varieties to the newer ones.

Recommended Varieties:
Moorpark, Bryan, Hungarian, Goldcot, Harcot, Tilton, Montrose., Blenheim, Puget Gold. There are many others.

As I mentioned before, there are few varieties that do well here and even those may not produce fruit most years. But just tell me something can’t be done and I’ll set out to do it! I know for a fact that my husband’s grandmother from Roanoke had a cherry tree in her yard that produced fruit. And my mother had a gallon jar of cherries in her pantry for several years that she obtained from a local source in the Texas Panhandle.

All Wise Garden Center has the “Montmorency” variety available this year. It requires 900-1000 chill hours and is self-fruitful, so I’m hopeful I’ll manage a crop occasionally. If not, at least I’ll get to enjoy the blooms. Another variety I’ve heard might do well here is the Golden/Gold Sweet. Kansas Sweet is widely grown throught the midwest and might also do well here. If anyone in the North Texas area has been successful with cherries, I’d love to hear from you.

Jujube Dates
I’m including Jujubes because they are so easy to grow here they have become naturalized in much of North Texas. The fresh fruit resembles and tastes similar to a small pear or apple (with a stone pit instead of seeds) and can be used in much the same way. My neighbor found a stand of them on her property and made a wonderful marmalade with them a few years back. They can be eaten fresh and of course, they are delicious dried. If you are fortunate enough to find them growing somewhere, you can remove suckers from the base of the tree and root them, but grafted varieties are supposedly of superior quality.

We have some forty varieties of jujubes available in the U.S., but the three most common are Lang, Li and Shanx Li. Most jujubes are self-pollinating, though they may produce higher yields if two or more varieties are planted.

There are lots of figs available, but unfortunately, our winters can be a little hard on them. I would stick with the tried-and-true varieties for this area, which are Brown Turkey/Texas Everbearing (sometimes these are listed as the same variety), Celeste/Malta, Alma and White Kadota (the official “Fig Newton” tree). I have both the Texas Everbearing and the White Kadota and both have done fine through the last 3 winters.

You can go nuts with nectarines. We can grow lots of them and most are self-fruitful. Decide in advance if you care whether you get a clingstone or freestone variety (that is, whether the seed comes loose from the flesh easily – sometimes a big deal if you’re canning or drying several bushels at once!).

Go nuts! Just go nuts! Texas is the largest producer of peaches in the U.S. Most of the ones available in garden centers are self-fruitful, but check the tag or look them up just to be sure. Mind the chill hours and you should be fine. As with nectarines, decide whether you care if they are clingstone or freestone and pay attention to their uses (best for drying, canning, eating fresh, etc.).

Pears come in two types: the European type and the Asian type. Many European types are horribly prone to a disease called fireblight and they are “iffy” in this part of Texas. Some of the more fireblight-resistant varieties are: Warren, Magness, Garber/Monterrey, LeConte and Orient. Moonglow and Keiffer are good pollinators. I have not yet located a good pollination chart for the varieties we can grow in Texas.

Asian pears are really becoming popular though I’ve only been able to find a few varieties. To avoid confusion, the variety called “Twentieth Century” is actually known as “Nijisseiki” on most information sites. It is available at All Wise Garden Center. Here is an Asian pear pollination chart.

If anyone out there has a “Seckel/Sugar Pear” tree, I would love to have a few fruits after they ripen. The Seckel is an old heirloom that is self-fruitful and semi-dwarf from seed. The fruits are small and used for pickling and canning. The Seckel is highly resistant to fire-blight.

Pecan trees are expensive this year, but worth the cost. Pecans need a pollinator and you’ll find them divided into two types – those that shed pollen early and those that shed pollen late. You’ll need to select two varieties from the same list to get good yields. Pecan trees are so common in Texas many people get good crops of pecans from only one tree because their neighbors may have one or there are pollinators that have grown wild nearby.

With pecans, you may want to decide ahead of time if you want large nuts or if you’ll be satisfied with the smaller ones. Many of the selections with larger nuts are more difficult to grow and the quality of the kernels isn’t as good in spite of the size.

Early Pollen-Shedding Types for this area:
Desirable, Caddo, Cheyenne (there are others)

Late Pollen-Shedding Types for this area:
Sioux, Wichita, Choctaw, Kiowa, Forkert, Mohawk and Shoshoni

Persimmons are widely adapted across the South and most of them should do well in Texas. Some years they are very expensive because the demand is so high. The most popular varieties are Eureka, Hachiya and Tamopan. Saijo is reputed to be the best-flavored though I’ve not found any information about growing them in North Texas. I have two Eureka trees on order through All Wise Garden Center. Eureka is self-fruitful.

Like pears, plums come in both European and Asian varieties. Many are self-fruitful, but check the tag to make sure. Most of the varieties available locally are Asian types. Many plums tend to have very low chill hours, making them somewhat susceptical to early bloom getting nipped by a late frost. Recommended Asian types for this area are Bruce, Methley, Morris and Ozark. Rosa types (of which there are several) may also do well here.

European plums are rarely available at garden centers here, though there’s no reason one shouldn’t try to obtain them if you have the space to experiment. The worst that can happen is you won’t get a fruit crop every single year. I have two Blue Damson trees on order through All Wise Garden Center. Blue Damson is a tart heirloom plum used for making jams and jellies. Green Gage is another old heirloom. The drying/prune type plums are European plums.

Wild Plums
Don’t overlook our native wild plums as candidates for the orchard. We have several varieties growing wild here and they are easy to start from seed.  The two most common are the little sand plums that grow on short shrubs, usually on slopes and along roadways and fences. There are numerous vineyards in the U.S. now that are making wine from these little plums. When properly cultivated and pruned they produce larger fruit. Harvest is in June. I harvested about 70 pounds of these little guys a couple years ago from a very small stand. Another variety growing wild on our property is the Mexican plum. It grows on a very large, tall tree and harvest is mid-September. Wild plums make the very best jams and jellies.

Canning Wild Sand Plums


Our County Extension site has a great deal of information on fruit production. Be sure to check them out for info regarding fertilization and pruning, plus further info regarding varieties for your region:

Other good sources of information are nurseries that sell trees on-line. Some of my favorites are Grandpa’s Orchard, Trees of Antiquity, Willis Orchard and Adams County Nursery. There are many, many others.
Here's some other stuff going on at our place:
The Garlic Beds Planted in November
Onion Beds Planted in January