Backyard Fruit Gardens

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

As a Master Gardener, we get involved in many projects that we may not ordinarily have an opportunity to work on. For example, at the Fruit Research and Extension Center (FREC), we have developed a backyard fruit garden. This is a garden that anyone could re-create in their own yard, or at least take away ideas to develop and care for a backyard fruit garden. In this garden, we have apple trees, three different varieties of raspberries, and three varieties of strawberries. This is our third season with the garden.

During our planting and maintaining of these fruiting plants, we have learned so much. As Master Gardeners in Adams County, the premium county for fruits, we are asked questions from across the state as well as across the county on care of fruit trees. This spurred us to learn even more, by doing and experiencing, how a home owner would successfully take care of fruit trees and small fruits in the home garden. I’d like to share our journey in this garden.

The first step to every garden is design. We had decided on a garden with four quadrants, a fruit tree in the center of each quadrant, brambles edging two of the four, and espalier trees bordering two quadrants. The design is simple, making maintenance as easy as can be expected with fruit trees and brambles. The garden is approximately 40’ x 40’, with a 10’ grass walkway between all four quadrants, making a cross through the garden. The garden beds themselves are approximately 15’ x 15’.

After the design was agreed upon, the next step was choosing varieties. For us, we relied on the suggestions of the FREC director at that time, as he certainly was "the man in the know". For our trees, the following varieties were selected: Enterprise, Goldrush (both apples), Gloria, Klondyke White (peaches), Easternglo (nectarine) and Black Gold (cherry). The apples were planned for espaliering on a trellis system, while the other four trees were the center specimen of our quadrants.

Since our plan for the apple trees was to grow them on a trellis, the tree choices were dwarf varieties that are more resistant to some common disease problems, like fire blight and scab.

Our next most important step was preparing the soil. Luckily, the farm staff at FREC tilled and added compost to our garden beds. We drew the borders of the garden beds, with very careful measuring, and planted the trees, brambles and strawberries. All the plants were bare-root, which is simply means no soil was on the root system. This allows for us to see the health of the root system, but also limits the amount of time we have to plant, as they should be planted soon after receiving them so roots do not dry out.

When we planted the fruit trees, the graft union of the apple trees was about 8" above soil level. After researching, I think we may have planted them a little too high, as most publications are recommending 1" – 3" above soil level, but so far, the trees are doing just fine. The peaches and cherry were planted with graft union slightly above soil level. (The graft union is the visible bulge you’ll see towards the bottom of the trunk where the bud was grafted to the rootstock.)

The trees were pruned: apples headed back to encourage side branching low enough for the trellis, and the peaches and nectarine headed back to encourage lower branching for easy harvesting. It’s funny, but pruning these trees goes against everything we learn about pruning the ornamental plants. Heading back just isn’t a thing we ever consider doing when pruning our landscape trees.

One very special technician at the farm installed our trellis system for both the apple trees and the brambles. This entailed four 9’ posts and wire. He kept our trees sprayed that first year, and the health of the plants was great. The apples were trained as the branches developed to make a criss-cross pattern. The peaches and nectarines we just watched grow. And so went our first year.

The second season required us to do some pruning of our brambles, and continued pruning of the trees. Espalier trees of any type require lots of maintenance, especially in the spring, as the new growth develops. Training the trees to move and grow a certain way can take a bit of time, but the rewards are worth it. The peach and nectarines are pruned to open up the center of the trees, allowing good air circulation and sun to get into the center. Our trees are sort of bowl-shaped. We harvested a handful of apples and peaches – and it was only the second growing season!

As with any fruit trees, spraying must be considered for good fruit production, as we learned this year. We have rust, scab and had a problem with rosey apple aphids on the apples, as well as some brown rot on the peaches. The cherry tree looks pretty good. This year we haven’t sprayed at all, and as a result, our apples are smaller, have holes and spots and peaches have some brown rot. However, apples will be harvested and our peach tree is full of peaches!

As gardeners, we are always learning: learning new ways to grow things and to manage our environment. Enjoy what’s around you and keep your eyes and ears open – there’s always something new!

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