You can’t judge a book by its cover, so don’t select fruit trees for your home orchard from photos of fruit. First, determine if that particular fruit type, and more importantly the specific variety, is capable of bearing in your yard.
Bare root is the most economical way of creating a home orchard. The added weight of shipping soil with a fruit tree is costly, and that expense is passed on to you. When you buy bare root, the saplings will get a better start in native soil and develop a more extensive root system.
Bare root season rolls around each year at the end of winter. For milder winter zones, it begins in February, when the fruit trees start showing up in garden centers. They will be bare root, dug while dormant from fields and shipped before they begin to come alive again with spring.
A quality local nursery should carry only varieties that are regionally appropriate, but that’s not guaranteed. Here’s what to look for:
-Bloom season. Areas prone to late frosts in spring or inclement weather during bloom season often result in trees that flower but won’t fruit. It’s because those conditions prevent bees from flying that early or delicate flower parts freeze. This is why each variety is designated early, midseason or late blooming. The problem is everybody wants early fruiters, so they choose early bloomers, which is fine for super mild southern California, but few other locales.
Those with late frosts need late bloomers so bees and flowers mate perfectly. Because it takes years for a fruit tree to bear well, you can’t afford to make this mistake. Think patience, because unless you live in the low desert summer heat, late bloomers are safer.
-Chilling hours. Check the chilling hour rating, which shows how well the trees are suited to very cold climates. Double check with a local full-service garden center to verify any you wish to buy are compatible with your winters.
-Tree size. Grafting allows growers to produce the same fruit tree in three sizes. Standard trees are large, require orchard ladders, are best in deer country, demand a lot of area, and their crops are largest. Semi-dwarf trees fit better into yards, are easier to prune and have all the benefits of a larger tree. Dwarf forms are optimal for containers, smaller homes or for obtaining more tree diversity in a limited area. No matter what size tree you choose, the fruit is always the same.
Garden centers that ship in bare roots en masse will heel them in sand or sawdust to keep the dormant roots from drying out because they’re very freshly dug. The sooner they go in the ground, the better they start, so shop early. Selling bare roots in plastic from mass markets can result in a totally unsuitable plant already breaking dormancy and highly dehydrated by shipping.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, Calif. 92256.