Originally Published: February 3, 2012 10 p.m.
A fruit tree needs to be 5-7 years old from seedling stage before producing its first crop, becoming more prolific with maturity. The problem with buying a tree from a garden center is that trees aren't labeled with their ages and when they are likely to produce substantial crops.
When shopping for a fruit tree, ask lots of questions of the horticulturalist and perform your own verification check. Look at the girth of the trunk; the thicker the trunk, the more mature the tree. Stay away from trees in their early stages, defined as "whips." These less-mature trees will not have the strong branch structures that define the shapes of the mature trees.
Handpick each and every tree to be planted in a landscape. We only plant a few trees on the average property and each one is an investment. Trees are slow to fill in their eventual sizes and intended purposes so buy the largest size your budget allows. This is true for shade, privacy, fruiting, or accent trees. Buy a more mature tree and see your landscape vision come true before your kids inherit the place. You may be long gone just as the tree reaches its full potential! One of my mentor gardeners once told me: "The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago; the next-best time is today."
This is a good time to plant fruiting trees, but the wise planter keeps in mind that some varieties produce more consistently than others. Let's go over which trees to start with for the most production.
In this mix there are late bloomers and earlier bloomers, or desert varieties. You want the absolute latest-blooming variety possible of each type of fruit. You want the latest-blooming variety for your area so you spend less time worrying about a frost taking your fruit in spring. This is where you need to trust the source of your trees and ask lots of questions. This article is not to itemize specific varieties, but rather to prioritize types of fruiting trees.
Apple trees are the very last fruit trees to bloom in spring, so there is less likelihood of a late frost zapping their fruits. Pears are right in time with apples' bloom cycles and consistently produce fruit year after year. If you don't know where to begin a home orchard, start with either apples or pears.
Develop your orchard in this order: apple, pear, cherry, peach, nectarine, plum, prune, and apricot, and you will enjoy planned fruiting harvests. Plant your favorite variety of each, but make sure they are late-blooming varieties within their respective categories. You will find differing maturity levels or sizes at your garden center right now. Buy the largest size your pocketbook will afford and your production will go up accordingly.
The very first fruit trees to bloom in spring are the apricots. Apricots are a feast-or-famine kind of tree. Either you have so many fruits you can never process all the fruits, or the frost takes them all. However, I must confess that apricots are my favorite local fruit. If you have ever priced apricots in the markets you know how expensive they are per pound, and they rarely are organic. I enjoy apricots so much that it's worth the frost risk to have freshly-picked apricots as part of my landscape. Although it may be three years before you see fruit on the tree again, be ready with lots of canning supplies when apricots do begin producing.
Peaches and cherries are the next fruiting varieties to bloom, just before the apples and pears. Most years these pitted fruits skirt spring frost and produce very heavy crops. Peaches can produce such heavy crops that I've witnessed branches breaking right off the tree under the strain. A neighbor in Prescott Valley had his entire tree jump out of the ground under the load of hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fruit. When peaches or cherries begin producing, the canning supplies better be ready - or contact the food bank to let the staff know you're coming in with bushel baskets full of fresh fruit.
Just as the peaches and cherries begin to bloom, the nectarine, plums and prunes are finished pollinating and their fruits set. Their timing puts them at risk of damage from spring frost. Again, it is imperative to buy the latest-blooming variety possible for the higher elevations.
One fruit variety that I will name is my favorite local peach, the Ranger Peach. It is this week's featured fruit tree. The Ranger blooms later than other peach trees but with extra vigor and an abundance of dark-green foliage. Its big juicy fruit ripens in colors of red to gold, with peach flesh that's easy on the eye, easy to get off the seed for using in pies and jams, and even easier to eat fresh off the tree. A good-size Ranger tree mature enough to fruit this season will cost under $60. If planted early, it should produce for a June 2012 harvest.
My mouth waters just writing about a big juicy peach. Although peaches are not the best local producers, I think that every home orchard should have one.
Spring gardening classes begin at Watters Garden Center this morning at 9:30 with "Healthy Happy Houseplants." Next Saturday, Feb. 11, the class topic will be "Wildflowers - How to Grow Them and Succeed." If you've read the column down to this point you definitely will enjoy the Feb. 18 class: "Fruit Trees into Harvest' with some hands-on demonstrations.
The free classes are held every Saturday through spring; the full schedule is posted on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/watters1815.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."