A healthy fruit tree will be 5-7 years old before producing its first crop, becoming more prolific with maturity. Unfortunately, garden center trees aren't labeled with their ages or when they are likely to produce substantial crops.
So when shopping for a fruit tree ask lots of questions of the horticulturalist as well as performing your own verification check: Look at the girth of the trunk; the thicker the trunk the more mature the tree. Stay away from "whips," the name for trees in their early stages. These immature trees will not have the strong branch structures that define the shapes of mature trees.
It's smart to handpick each and every tree to be planted in a landscape. In our business, we only plant a few trees on the average property because each one is a considerable investment. Trees are slow to grow into their eventual sizes and intended purposes, so buy the largest size your budget allows. This is true for shade, privacy, accent or fruiting trees. Buy a more mature tree and see your landscape vision come true before your kids inherit the place. Plant a "whip" and you may be long gone when the tree reaches its full potential!
This is a good time to plant fruiting trees, so let's go over which trees to start with for the best fruit harvest. You'll find that this article is not to elaborate on specific varieties, but rather to prioritize types of fruiting trees.
There are late-blooming fruit trees, early bloomers, even desert varieties. You want the latest blooming variety of each type of fruit so you will spend less time worrying about a late spring frost taking the fruit. If unsure which tree blooms later, trust the source of your trees and ask lots of questions.
Develop your orchard in this sequence for best harvest: apple, pear, almond, cherry, peach, nectarine, plum, prune, persimmon, apricot and pecan. Plan for sequential blooming and you will enjoy staggered fruiting harvests. Plant your favorite varieties, but make sure they are late blooming varieties within their respective categories.
If you don't know where to begin a home orchard, start with either apples or pears. Apple trees are the very last fruit trees to bloom in spring, so there is less likelihood of a late frost zapping their fruits. Pear trees are right in sync with apples' bloom cycles and consistently produce fruit year after year. Some examples of good local fruiting apples are both red and golden Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith, and my personal favorite, Pink Lady. Late blooming pears are Comice, Bartlett, Seckel and the spicy Asian pear.
Apricots are the very first fruit trees to bloom in spring. Frustratingly, apricots are a "feast or famine" kind of tree. Either you have so many fruits you can never process the entire harvest, or the frost takes them all. However, I must confess that apricots are my favorite local fruit. If you recall last summer's store bought apricots, you know how expensive they are per pound, and that they rarely are organic. I enjoy freshly picked apricots so much that its worth the frost risks to have apricot trees as part of my landscape. I've found that the most consistent local apricot harvests come off the Moorpark and Chinese varieties.
Right after apples and pears, peach and cherry trees have the next most consistent harvests year-after-year. 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 weight of hundreds and hundreds pounds of fruit! When peach or cherry trees begin producing the canning supplies better be ready or the food bank contacted. It's a welcome courtesy to let the staff know that you'll be coming in with bushel baskets full of fresh fruit. Locally, most consistent peach harvests come off the Red-haven, Reliance and O-Henry trees and my favorite white peach, the Arctic Supreme. The best sweet cherries are picked from both Lapin and Stella trees, and for a dessert variety turn to the ever-popular Montmorency.
Just as the peach and cherry trees begin to bloom, the nectarine, plum and prune plums are finished pollinating and their fruits set. For our higher elevations, it is imperative to buy the latest blooming varieties of these soft fruits. The best producing plums are the Santa Rosa, Satsuma, Elephant Heart and the Ozark Premier. The nectarines best suited for local landscapes are the Fantasia and the melt-in-your-mouth Sunset red.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week, Ken Lain - the Mountain Gardener - can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road in Prescott, or contacted through www.wattersgardencenter.com.