Having a home orchard with lots of fruit trees and plants and harvesting fresh, homegrown fruit in the summer is an ideal dream for many people. Picking and eating those beautiful ripe peaches, apples, pears, strawberries and grapes is such a sweet treat; however, wanting a home orchard and having a home orchard can unfortunately sometimes be quite different. It can be a wonderful decision when the recommended varieties are chosen in the beginning. But it can all turn into a nightmare if the wrong fruit plants are selected.
Much of the success or failure of having a home orchard lies primarily on your very first decision – choosing the correct variety.
Simply going out and buying just any type of fruit tree from just any source can be a mistake. Not doing the homework and making the wrong selection can result in a very bad investment. Here are some basic guidelines for fruit selection.
#1 Maintenance Requirements
First, pay close attention to the maintenance requirements of the fruits selected for harvest. Having a home orchard is not a simple and easy task and can be very laborsome and time-consuming. Many fruits require high maintenance and may be difficult to grow for the average gardener. Almost all fruit plants take three to five years to get established before they produce their first crops.
Tree fruits like peaches, apples, pears and plums require a strict and weekly spray program to prevent and control diseases and insect pests. Annual pruning, training and shaping are required each winter. Tree fruits also need lots of space in full sun to grow and be productive. Keep in mind that late spring freezes and other weather problems can hurt a crop. And if all goes well, deer, squirrels and crows still have to be kept at bay because these sweet fruits are tempting and delicious to most free-grazing animals. In certain circumstances, it is much easier and more convenient to go buy these fruits from farmers and retailers.
Small fruits like blueberries, muscadines, strawberries, figs and blackberries tend to be a little easier to grow. They are not pest-free but are less vulnerable than tree fruits. They do not take up quite as much space and will produce a decent crop for homeowners. Annual maintenance such a pruning (except with strawberries) is still necessary each year.
#2 Recommended Varieties
Second, it is imperative to do research and homework. Find out what varieties of fruit trees and small fruits grow best in your area. Do not skip this crucial step, as this may ultimately determine if there is success or failure. The truth is, it is very difficult to grow most of the types of fruits sold in grocery stores and farmer markets.
Alabama climate conditions. which are hot and dry in the summer and mild in the winter, do not just allow for the perfect orchard full of fabulous fruit. That is why other states are known for growing certain fruits.
Peaches tend to grow better in Georgia; oranges do well in Florida; apples are perfect in Washington; and everything grows well in sunny California. But do not worry, fruits can be grown in Alabama and be grown successfully. One just has to know what names to look for and which varieties will work in Alabama. Beware of any tag or plant name that is not on the recommended list from Extension services.
Try these recommended varieties of fruits to grow in Alabama:
Apple: Gala, Fuji, Rome, Gingergold, Jonagold, Cumberland Spur and Granny Smith.
Peaches: Redhaven, Sweethaven, Cresthaven, Fireprince, Contender, Georgia Belle, Jefferson and Redskin
Pears: Orient, Kieffer or Moonglow for a softer peach
Plums: AU Producer, AU Roadside and AU Cherry
Figs: Brown Turkey, Celeste, Alma, LSU Gold and LSU Purple
Blueberries: Tiftblue, Premier, Brightwell and Climax, but new ones worth planting are Alapaha, Vernon and Yadkin.
Strawberries: Cardinal, Camarosa, Earliglow and Chandler
Blackberries: Navaho, Kiowa, Ouachita, Arapaho and Apache
Grapes: Muscadines such as Ison, Pam, Darlene, Fry, Black Beauty and Supreme; newer varieties of bunch grapes may also be considered when deciding which grapes to harvest.
#3 Fruit Biology
One must have a basic understanding of fruit biology when selecting specific fruit crops. Pay attention to the details and growing requirements. Most fruit trees and small fruits require cross-pollination. Therefore, you must buy and plant two different named varieties. One plant may need to be the designated pollinator.
For example, most Golden Delicious apples are the chosen pollinators for other apples. Muscadine grapes are sold as and labeled as either self-fruitful or female types, with the self-fruitful being the pollinator for the rest. You must buy two different names, like a Tiftblue and a Climax blueberry, for cross-pollination to produce a fruit crop. Peaches, figs, persimmons, pomegranates, blackberries, strawberries and some types of plums are all self-fruitful, so only one plant is needed.
Other horticulture considerations are rootstocks and chilling hours. All tree fruits, including citrus, are propagated onto the root system of another plant. Certain rootstocks help control size, allow faster fruiting, influence yield and quality and provide disease resistance. Apple trees are often labeled and sold as dwarf trees, which only means smaller than standard. The type of rootstock used for a particular apple variety dictates the mature size, which varies from 7 to 20 feet. Choosing the wrong rootstock can make a difference in mature size and when the tree will produce apples. Waiting three versus eight years for a crop is a big deal.
Chilling hours are mostly associated with growing peaches and nectarines. The term is used to describe the amount of cold needed for a plant to resume spring growth following a winter period. It accumulates between the temperature of 35 degrees and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. For the grower, chilling hours controls when the fruit crop will bloom. The best way to explain it is like this: When a single peach tree blooms very early, that tree is likely a low chilling hour variety. Trees with low chilling hours are not ideal for central Alabama because they can be killed by late winter and early spring freezes. A higher chilling hour variety will do better because it needs more cold weather to stay dormant and bloom on time.
#4 Reputable Sources
Lastly, by all means, keep in mind where you purchase your fruit trees and small fruit crops. Always buy from a local, reputable nursery, garden center or specialty catalog source. Many of the various choices shipped in and sold by large retail stores do not grow or do well in Alabama. These varieties typically are not labeled or named properly, which leaves the buyer with no idea what they are getting or what size it will be. In most instances, none of the information or tips described are on the label or even known by the sellers. Buyer beware.
That’s what the Extension office is here for, to help people decipher it all. Fruit selection is not easy. It is more difficult when all of the facts are unknown. For a complete list of fruits and the varieties that will grow well in Alabama, including many fruit culture publications that go into much detail, contact the Tallapoosa County Extension office at 256-825-1050 or visit us online at aces.edu.
~ Shane Harris is the County Extension Coordinator for Tallapoosa County.