April 2011
4-H Extension Corner

Home Orchard Dos, Don’ts and Maybes!

 

Blount Extension Agent Dan Porch, left, explains how trellises can be best used to grow blackberries in home orchards.

Twenty years ago Dan Porch planted several pecan trees at his home. This year he’s sawing them up for firewood. What went wrong?

At a recent Home Orchard Workshop hosted by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES), Porch, who was formerly the regional horticultural agent and is now Blount’s head home agent, explained the new, "expensive fire wood" was simply because "I didn’t do my homework."

"I went to a nursery and believed everything the man there told me. When I asked if these particular pecan trees would be good in our area, he said, ‘Of course, they would.’"

But after caring for the trees for several years and watching them fail to thrive, Porch realized those particular trees were just not cut out to produce in North Central Alabama.

"I have other pecan trees now, but I want you to learn from my mistakes," he told those attending the work shop.

Porch pointed out, in addition to finding trees and plants which are suitable for our state, the ease of care for those trees and plants should also be considered.

Dwarf fruit trees, which seldom grow taller than 20 feet, are usually easier to spray than regular trees which can grow to such heights a normal homeowner can’t even reach the tops while dangling precariously on tall ladders.

   

While this plum tree looks beautiful blooming in the spring, it will not produce healthy plums because the homeowner has not been able to afford a regular regime of needed spraying, according to Porch.

 
   

Some trees and plants are more disease-resistant while others require babying. If you have all the time in the world to devote to your plants AND an unlimited source of money (or the ability to hire an experienced gardener!), those qualities might not make a big difference. But if you are a home orchardist who simply wants fruit to enjoy with your family and friends, and to perhaps can or make jelly from, "doing your homework" makes a lot of sense, Porch explained.

According to a hand-out information, "Fruit Culture in Alabama, the Ease of Culture," provided by Porch and available from the ACES homepage or your county Extension office : "How difficult or easy a fruit may be to grow depends on several factors: the need for pesticide sprays, special yearly training or pruning, and plant loss from difficult-to-control disease and insect problems, like Piece’s disease of grapes, fire blight of apples and pears, phony peach disease of peaches, and grape root borer of grapes."

That simple three-page brochure lists the fruit type, level of difficulty and adaptation by area of the state for tree fruits, small fruits, subtropical and exotic fruit, and more.

There are some fruits which would do great in Southern Alabama, but Porch said to simply "stay away from" in North Central Alabama like the Southern highbush blueberry.

 

Apple trees can be grown in the north central area, but only some types will prosper.

When you finally find fruit on the list you would like to grow (after checking all the lists and charts AND talking with other farmers, growers and home orchardists in your area!), you need to consider pollination, Porch emphasized.

Is the tree self-pollinating, when flowers are pollinated by pollen within the same horticultural variety from the same or different trees, or do they require cross pollination, when flowers of one variety are pollinated by pollen from a second variety?

Are they self-fruitful, implying a single variety of any given fruit-type will produce a good fruit crop when grown by itself, or cross-fruitful meaning cross-pollination requires two or more varieties to produce good crops.

Brochures explaining that with helpful charts are also available.

Porch explained apples are cross-pollinating, requiring two different varieties of each type for cross pollination. Porch noted, in Blount County, there are not many apple orchards (as compared to peach or other crops) and recommended local residents plant Yates apple trees as ones which are disease-resistant as at least one of their apple trees.

Several had questions about blueberries, a popular home garden crop.

"Everybody should have blueberries in their home orchard. Plant enough for you and the birds," Porch noted.

"Place in a nice big hole and then mix in one big bucket of peat moss. Make sure the peat moss is wet. Once planted, make sure you mulch an inch or half-inch above the ground with pine bark or finely-ground pine bark and plant them six feet apart."

Watering is essential in first year blueberries, as in so many fruit crops, Porch said. He also emphasized the important of making certain grass does not crowd the new plants.

The Extension service brochure on "Home Gardening Rabbiteye Blueberries" reminds "One of the most important growing requirements of blueberries is their need for cross-pollination in order to set fruit. You’ll need to plant more than one variety for cross-pollination."

While the Extension service has a wonderful brochure and chart on planting pecan trees, Porch also recommended going to the Alabama Pecan Growers Association website where you can get "just about any information you’ll need," noting Alabama is number five in pecan production.

Porch felt any home garden should contain blackberries and strawberries, but noted raspberries don’t usually do well in our area.

"There’s nothing like walking out in the morning and plucking a ripe strawberry!" Porch remarked.

   

While some wildlife, like this opossum, will enjoy what tiny fruit is provided by trees like this pear, the fact that it has reverted back to is rootstock means it should be cut from the home orchard.

 

Porch answered many questions including why a pear tree which had been producing well for years, would suddenly have one-half appearing to have reverted to a "Bradford Pear" type. After questioning and learning the "new" portion of the tree had huge thorns, Porch said the tree had likely been injured in some fashion and had reverted back to the form of the original root stock on which it had been grafted. He said the thorns were a giveaway the root stock was now the primary fruit bearer of tiny fruits enjoyed by wildlife, but useless for the home gardener.

While some crops are "officially listed" as not doing well in your specific area, there are exceptions, especially with older heirloom varieties or older plants that have existed for years. Where you’re located (on a hill, mountain or valley) may have a big impact on whether any one particular type of fruit will do well in your area. That’s another reason to talk to your neighbors and others in your home county, Porch added.

"If you spend money on plants and then invest your time, you want to give that plant as much of a future as possible. Planting the right plants to begin with for your area, for your time abilities and for your needs just makes common sense," Porch explained.

For more information, visit www.aces.edu or contact your local Extension service office.

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.