Commercial fruit growing is not viable in the Cheyenne area, primarily because of the limited water supply and the vagaries of our weather, but in the home garden, especially if your other plants have low water needs, a few fruit trees and shrubs could be justified.
I spoke recently with Catherine Wissner, the University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist for Laramie County, and she said watering fruit trees and shrubs is crucial to a successful harvest – not enough water and you won’t even get flowering, much less fruit.
She said the rule of thumb is 10 gallons per 1-inch diameter of the trunk every 7-10 days during the growing season, adjusting for hot, dry and windy weather. Fruiting trees and shrubs need more water than the lawn they may be planted in the middle of. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water.
Tree fruit grown in our area includes apples (see my column on Wyoming heirlooms, at www.cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com), cherries, plums, pears and even experiments with peaches. Look for fire blight-resistant varieties.
Fruiting shrubs like chokecherry, a local native, can be very bountiful. Cheyennites also grow serviceberry, elderberry, gooseberry, raspberry and currant.
The other crucial factor is selecting the right variety. It helps if a variety of tree or shrub flowers late enough not to be caught by a May frost or snow – yet has fruit ready to harvest before frost. Catherine is currently researching the best varieties for Laramie County. One apple that stands out, Yellow Transparent, matures by late August. For a state-wide look, see “Wyoming Fruit Variety Survey Data – Recommended Varieties” at www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard/, under “New for the Season.”
Find out if the variety needs cross pollination with a second tree. This could be a second tree you plant or another close by in the neighborhood.
Once you find the right species, the tree or shrub can be planted anytime the ground isn’t frozen, but it must be planted right. The two biggest tips are to gently spread the roots and make sure the soil level is right at the transition between roots and trunk and below the graft if it is a grafted tree. For shrubs, soil level should be between stem and root, right where the soil line was in the pot.
Catherine said fruit trees and shrubs need fertilizer annually, preferably before June 1. The fertilizer should have numbers like 5-10-5 or 5-20-5, nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium, also abbreviated NPK. Remember, most of the roots are in the top 12 inches of soil and will spread farther than the tree’s canopy.
Pruning and mulching
Pruning is essential for fruit trees. Homeowners tend to “limb up” their trees so they can more easily mow the lawn underneath, creating a shade tree with fruit benefits. Protect all kinds of tree trunks by mulching a circle one to two feet wide around the trunk – yet keep the mulch from touching the trunk.
For shrubs, a circle of mulch is also good and can keep competing weeds and grass away from them.
Instead of limbing up, you can do what Catherine said commercial orchardists do, prune from the top down to keep the tree small and easier to pick fruit from. The top of my experimental apple tree grown from seed died back this winter, so I guess it will be a “prune down” experiment now.
Use standard pruning advice for removing deadwood and crossed limbs (read my interview with Catherine by searching “Pruning Trees and Shrubs” on the Wordpress listed earlier).
Research or ask Catherine about pruning methods specific to types of fruit trees.
Fruiting shrubs, like the chokecherry hedge in our backyard, need pruning regularly. Over the last 30 years we have removed a few stems each year that are more than 3 or 4 inches in diameter. They can get too tall and become trees. We’d rather they stay brushy. It’s easier to pick the fruit and it provides a better bird habitat and privacy screen. Because chokecherries regularly sucker, there is always a new generation coming up.
Pests and diseases
Adequate watering helps keep fruit trees and shrubs stress-free and healthy. Remove the occasional diseased branches 6 to 12 inches below the infection using tool blades sterilized between cuts with 10 percent bleach solution – but do not put any “wound dressing” on any cuts – that goes for all kinds of trees.
Your best bet for identifying and determining treatment of pests and diseases is to photograph the damage and email it to Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. She does yard calls if necessary.
I asked Catherine how she protects fruit from predators, like birds and other animals. She isn’t a fan of netting, unless the mesh openings are less than 1.5 inches. Otherwise, the birds get tangled and often die.
She said to keep an eye on the ripening progress each day and pick the fruit before the birds or racoons do. But sometimes it seems the birds prefer their fruit less ripe than we do.
How do you decide when fruit is ripe? Taste test. Fruit gets sweeter the riper it is, although chokecherries never get sweet. And if apples fall off the tree, pick them up and make applesauce!