CERTIFIED TEXAS EXPERT GARDENER — Here is how to make an informed fruit tree selection

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Most gardeners (me included) have purchased and planted numerous fruit trees, in fact way too many to count.

Admittedly, many of them did not survive more than a couple of growing seasons due to this gardener’s inexperience. “Thankfully” they did finally succumb to the environment (and ineffective nurturing…mine) relatively soon after planting, but there were numerous fruit trees that provided truly misleading signals.

Some of these fruit trees grew healthy, having robust canopies and yet they never produced any fruit … none.

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Each passing spring my excitement waned as summer arrived, meaning another season had passed and you can understand the level of frustration experienced.

A few of you may be asking yourselves about my word choice (thankfully) used to describe my fruit trees’ demise.

Let me explain and possibly assist a few fellow gardeners who may need to make similar, yet “painful” decisions. The “learning process” of becoming a masterful gardener is “littered” with good intentions and misinformation.

Unfortunately, this is often due to “word-of-mouth” misinformation and/or gardening myths (some of which are perpetuated by other gardeners), which has led to the demise of countless plants, shrubs and trees (including fruit trees) that is necessary for us to “learn” how to garden.

Each of us understands there is a wealth of information readily available on the internet, but having access to so much information is problematic for gardeners (especially if new to gardening) to navigate and determining which information is useful! In my opinion, less is more, so choose websites carefully.

Perhaps (like me) you have fruit trees which have been growing for many years and appear to be doing well.

Fruit trees which you continually nurtured throughout the seasons: applying fertilizer (my preference is organic fertilizer twice yearly), removing diseased or damaged limbs, eliminating crossed branches and pruning limbs for better air circulation and maintaining a mulch layer to retain moisture.

Now, let’s skip ahead 6 years and not one apple, peach or plum has formed. These trees have been nurtured more than they deserve, yet have yielded “snickelfritz,” nada, absolutely nothing.

So, what is a gardener to do?

Unfortunately, this gardener has decided (this was an extremely difficult decision for me to make) to remove and replace the fruit trees with varietals which will produce in our environmental conditions.

Okay, this is an issue many of us have faced or are facing and there are a few points which need mentioning: the trees which seem to be growing well but most likely are never going to provide desired fruit, since the trees’ selection was based on a flawed “knee-jerk” purchase decision.

One of our local retailers (read this as several box stores, mass merchandizers, or home centers-all are true) discounted fruit trees in their effort to sell merchandise, many didn’t have plant labels. Unfortunately, gardeners “fall” into this trap all too often and purchase trees which simply will not perform well in SETX difficult growing conditions.

We have draught-ridden, blistering summers and winters that often do not provide the minimal number of “chill” hours required for many fruit trees.

Fruit trees, such as peaches, plums, pears, apples and numerous others require cool weather during the winter to provide physiological growth for the spring season. If trees don’t receive the required number of chill hours, they are slow to leaf out which leads to poor quality fruit or no fruit at all.

As is my case, growing through multiple seasons with inadequate chill hours can kill plants, though it is typically an agonizingly slow demise.

Many trees but especially fruit trees, need cool temperatures between 32-45 degrees, which are ideal for accruing chill hours. Chill hours begin after the initial freeze each fall, which is when trees enter dormancy.

Chill hours encourage hormones to reduce growth inhibitors throughout the winter season, preparing the tree to interrupt dormancy, encourage growth, bloom and then to set fruit.

It is important to note that the lack of chill hours is a “big deal” for trees and confuses them because growth inhibitors remain and are holding the trees back physiologically.

Selection Criteria

Spacing – mature height of the fruit tree needs to dictate space requirement. Many fruit trees will attain mature heights of 12-16 ft.

Bloom Time – refers to when the trees produce flowers, often two varieties are necessary to pollinate one another, requiring an overlap of their blooming intervals.

Chill Hours – chill hours are the number of hours required by fruit trees to disrupt winters dormancy. Most fruit trees have chill hour requirements from 150 to more than1700 hours with a temperature range between 32 to 45 degrees F, otherwise fruit quality and harvest will suffer.

Zone – the USDA zone is an important tool gardeners must use to select appropriate fruit trees for your climate. Most of us in SETX are in USDA Zone 9A and 9B.

Pollination – some fruit trees such as apples and pears are cross-fertile, meaning that one variety is pollinated by a different variety of the same fruit. This isn’t always the case, meaning gardeners must learn the pollination requirements for specific fruit trees, such as:

Required – several fruit trees require pollination from another tree’s pollen to fruit. They also provide pollen in return, allowing the other trees to bear fruit. Trees may be self-sterile (cannot pollinate itself – but can pollinate another trees)

Self – some fruit trees can accept their own pollen, though they will produce a larger crop with another pollinator. Many will also provide pollen for other trees.

Rootstock – the root system of the fruit tree is called the rootstock. This is the portion of the tree that has been grafted over to a specific variety, often used to control a trees’ mature height, of increase environmental resistance.

Send Certified Texas Expert Gardener John Green your questions and please continue sending comments to jongreene57@gmail.com.