Fruit trees are more than just pretty: Tips, challenges for growing fruit trees in home gardens

Many Americans are adding fruit trees to their gardens. Not only do fruit trees produce a ready supply of food but they also add shade to backyards and create beauty all while aiding Mother Nature and her environment. Courtesy photo

FRONT ROYAL – For many home gardeners across the Northern Shenandoah Valley, growing fruit trees can be rewarding, not only for their beauty or fruit but also for their added environmental benefits from clean air to reduced energy costs.

Mark Sutphin, extension agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension-Frederick, has a passion for horticulture and sharing his knowledge with the community. He specializes in working with homeowners in Warren, Shenandoah, Clark, Page and Frederick counties regarding their lawn care, garden and landscaping needs. Sutphin also assists many local commercial growers in producing horticulture crops including apples, vegetables and ornamentals.

“Fruit trees are more than just pretty,” Sutphin said. “They capture all of the benefits of other trees while providing necessary nutrition for human and animal consumption.”

Over the past few years, Americans have jumped on the bandwagon of rediscovering community orchards and the benefits of growing fresh fruit in their own backyards. Not only do fruit trees produce a ready supply of food but they also add shade to backyards and create beauty all while aiding Mother Nature and her environment.

“Once a fruit tree or bush is established it can provide a large yield of fruit for years to come, requiring little human input,” Sutphin said.

Mark Sutphin

The most common fruit trees include apples, pears, peaches and cherries. Lesser known species include the native paw-paw, American plum and elderberry.

Understanding what a fruit tree needs in its early developmental stage is vastly important.

“Following a simple rule of thumb, now is the time to plant a fruit tree,” he said. “As long as the tree hasn’t begun leafing or started to bloom.”

Planting later in the season will deter tree development.

“Many fruit trees require full sunlight for a majority of the day,” Sutphin explained. “Sunlight is needed to produce healthy color and flavorful fruit. Without it, much of the fruit produced will not be enjoyed.”

But not all fruit bearing trees or bushes require sun. Cherries, gooseberries and blackberries grow well in partial shade.

“As for watering, natural precipitation is best,” Sutphin said. “But supplemental watering is also necessary in early development. Watering deep into the roots allows the tree to develop a deep, healthy root system.”

Sutphin also noted that watering once or twice a week for the trees first years or growing seasons keeps the fruit tree’s root system healthy and moist.

Challenges in growing fruit trees include poor drainage, insects and diseases.

“Most fruiting trees or bushes are lost due to improper drainage,” Sutphin said. “Because their roots are too saturated with water, so the soil becomes waterlogged.”

This can be avoided by incorporating organic matter into the soil during the spring season when fruit trees are commonly planted. Organic matter will help open up the soil, allowing the water to drain away faster.

“Insects are a problem no matter what you grow,” he said. “But they can be warded off by planting native plants or attracting other insects or animals to encourage natural pest control.”

Sutphin said for home gardeners wanting to spray for insects, they need to understand why they are growing before application.

“I tell growers to ask themselves three questions: why are you growing, how blemished do you want the fruit to be and can you accept disease,” he said. “And from there we come up with a program or regiment for the tree’s proper care.”

Home gardeners who tend to be more serious about the tree and its fruit typically spray their trees 13 or 14 times during a growing season Sutphin said.

“Diseases in fruit trees are probably the most common issue we see during the growing season,” he said. “Attacks can lead to poor harvest or even death of the tree. Understanding and then maintaining them throughout the season will ensure their heath.”

Most common diseases include apple scab, powdery mildews and summer rots.

“Managing a fruit tree isn’t always easy,” he said. “It takes a lot of work and determination. But it can be done, producing flavorful and blemish free fruit.”