Growing Fruit Trees on Your Homestead

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PHOTO: XALANX/FOTOLIA
A homestead orchard will provide a bounty of healthful fruit.

Treesfull of soft foliage; blossoms fresh
with spring beauty; and, finally–fruit, rich,
bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious–such are the
treasures of the orchard and the garden, temptingly offered
to every landholder in this bright and sunny, though
temperate climate.
A.J. Downing 1845 Whenever
the subject of Homestead Orchard is discussed, two things
flash to mind: First, I am reminded of the many
agricultural Titans who have devoted major segments of
their lives to the furtherance of tree crops.

There are hard-working devotees in every field of plant and
animal husbandry . . . but pomologists appear somewhat
different. They seem to be a more dedicated and intense
breed . . . to them tree crops offer philosophical
substance as well as taste and nutrition. Professor John
Gifford was one of these Titans who saw social and economic
implications in tree crops. In 1934 he wrote a small book
on diversified tree crop farming for the tropical
homestead.

In it he showed how annual crops are unsuitable to tropical
climates, where deep-rooted trees thrive. The Mayans failed
to survive because they planted corn and cut down forests.
For the most part tree-men consider corn the killer of
continents, and regard corn as one of the worst enemies of
the human future. Annuals are the crop of primitive man . .
. food needed in a hurry, Promethean man supposedly has the
culture and the leisure and intelligence to subsist on tree
crops! This is my favorite passage from Gifford’s
book:

The furtherance of the tropical forest subsistence
homestead has been and 1 hope always will be uppermost in
my mind. For 40 years my life has been shaping itself to
this very end because it seems to me about the most
essential thing that can give life and comfort to the
majority of our people, in fact, the only permanent way out
of the difficulties which beset the world. The small farm home is the essential basic unit of society.
The prosperity and strength of any country can be measured
by the number of small self-supporting homesteads which it
contains. The best nations of the world are not those with
the greatest natural resources but with the largest number
of small, self-supportive, free-of-debt homesites.
THE TROPICAL SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEAD.

The second
thing that comes to mind in a tree crop discussion is
disheartening: A tremendous knowledge of tree crops has
been amassed by many at great cost in time and energy . . .
but is virtually unknown or unaccepted by contemporary
farmers. There is no better example of this unfortunate
situation than exists in a review of the life work of J.
Russell Smith, tree-man par excellence. Smith launched his
study of commercially useless trees in 1910, with a
worldwide quest for new varieties. In 1929 he published
TREE CROPS–A PERMANENT AGRICULTURE.

His valuable tree discoveries were then intensified with
more worldwide travel followed by a revised edition of his
book in 1954. As a loyal tree-man, Smith (who, incidentally
was professor of economic geography at Columbia University)
spoke vehemently against annual row crops. Crops that must
build themselves from scratch for each harvest are victims
of the climatic uncertainty of short seasons. Tree crops,
on the other hand, are not affected by drought to the same
degree . . . deep roots enable a tree to accumulate and
store moisture. Smith was repulsed by the fact that
four-fifths of everything raised by the American farmer
goes to feed animals.

He made a good case for a tree crop diet instead, realizing
that meat contains 800 calories as compared to nuts which
contain 3,200 calories. If animals are to be raised, Smith
maintained that they should be allowed to harvest their own
crops. This “hogging down” principle is nowadays a major
agricultural innovation . . . as when hogs are permitted to
harvest corn, soybeans, peanuts, etc. Smith maintained that
tree crops can also be harvested directly by animals . . .
mulberry, persimmon, oak, chestnut, honey locust, and carob
are all excellent stock-food trees. Andrew Jackson Downing
continues to be the tree-crop giant of them all.

One of his major works, FRUITS AND FRUIT TREES OF
AMERICA,
published in 1845, remains today an essential
tree crop reference. Resulting from the publication of a
number of his important books, Downing’s influence on
American fruit tree culture is apparent to this day. He
fully remodeled western European fruit growing practices to
fit American site and climatic conditions. One contemporary
tree crop author found that fruit trees planted in
Massachusetts and Michigan during the height of Downing’s
influence (18701890) are still standing and bearing fruit.
Yet thousands of trees planted in subsequent years
(1890-1920) have broken down or died. There is a refreshing
simplicity in Downing’s basic principles:

A judicious pruning to modify the form of our standard
trees is
nearly all that is required in ordinary
practice. Every fruit tree, grown in the open orchard or
garden as a common standard, should be
allowed to
take its natural form, the whole efforts of the pruner
going no further than to take out all weak and crowded
branches.

The tree-men who have qualified the science of pomology are
in unanimous agreement on one important aspect:
interplanting is a desirable practice.

Interplanting Fruit Trees

Interplanting makes good sense to the homesteader from a
purely economic standpoint. Where peaches, pears and plums
are interplanted in apple orchards, revenue from their
yields subsidize the apples to production. Rapidly maturing
‘tree crops (like dwarfed varieties) can be alternated with
slowly maturing species. Mulberry trees are an excellent
choice to interplant in a nut tree orchard . . . they grow
rapidly, bear young and are resistant to shade. One type of
interplanting is known as “two-story agriculture”. Here,
trees are grown on land that is cropped or pastured for
mutual benefit.

There has already been some discussion of how sod crops benefit by the companionship of tree
crops. About 10 black walnut trees in an acre of permanent
pasture improves the pasture considerably. The deep roots and thin open foliage characteristic of
walnut trees do not interfere with a lower-story sod crop.
The leaf-filtered, sunlight makes it possible for a sod
crop to continue growth throughout summer months. Walnut
trees give grass more time to get established before the
summer warm season, because their growth is primarily in
the late spring. There are numerous advantages in planting
a two-story fruit and vegetable garden. Fruit trees bear in the upper story while brambles, grapes,
bush fruit, or vegetables grow below. Long-lived fruit
trees continue to bear when short-lived lower-story plants
are removed. “Filler” trees are located between standard
varieties, to provide early bearing an short-lived fruit.

Dwarfed trees can be used as fillers in a standard bearing
orchard. They can be chosen as early bearing varieties of the same
fruit, as when a wealthy apple is set between a northern
spy or McIntosh apple.

In terms of intensive gardening, planting trees in “square”
patterns is wasteful of space. When a tree is planted in
the center of each square (creating a quincunx
arrangement), nearly twice as many trees can be located in
the same area.

The gardening program for an intensively planted, heavily
mulched 60 by 50-foot plot might be as follows: Vegetables
and ever-bearing strawberries harvested the first season, a
partial crop of brambleberries harvested from the second to
tenth year, and then removed; from the third to the tenth
year dwarfed fruit varieties bear, then removed to allow
more room for semi-permanent trees; peaches and plums
produce until the fifteenth year,
then removed to allow maximum space for the remaining four
apples and pear–with appropriate sod crop–which
continue to bear indefinitely.

Choosing Sod Crops for an Orchard

There are a number of conditions that influence the choice
of a sod crop in an orchard. The ideal sod crop is one
which grows slowly at first, when trees need the ground
moisture, and more rapidly later in the season when trees
require less moisture. Soybeans and cowpeas have this
quality. Alfalfa and small grains are poor choices because
their extensive root systems may rob the tree of
moisture. Leguminous sod crops–such as hairy vetch–are
especially valuable for maintaining soil fertility in a nut
tree orchard. Tree crops planted in a heavy and poorly
drained soil will benefit from a lower-story permanent sod
crop such as bluegrass or orchard grass (orchard
grass is aptly named!).

Grass roots help to use up soil moisture and increase the
size of air-filled pores and fractures. Aeration is thus
improved, and if cultivation can be avoided, the tree’s
surface root growth will be encouraged at the one place
where aeration is best attained . . . the surface. Plowing,
discing, rototilling, and cultivating around trees is a
ghastly practice, to be avoided at all costs: A homesteader
should realize that the greater majority of all feeder
roots are located within one foot of the surface. This is the zone where the soil is most fertile and where
aeration is greatest. Mulch planting is a much preferred
practice.

Mulching Fruit Trees

Besides nutrient and moisture conservation, mulch gives
excellent protection against winter root damage. Tests at
the University of Kansas show freezing soil penetration to
26 inches on bare ground; snow cover reduces this danger
area to 12 inches; straw mulch plus the snow coverage
reduces it even more . . . to 6 inches. A mulch cover tends
to retard spring blossoming . . . which can be a desirable feature in areas where late
frosts present a danger (as in eastern Oregon, where it may
freeze any time during the growing season).
Another protection against early blossoming is to plant on
the north slope. The accompanying diagram illustrates how
this retardation principle operates.

Some tree crops, like apricot, plum, sweet cherry, and
almond naturally blossom early; some apple varieties like
Rome beauty and northern spy blossom late. As a general rule the blossoming of fruit begins early in
the south and moves north at about five days for each
degree of latitude. Altitude will influence these figures
somewhat.

Dangers of Frost

Charts showing “average date of last killing frost” should
not be entirely adhered to, because average means
that 50% of the frost occurs before and 50% after the
specified date.The odds are just too great to follow. An injurious winter
temperature can also be influenced by a water-tempering
effect. There is more danger of winter injury to tree crops
in the Mississippi Valley (latitude 38 degrees) than in Nova Scotia (latitude 45 degrees). An orchard
planted on the leeward shore (usually south or east) of
water gains significant temperature advantage. This
assumes, of course, that the water remains unfrozen . . . no protection is offered from frozen water.
Water-filled soil supplies more latent heat on a frosty
night than dry soil.

An ideal tree crop site is one that
lies higher than surrounding land. Trees planted in a
natural draw receive cold air drainage. Even on a gradual slope, when cold air drainage meets a
tree crop obstacle, it may engulf it and cause frost
damage. Air drainage can be facilitated by correct planting
practice, as accompanying sketches depict.

Trees planted on the contour or in rows across a slope may
also impede essential air drainage. Wind protection is an
essential consideration in any homestead tree crop program.
A following chapter will give ample consideration to
windbreak planning. Mainly, the fact that winds are usually accompanied by
heavy ground-saturating rains make trees vulnerable to
toppling over.

Choosing Dwarf Fruit Trees

There are various reasons for choosing dwarf varieties of
fruit trees in preference to standard varieties. For one
thing, site and climate problems can be tolerated better
with dwarf varieties. The ground-hugging feature of closely planted dwarf trees
permits them to receive more warming radiation from ground
heat. There is a type of “creeper” dwarf apple tree that
grows as far north as Siberia. Having little height it can stand the cold better and be
protected in the wintertime by a snow cover. Other
considerations for tree choice besides site and climate
should be mentioned: hardiness is certainly one. A
tree that is hardy in its environment is certainly more
resistant to disease.

In California, for instance, English walnut trees are
customarily grafted onto black walnut root stock. As a
result of long years of experience it was found that black
walnut roots are less susceptible to fungus attack and
survive California temperature extremes better. Rootstock grafting is also done to attain a deeper root
system . . . a valuable consideration in areas of limited
irrigation or rainfall.

Fruit Trees that Require Less Water

Proper tree choice is also essential in moisture-scarce
regions. Cherries, gapes and olives require less moisture
than oranges, apples and pears.

In Tunisia, olive trees are planted as much as 100 feet
apart in order to gain the extra moisture advantage that
comes with increased spacing. Commercial, monoculture
orchards are invariably overcrowded, overtilled,
overfertilized, overpruned, and of course,
overdiseased. But to be commercially “economic” a money-based orchard
could hardly be operated otherwise! Tree crop food
production is one area where a homesteader can maintain
major advantages over the commercial farmer. The
homesteader can engage in all the “uneconomic” practices,
like two-story, intercropped, mulch-planted varieties, and
produce better tasting, nutritious, disease-free
crops.

To remain competitive, a commercial orchardist must
stimulate large-and-early, colorful crops. Of the numerous
shot-in-the-arm methods for attaining these ends,
fertilization is probably the most used . . . and
misused. Darwin was one of the first to point out the
dangers of fertilization.

In his VARIATIONS OF ANIMALS AND PLANTS UNDER
DOMESTICATION
he quotes Gartner in the statement that
sterility from soil fertilization is especially common with
cereals, cabbage, peas and beans. The concentration of
salts found in farmyard manure as well as chemical
fertilizer will destroy tender feeder roots. Many newly planted
trees die because the grower was too eager to “give the
tree a good start” by filling massive amounts of fertilizer
around the root zone. A mixture of damp peat moss and loamy
soil around newly planted roots would be better than
fertilizer in any form. Also, the planting hole should not be water-saturated as
the tree is planted. Moisten the soil after the
tree is planted, to prevent the formation of clods and to
facilitate tamping.

Plant Fruit Trees in the Fall

Fall planting is considered best for tree crops. However,
where severe winters prevail, spring planting is
preferred. With a fall-planted tree, some root growth will take place
through the winter months if the tree is heavily mulched.
Be sure to direct the newly planted tree slightly into the
prevailing wind. This encourages root development on the
windward side, as the most vigorous branch always lies
directly over the most vigorous root.

Dioecious trees–those having male and female organs
borne by different individuals–should be grown as;
one would raise a herd of animals . . . one male tree
(staminate) planted with a group of female trees
(pistillate). Commercial nurseries charge exorbitant prices
for grafted tree stock.

Traffic bears this cost mostly because of the mystique
associated with “grafting”. Actually, as tree-crop writers
like Downing point out, grafting is a simple, basic skill
that can be mastered by anyone who takes the trouble to
understand a few basic principles.

First, the seedling must be raised. Smith describes one
interesting method: four plaster laths are nailed together
to form a tube of earth one inch square and three feet
long. The seed is placed near the surface of this tube, and as
the plant grows, roots cling to one lath previously soaked
in a nitrate of soda solution. The four-inch-high seedling with three feet of roots can
thus be planted deep into the ground using nothing more
than a crowbar to prepare the hole.

Grafting, Budding and Layering

Before germination is possible, some seed (notably nut
trees) must undergo a certain amount of freezing. The tree
raised from seed is not apt to develop true to the
character of the tree it came from. For this reason a
scion–or branch of the producing tree–is
grafted onto the root stock. Both scion and stock should be about the same diameter,
about 1/2 inch. Grafting should be done early in the spring
so that the wound will not be exposed long before growth
resumes. Budding and layering are other
methods of multiplying the progeny of an especially
desirable tree.

In layering, a part of the parent plant is induced to grow
roots or shoots before separation from the plant. All of
these grafting processes (grafting is the healing in common
of two wounds) are best accomplished by the homesteader on
trees and seedlings already planted in their final
location on the homestead. Even dwarf fruit varieties can be started in this manner. A
dwarfed tree is nothing more than a strong growing scion
grafted onto a weak-growing root stock.

A quince rootstock will dwarf a pear scion; but a pear that
is thus grafted on a quince root will tend to grow larger
and faster than the quince tree. The weak-growing quince
rootstock takes a little from the soil and requires small
amounts of carbohydrates for growth, whereas the
standard-size scion will accumulate carbohydrate at the
cost of protein assimilation. The high proportion of
carbohydrates to protein results in dwarfing and early
fruitation. The northern spy dwarf apple bears in 4 years
as against 15 years for standard varieties.

Apple, pear, cherry, peach, plum and apricot trees can all
be successfully dwarfed, and they all certainly have a
place on the homestead. As mentioned earlier, due to their
low profile, dwarf “creeper” apple trees can be grown in a
Siberian weather zone. In general, a low, spreading tree
form should be encouraged . . . it maintains maximum sun
exposure and offers least resistance to wind. Shade over
the immediate soil area helps to conserve soil
moisture.

Some tree experts even claim that a low-growing tree offers
less drain on soil fertility. The greatest vigor in a tree
is located near its top, so by pruning the top this vigor
is spread to other parts of the tree.

Pruning Fruit Trees

Of pruning, someone once said: “There is no horticultural
practice concerning which there is a greater diversity of
opinion or in the application of which there is a greater
diversity of procedure.” According to the Illinois
Experimentation Station (Bulletin 376) pruning contributes
to the death of more trees mistakenly attributed to
“mishandling” than to any other single factor. The main purpose of pruning is to remove injured and
diseased growth. Without the protective outer cover that
bark offers, dead limbs are attractive to parasites and
saprophytic fungi.

Another equally purposeful reason for pruning is to train
the young tree structurally . . . so it might better resist
wind, snow and ice damage at a later, more mature stage.
The “central leader” and “modified leader” patterns are in
common usage, along with the somewhat less popular “open
center” pattern. An open center tree has a structural
defect, but does receive more interior sunlight. As the tree matures, so too does the purpose of pruning. On
a mature tree one finally limits pruning activities to
maintaining a balance between vegetation and fruiting, and
between the root system and the vegetation system . . .
mostly by thinning out top growth. When transplanting, top
growth should be removed to balance the remaining root
system.

Downing recommends summer pruning in preference to winter
pruning, as wounds heal more rapidly while the tree remains
in active growth. The old adage that advises pruning during
the dormant period, “when the sap is down”, is rather
foolish, as wood is just as sap-laden in winter as it is in
spring. In spring, mineral saturated water from the soil
travels upward through sapwood to the leaves. In
the leaf the water is converted into starches and sugars
and then travels downward through the inner bark,
feeding the tree en route.

With practice and clear advice grafting can soon become one
of the rewarding “fun things” that one can do on the
homestead. The art of plant propagation is never really
learned or mastered . . . but at the outset one receives a
satisfaction that comes from cooperation with plant growth
processes.

Super-trained tree specimens–like espalier–can
be created, not without great patience and skill. Or exotic
conversation pieces can be displayed . . . as with the
five-variety apple tree or tomato-producing potato plant.
Some have even chosen to deal in an illicit grafting
practice . . . one that in current legal cases has even
jurisprudence bemuddled: a hop (Humulus lupulus) scion
grafted onto a marijuana (Cannabis sativa) rootstock will
produce a hop leaf suitable for psychedelic usage. Peace.