Scott Smith has been planting fruit trees on his acre of land over the last 15 years. He gives tips on planting fruit trees so that they will flourish. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
Beyond the typical flowers and plants, many gardeners are looking to grow something this spring that will allow them to really enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Planting fruit trees might seem daunting, but for many who have tried, it's well worth the effort.
Mount Washington resident Scott Smith got "hooked" on planting fruit trees 15 years ago, and now has over 100 on his acre of land — from apple and peach to kiwi and jujubes. Smith has also worked with the Baltimore Orchard Project, a division of the nonprofit Civic Works that works to strengthen communities through planting orchards.
"There's something about a perfectly ripe peach on a tree," said Smith, a computer science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's so much better than any I can find at a grocery store, and they're delicious."
But planting fruit trees brings trials as well as triumphs. Luckily, there are experienced gardeners, like Smith, and experts who can offer tips and tricks to prepare gardeners for a successful fruit tree planting season this spring.
Picking your fruit tree
Just like any plant, choosing what type of fruit tree to plant requires some forethought.
Every year, "people get spring fever ... [and] go out and buy plants without doing research," said Jon Traunfeld, the director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension. Traunfeld, 59, says this is especially a problem when it comes to fruit trees, which can be more complicated than the average plant.
There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a fruit tree to plant, Smith and Traunfeld say. Maintenance is one of them.
Persimmon, fig, mulberry, serviceberry and pawpaw trees tend to be the easiest to maintain, according to Smith and Traunfeld, requiring less pruning or chemical sprays to fend off pests and diseases.
But the most popular fruit trees planted in Maryland, according to Smith, can also be the most difficult for novices, including peach trees, apple and sometimes pear.
"The first couple of years are not so bad," Smith said. "But once the fruit start coming, there are all sorts of diseases and pests that can make it very challenging."
Peach trees, Smith's favorite, are one of the hardest to maintain in his experience. They are prone to diseases, including brown rot, which leave the peaches more susceptible to bruises and rotting, and pests, like the peachtree borer, which feeds on the tree's base, damaging and potentially killing the tree.
Apples are just as vulnerable to other types of pests and diseases, as are certain species of pears — including Asian pears, which tend to attract stink bugs, leaving pears deformed, Smith said.
Another factor to consider is how each type of fruit tree would fit in Maryland's climate.
Fruit trees are dormant in the winter months, but some can handle the cold better than others. Fig trees and citrus trees, common purchases at nurseries in Maryland, are not typically fit for the type of winter our state sees, said Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery in Baltimore.
Citrus trees often need to be grown in a container indoors and can be moved outside in late spring and summer, Bieneman said. Traunfeld added that the fig tree can be damaged in temperatures under 20 degrees. People often wrap the branches of fig trees in burlap or insulate the base of their trees with mulch in the winter, shielding it from harsh precipitation and temperatures. Others choose to grow fig trees in containers, moving them indoors and next to large windows when the weather gets too cold, Traunfeld and Bieneman said.
And if you're working with a smaller space, the size of each tree is worth considering.
"Some of the problems we see with urban gardeners regarding fruit trees, they haven't researched how large they're going to get," Traunfeld said. "If you're going to plant fruit trees, you've really got to think about the space."
Some trees can grow up to 25 feet tall, posing a problem in smaller yards or for growing other plants, which could be deprived of adequate sunlight by a larger tree. Trees can also grow into other objects, damaging them if they are not pruned.
"With the size issue and the space they take, for small urban gardens, small fruit [trees] are going to be a better choice. They're compact and easier to manage," Traunfeld said, suggesting smaller fruit plants that come in the form of bushes, shrubs or vines, like strawberries, chokeberries, blueberries, raspberries and grapes.
Some trees, like the peach and jujube trees, are self-pollinators, while other trees, like many varieties of cherry, apple and pear, need a second tree nearby for cross pollination, ultimately taking up additional room.
Thankfully, there are ways to work around space restrictions.
Bieneman has grown a set of 4-year-old apple trees in the backyard of his North Baltimore home using a process called espalier. Propped against a fence, he has consistently pruned the apple trees so they grow to a custom length and shape that fits his yard.
"Those are really good for tight spaces … it's kind of a neat twist on growing a large apple tree," he said.
When planting a fruit tree, there's a little more to learn about the care and maintenance than with the average tree, Bieneman said, again stressing the importance of research.
Trees can be bought online or ordered as bare-root trees; leafless and with roots exposed, these trees are in a dormant state. Fruit trees can also be purchased at local nurseries already potted or in containers, Bieneman said, which can either be planted in the ground and allowed to expand, or kept in the container, depending on its expected size.
Both types of trees can be planted in the early spring and fall, but never in the summer, Smith said, when the climate is harsher and the soil is often dry.
Fruit trees typically need six to eight hours of direct sunlight, Traunfeld said. They also must regularly be pruned and receive plenty of water, especially in the tree's first few years. The amount of pruning and watering will vary depending on the tree and the stage or season it's in, added Bieneman. Gardeners should consult nurseries or local garden centers for best practices for each type of tree.
"Whenever it gets dry, if it's not raining and the soil is really dry, that's the time to water," Traunfeld said. "When they're young, once a week would be fine. If it's not raining, to water them deeply once a week, that will really help them get started."
Reaping the benefits
Even once you get your tree successfully in the ground, you may not see fruit for years, Traunfeld said.
Fig trees could grow fruit within the first year or by summer if planted in spring, but most trees won't bear fruit until at least their second year. Peach trees could take three or four years.
The first year should be a year of establishment, Traunfeld said, advising gardeners to pull off any flowers during that time.
"That will direct the energy to the root system and will go to making the plant larger and stronger, rather than wasting energy on a few fruits," Traunfeld said.
And once you do see fruit, don't expect it to look like what you see in the grocery store, cautions Gwen Kokes, project specialist for the Baltimore Orchard Project.
"We have funky fruit, which in my mind is more beautiful, and it tastes more delicious," she said.
Though the challenges, depending on the fruit, can vary, there's nothing like growing your own fruit, according to these professional gardeners.
"Something that actually produces a fruit is very rewarding, whether it be a vegetable garden or growing fruit trees," said Bieneman. "It's one of those plants that you get something from, and I think there's something in all of us that would like that."
You can find more tips on planting fruit trees at the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center website.