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Shrewd fruit tree choices can yield ample harvests

Matt Bunch, a horticulturist with the Giving Grove, offers tips on which varieties of fruit trees grow best in our area and how to plant and care for them.
Matt Bunch, a horticulturist with the Giving Grove, offers tips on which varieties of fruit trees grow best in our area and how to plant and care for them. skeyser@kcstar.com

Growing fruit in your yard can be tricky, but the rewards are sweet.

If you’re thinking of planting apples, peaches, pears or berries, a local initiative called the Giving Grove can steer you in the right direction when choosing varieties. Or you might decide to go in a new direction with easy-to-grow figs, bush cherries or jujubes. Either way, much of the homework already has been done for you.

Now in its fifth year, the Giving Grove is a program of the Kansas City Community Gardens. Staff members work with volunteer stewards to create fruit tree, nut tree and berry gardens to help alleviate local hunger and encourage healthier lifestyles. A running tally on its website counts more than 1,650 trees planted at over 100 sites throughout the area. But this activity came about only after much research and collaboration.

“In 2012, before the organization even started, we gathered local growers, landscape architects and urban agriculture experts,” says Matt Bunch, horticulturist at Giving Grove. “We began with a list of criteria: plants had to be disease-resistant and adaptable to our soils and climate. But just as important, they had to taste good.”

While thousands of varieties of fruit will grow here in our temperate climate, only a fraction of these will grow well. And you probably won’t find your favorite grocery store types on the list deemed most likely to succeed.

“Everybody likes Honeycrisp, but that’s the poster apple for what not to grow here. They’re more suited to cooler, drier climates,” Bunch says. Instead, the Giving Grove plants seven varieties of apples, including Pristine and Sundance, his favorites.

Pears are among the easiest fruit trees to grow, especially Asian pears, which are rounder and crisper than the traditional European pear. “They’re not as syrupy but still have a very pleasant, sweet taste that’s totally refreshing,” Bunch says. “My kids love them.” Recommended varieties are Chojuro, Yoinashi, Shinko and Korean Giant.

He notes that peaches had a great year in 2016, but they’re more high-maintenance. The young trees are susceptible to peach tree borers, and mature trees require frequent pruning. The Giving Grove has selected two kinds: Harrow Diamond and Flamin’ Fury PF19-007.

Choosing the right variety is only one consideration, however. Other factors include:

Location

Fruit trees prefer a slight slope with at least eight hours of sunlight. Avoid low, cool spots and know that morning sun trumps afternoon sun. Most fruit tree canopies are 12 to 15 feet wide and 12 to 18 feet high.

If your yard has only six hours of sunlight (or even less), Bunch suggests service berries, elderberries, paw-paws, currants or other native fruits that find their niche on the edge of woods. Raspberries might work, as well: They often benefit from afternoon shade. He likes the fall-bearing Heritage red raspberry, which is widely available.

Pollination

In general, two is better than one. A nearby neighbor’s crab apple tree may serve to pollinate your apple tree; otherwise, you’ll want two separate varieties with an overlapping bloom time.

Pears are more complicated. Some are self-fertile, some are not, and some will produce fruit as a single tree but make a larger and more plentiful harvest if located next to a different variety.

Peaches are a different story. They’re all self-fertile and you need only one.

Pruning and thinning

According to Bunch, improper thinning is probably the biggest mistake most people make. “It’s almost a mantra at this point. For the first two years, it’s roots and shoots but not fruits,” he says. “As painful as it is, we tell stewards to pinch off all the fruit in the beginning.”

Even when a tree is fully established, you must thin apples, pears and peaches yearly between late April to early June or you’ll end up with fruit the size of golf balls, he notes. “In commercial orchards this is done with chemicals, but that’s not our model. This is handwork.”

Pruning is another type of handwork essential for apple, pear and peach trees. Bunch recommends removing dead wood and water sprouts (those that shoot straight up from lateral branches) in February or March and again in August. This practice opens up the canopy to sunlight and better air flow.

Pests and diseases

Apple trees get four major diseases: scab, fire blight, powdery mildew and cedar apple rust. Varieties listed on the Giving Grove’s site are resistant but not immune. Bunch says 2015 was “a horrible year” for fire blight when a light frost hit at a bad time, but last year the trees did better.

He also sprays trees and the ground around them with a mix of neem oil, a probiotic culture and unpasteurized liquid fish (a holistic formula created by New York apple grower Michael Phillips). “We blend our own, and the public can do this, too,” he says.

Berries and nontraditional fruit

Blackberries are a great producer, especially if trellised. The Giving Grove first planted Apache but later switched to Natchez, an early thornless variety that starts ripening in June, to get ahead of a new soft fruit pest called spotted wing drosophila.

Bush cherries also are a good low-maintenance option. Slightly smaller than a pie cherry, these grow on self-fertile bushes that reach 6 or 7 feet high. “We’re slightly pushing the envelope because they’re from Saskatchewan, but it seems to be working,” Bunch says. He recommends the use of a humming line (a special kind of tape that vibrates in the breeze) on posts near the cherry bushes to keep birds away.

Jujubes or Chinese dates are another nontraditional fruit. Bunch learned about these during his previous job as horticulturist for Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden. “They’re a pretty tree with glossy leaves, multicolored bark and a contorted growth habit,” he says. The fruit, which has an olive-like pit, ranges from marble to golf ball-size. As with many fruit trees, pollination is enhanced with two.

Figs love our hot summers, although they grow more like bushes than trees in the Midwest. While a really cold winter will cause die-back, their roots are hardy to below zero. Plant them in the hottest, sunniest part of your yard, and once established they should provide 100 to 200 figs a year, Bunch says.

Planting times

The Giving Grove purchases about 1,000 bare root trees every year, partnering with volunteers to plant many of these in the spring at community sites, church lots, school yards and parks. The remaining trees are potted and planted in the fall.

Individual trees are sold to the public — orders can be placed between late January and mid-March — or you can find a list of commercial nurseries on the organization’s website resource page. It’s not too late to plant potted fruit trees and berries in May and June, but you’ll need to be extra vigilant about watering, Bunch says.

So yes, it’s all a bit tricky. But worth it?

“The first time you pick a gallon of cherries or slice up Asian pears — there’s the reward,” Bunch says. “You definitely feel a connection with your food. For so many reasons, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

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