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One of the best things about January is all the good catalogs that come in the mail. It is much easier to believe that spring will come again when you have a stack of catalogs that show glossy pictures of fruits, vegetables and flowers. The extra time spent indoors by the fire also allows us to spend some time plotting and planning what we want to add to the garden in 2009.
When it comes to the home orchard or berry patch planning is indeed a good thing. Some fruit is easier then others and it is often hard to discern in the catalogs which apple variety, blueberry or persimmon will do well in Kentuckiana. My #1 rule is the more information a catalog provides the better. Gathering as much information as possible is the key to success when it comes to fruit trees.
So where do you find the information? Well, a good place to start begins with local university research and recommendations. The University of Kentucky and Purdue University both have excellent on line resources for home orchard enthusiasts; next, order only from reputable sources. We have several favorites when it comes to fruit trees (all based on experience), including Raintree Nursery, (360) 496-6400 or www.RaintreeNursery.com in Washington state and One Green World, (877) 353-4028 or www.onegreenworld.com in Oregon.
We like these catalogs because they address rootstock, flowering time, pollination and disease resistance. When deciding on what to order you want to have a tree with desirable rootstock, be sure there is some explanation included in the catalog or on the website. Rootstock will determine hardiness, size and in some cases disease resistance. For example, EMLA 26 apple rootstock is an overall good choice for Kentuckiana, it is winter hardy to zone 4, proves adaptable to most soils and will result in a mature tree that reaches 8 to 14 feet depending on the variety of apple. If a catalog doesn't designate the rootstock I would be cautious in ordering.
EMLA 26 is also considered a dwarf rootstock which is desirable for the home orchardist; if nothing else be sure that you have at least a semi-dwarf rootstock (for example EMLA 7).
Standard rootstock results in a mature tree that can reach 20-30 feet in height which makes the tree hard to manage. Pruning, thinning and harvesting an apple that is that big becomes a bit of a burden so they are often neglected.
So, stick with mini-dwarf, dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock.
Some fruit trees claim to be self-pollinating, as well, appealing to the person with limited space or a less-committed attitude towards fruit! Yes, it may be self-pollinating but your yield will be significantly less if there is no cross-pollination with another tree.
Cross pollination is not a easy as planting more then one tree, either. Trees need to bloom at the same time to effectively cross-pollinate so be sure you make your selections based on early, mid or late season bloom so each tree has a partner of sorts that will bloom at the same time in the spring. For example, in our orchard Liberty and William's Pride are early season pollinating buddies; Dayton will overlap with early and mid-season bloomers; and mid-season partners include Enterprise and Jonagold. Again, the catalog should provide a chart for bloom and pollination times.
The final consideration (beyond the style of apple you like to eat) is a must. Only consider varieties that have resistance to at least 3 of the 4 most common problems: apple scab, fireblight, mildew and rust.
Expect a fruit tree to take 2-3 years before you get any significant harvest but don't be surprised if you get a few before that. Buff up on pruning techniques before your trees get too big so that you can train them properly from the beginning.
Pruning is one of the most important things we can do after we have made our selections and secured them in our home orchard.