April 30, 2012

Tree fruit can be challenging for home gardens

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — Johnny Appleseed was one of the best marketers of all time.

It seems one of the first things new homeowners want to do is plant a couple of apple trees in their yard. I know, because that's what we did when we bought our house, too. We gave them away to friends within a year or two and haven't looked back.

Of all the food crops you can grow at home, tree fruits are among the most challenging. First, let's get some terminology cleared up. Tree fruits are those that grow on trees as opposed to bushes, vines or leafy plants, such as blueberries, grapes or strawberries, respectively.

There are two main types of tree fruits. The pomes are the apples and pears and are the most winter-hardy type of tree fruit. The others are the stone fruits and include plums, tart cherries, peaches, sweet cherries and apricots, in rough order of winter hardiness.

Stone Fruits

With the winter temperatures on a warming trend, maybe the stone fruits will become more reasonable choices for us. However, for now, I still recommend considering this group as a bit of a gamble. I know many people who have been successful growing hardy varieties of plums and peaches in our region, so it's not out of the question, but I also know even more people who have tried and failed. So, by all means, give it a try if you like, but don't expect success to be guaranteed.

In addition to winter hardiness, the stone fruits have a number of common-disease problems, including black knot and brown rot as well as insect pests. Then, sooner or later, a canker sets in, causing a thick ooze from the bark. This canker is the beginning of the end for the tree.

Apples and Pears

By far, apples are the tree fruit most homeowners want to grow. Pears have fewer pest problems than apples but are not as popular. If you just can't resist, then at least choose disease-resistant varieties of apples, such as Sansa, Freedom or Liberty on semi-dwarf rootstock to make them easier to manage at home.

McIntosh and Honey Crisp are two of the best-known varieties but are the hardest to grow at home. McIntosh will grow, but it gets every bug and disease in the book, and Honey Crisp is just plain tricky to grow.

Two trees are plenty, and you need two different varieties for cross-pollination.

Once planted, get ready for annual pruning and some kind of pest management. The disease-resistant types resist the most common disease, apple scab, but not necessarily rust and fire blight.

Then there are insect pests from just after the petals fall until harvest. There are some organic methods to try, but even they require many applications throughout the season. Even if you don't expect perfect fruit and are willing to cut around the worms, it can be quite a challenge to get a good harvest.

Easier Fruit Crops

I'm sorry to be so negative about tree fruit. We have so many apples grown right here, though, it makes a lot more sense to buy your apples from our local orchards. Then you can focus your attention on growing berries, which are a lot more rewarding for most home growers.

Berries that can do well in our area include blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. They each have specific needs, so be sure to do some homework before buying the plants.

For more information on growing any kind of fruit, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office. For links to information from Cornell about growing fruit at home, including cultivars, visit:

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to