To be published in the December Takoma and Silver Spring Voice newspapers.
By now we're all convinced of the many great reasons to grow our own food, like better taste and nutrition, saving money, avoiding long-distance shipping, and knowing exactly what's in the food we eat. But growing fruit trees in Mid-Atlantic humidity can be a challenge, especially if you're a low-maintenance gardener.
First there's the regular pruning that fruit trees need if they're to produce fruit you can reach or in some cases, produce fruit at all. It's a lot more complicated than no-brainer pruning like hacking back to a uniform height; it means opening up the branch structure, for example, and that takes some skill. So how to learn? You can ask the person who sells you the tree for guidance, and some mail order suppliers provide care guides that describe the pruning required. If all else fails, research online because pruning is a must.
But Cindy Brown, edibles expert at Virginia's Green Springs Garden, warns growers not to rely too much on pruning, saying that reducing overall size is the worst reason to prune. She believes it's far better to choose a plant that's the right size for where it's growing, and prune for other reasons – to improve health and productivity. She also recommends starting the pruning process when the plant is young rather than trying to rejigger its shape later.
The good news for suburban gardeners is that so many fruit trees are dwarf in size and fit well in smaller gardens, even in pots on a patio. Most need lots of sun, though, for health and productivity, and that means six hours a day.
Here are the most popular fruit trees for the D.C. area, starting with the easiest to grow. They can be planted as soon as the ground is diggable in March.
The easiest fruit tree in this area is undoubtedly the fig, which will fruit with as few as four hours of sun per day, is fairly pest-free, and can be grown as a shrub, a small tree or a large one. Washington Gardener editor Kathy Jentz describes figs as easy to propagate and "fairly low-maintenance compared to other edibles." No spraying is needed, and deer avoid them. They do require winter protection, at least for their first few years (for example, by planting them close to a building or wrapping them in burlap). Jentz warns that "Your biggest challenge will be fighting the birds and squirrels for their bounty." And if wasps and yellow jackets arrive to devour the ripe fruit, hang a trap for them. One supplier recommends adding lime around the base in spring, summer and fall.
Cindy Brown is also a big fan of figs, adding that they're "sumptuous in recipes and absolutely delicious!" But that's not all – they're full of vitamins and have a higher fiber content than any other fruit, can be eaten fresh or frozen, dried, or made into preserves. The best varieties are ‘Brown Turkey', ‘Celeste', ‘Marsailles' and ‘Hardy Chicago'.
These native trees do well in our area, are beautiful in bloom and yield fruit in three to eight years after planting. At least two are needed for pollination, and these 40-foot trees are not for tiny patio gardens. Some local gardeners avoid pawpaws because of their reputation for attracting raccoons but Michael at Edible Landscaping tells me that raccoons can be avoided by picking up the ripe fruit as soon as they land on the ground – that very morning. And according to Scott Aker of the National Arboretum, Japanese beetles may occasionally damage the leaves, but pawpaws have no serious pest or disease problems and rarely need to be sprayed. Fortunately, deer avoid them because of the bitter compounds found in the twigs.
Most sources say that pawpaws require full sun to fruit but should be shielded from the sun for their first two years, and Aker suggests building a small frame with stakes and covering the top with a piece of burlap or erosion-control fabric to provide the temporary shade needed. (But then a local supplier tells his customers to just plant pawpaws in full sun and leave them be, so choose your advice.) Aker also says it's essential to provide the young trees with consistent moisture in their first year.
And this is interesting, also from Aker: "Sometimes pawpaw trees fail to fruit even if another pawpaw is planted close by. The flowers, which appear in early spring, are flesh-colored and carry the faint odor of rotting meat. The smell may not be strong enough to attract the blowflies and carrion beetles that typically pollinate pawpaws. If your pawpaws flower but do not set fruit, you may want to try placing a piece of meat in the vicinity of the trees to draw flies at the time the flowers are open." Who knew?
Kristi Janzen at Edible Chesapeake Magazine had great success with an old persimmon tree that eventually outlived its productive lifespan, so she recently planted a ‘Saijo' for its small, elongated fruit and a ‘Hachiya' for its rounder, larger fruit. "They require almost no care, and do well in the climate around metro Washington, DC." She also explained that Asian persimmons are more popular than the American ones because they bear larger fruit and the trees themselves are much smaller and fit into urban gardens. Also, unlike American persimmons, they don't need male and female trees to produce fruit. She advises "waiting until they're ripe – that is, when they are soft to the touch, almost like an overripe tomato. Only then will they be sweet and delicious. Persimmons can also be dried."
Cindy Brown also loves Asian persimmons, adding that they're rarely bothered by pests. Persimmons range in size from 15 to 40 feet and will fruit in two to three years after planting.
Peaches and Apples
Members of the rose family, peaches and apples are showy but suffer from damage by insect pests and persistent fungal disease in our humid summers, which problems are particularly frustrating to local gardeners hoping to avoid spraying with pesticides. In fact, local experts say that the only way to grow them successfully is to spray regularly. Commercial growers use systemic (and nonorganic) fungicides that remain after a rain but organic-only products must be reapplied regularly plus after each rain. It may be the lack of that strict regimen of spraying that accounts for the failure of so many organic gardeners to successfully grow peaches and apples.
But whether you choose an organic or nonorganic pesticide, make sure it's formulated specifically for crops. One organic insect-deterrent recommended by Edible Landscaping is the clay-based product Surround, which prevents insects laying eggs on the fruit. To keep birds and squirrels from eating your crop, netting is the only solution. And one local gardener told me that her Jonathan apple crop is routinely ruined by worms, despite her best efforts with organic pesticides.
Peaches seem to fare better because pest-resistant varieties are fairly successful, even in our area, though one grower told me that a particularly wet year can ruin a entire peach crop. Overall, a little attitude adjustment goes a long way in growing apples and peaches – learning to accept blemishes and some insect damage.
With cherries, too, a wet year can ruin the crop, and here in the suburbs, birds are the biggest pest growers have to contend with. In selecting a variety, check whether it self-pollinates or requires a mate, and also its ultimate size because some grow to 40 feet. For small gardens Kristi Janzen recommends ‘Northstar,' for sour pie-making cherries and ‘Krymst' or ‘Geisla' for the sweet ones.
The staff at Behnkes Nursery tell me that along with figs and persimmons, Asian pears are their top selling fruit trees (followed by apples, peaches and cherries.) They do require spraying, however, and regular pruning to keep them low enough to reach without a ladder.
Where to buy fruit trees
- Behnkes in Beltsville, MD – retail store.
- Homestead Gardens, Davidsonville, MD – retail store.
- EdibleLandscaping near Charlottesville, VA – mail order
- Homestead Farm in. Montgomery County, MD – mail order
- BoyerNurseries near Getttysburg, PA – mail order
- PetersonPawpaws in Harpers Ferry, WV – mail order
For their help writing this article, thanks to Kathy Jentz, Cindy Brown, Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen at Edible Chesapeake Magazine, Edible Landscaping Co, Casey Trees, Behnkes Nursery, and Scott Aker.
Thanks to Edible Landscaping for the use of these photos.