Choosing Which Plants Will Work for You
by Raintree Horticulturist Theresa Knutsen
We are proud of the amount of information Raintree Nursery provides our customers in our catalog and on our website. If you are sitting in an easy chair and looking through the Raintree website or through our catalog, you are probably wondering how you should go about deciding which of the myriad of choices you should choose for your yard.
Answering the following questions will help you in making decisions. Knowing the answers to some of these questions will also allow Raintree’s horticulturist to better help you.
If you still need additional guidance after reading the following information our horticulturist can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Best Starting Place Is to Determine What You Have
What are the typical seasonal temperature patterns and rainfall patterns in your area?
Neighbors who have lived in the area a while, members of local garden clubs, or your local co-operative extension office are good resources. In our catalog and our web site you will find a USDA Hardiness Zone Map, which provides information on the average minimum winter temperature. Most of our plants will have a USDA hardiness zone rating, sometimes listed with the variety, sometimes listed in the ‘How to Grow’ box in the catalog or online at How To Grow Raintree Plants. This rating only tells you the minimum winter temperature the plants typically survive when properly hardened off. We do not have a good rating system at this time for summer patterns (long, short, hot, cool, humid, dry), but if known, individual descriptions will indicate if a particular plant tolerates (or requires) hot or cool, long or short summers.
Keep in mind that a zone 7 location in the humid south will behave very differently from a zone 7 location in the dry moderate summer pacific northwest; and a fruit tree that thrives in a northern zone 7 location may fail miserably in a southern zone 7 location, or vice versa.
If you live in the south, then you also need to know about chill hours. Chill hours are the number of hours accumulated between about 32°F and 40°F over the course of the winter. Many of the temperate zone fruit and berry plants we offer require a certain amount of chill hours each winter to properly flower, and sometimes grow, in the spring. View our Chill Hours Chart for more explanation, a chart of typical winter chill hours, and a list of fruits and their typical chill requirements. Contact your local co-operative extension service to find out how many chill hours typically accumulate each winter in your area. Find your local co-operative extension office on our Useful Links page.
Along with understanding temperature patterns in your area, it is also important to determine how much, and for how long daily, your plant will receive sun in a particular location. Fruiting trees, such as apple, pear, and plum, initiate new flower buds for the next spring season between late June and early August, depending on your location. Typically, a minimum of eight hours of direct sun daily are needed during the blossom initiation period for maximum flower bud potential. Think in terms of the sun in the foliage canopy, not necessarily on the ground. Blueberries are fine with a minimum of six hours. Your plants may still thrive and grow with fewer hours of direct sun during the blossom initiation period, but the next year’s fruit production will probably be reduced.
How much root and branch room is in that spot you want to put a plant in?
Find out how tall and wide the plant you are interested in is expected to grow to, or can be managed at, and make sure it will not overgrow where you intend to put it. In the Raintree Nursery catalog look for the green box with Useful Facts or the Apple Height and Spacing Chart; online click on How to Grow Raintree Plants, then select the type of plant you need information on. With pruning you may be able to hold a tree comfortably to 75% of its potential, any smaller and you will be in constant battle with it. There are pruning techniques that do allow you to keep a tree significantly smaller, if you are diligent and attend to them regularly. The book RHS Growing Fruit (#S170) by Harry Baker is a good source for instructions. If you have a space that is long and narrow, there are some options for you, such as a hedge of blueberries or blackberries, or you could train a fruit tree as an espalier.
What kind of soil do you have?
The soil you will put your plants in is every bit as important as the environment you are growing in. It is valuable to know what your soils characteristics are, such as heavy clay, sandy, high or low level of organic matter, pH, soil depth, and nutrient levels. Have your soil tested professionally (ask your local co-operative extension office for recommendations in your area), or explore it yourself. Wet soil that is high in clay tends to be sticky, silt soils tend to feel smooth, and sandy soils tend to feel gritty. Organic matter tends to darken the color of the soil, bind a sandy soil, or lighten a clay soil. A simple test kit will help you determine the pH and primary nutrient levels in your soil (nitrogen [N], phosphorous [P], and potassium [K]). Some plants evolved in and are best adapted to certain soil conditions; others have been selected to perform best in particular soil conditions. A cactus planted in heavy wet clay would start suffocating from lack of oxygen to the roots immediately; an acid loving blueberry planted in typical garden soil pH of 6.5-6.8 would be unable to absorb nutrients, leading to unhealthy yellow or red foliage color, lack of vigor, and eventual death. An apple tree planted in a soil with pH below 6, that tends to hold a lot of water in winter and spring, and does not have much depth above a hard-packed subsoil will tend to just sit there, or die, because the root system is in such a hostile location. A blueberry planted in the same location may thrive.
In our catalog, or in the How to Grow Raintree Plants, you can find out what the preferred growing conditions are for most of the fruiting plants we offer. For most soils, the best modification for the soil structure is to add organic matter. Clay soils benefit from straw or leaves piled on the surface and allowed to decompose. Sandy soils benefit from any balanced compost or organic material applied to the surface and mixed in over the entire planting area, or better yet, expected root zone area, before digging the planting hole. Nutrient and pH issues are corrected with amendments (lime or sulfur to correct pH, and fertilizers). Avoid affecting only the planting hole, tree roots in particular are eager to spread out and establish. Adding amendments to a broader area encourages active root growth, and therefore stronger top growth.
What type of insects and disease issues will you battle?
Find out what insects and diseases are typical in your area. If you ask your local co-operative extension professional what varieties they recommend for your area, you will usually be told commercial varieties, because that is what they are familiar with. Instead, ask them what the typical insect and disease issues are in your area. Then you can make selections based on resistance or tolerance information available in our catalog, or, make a plan for controlling problems you can expect with the susceptible varieties you prefer to grow. If you see resistance information about a particular disease for one variety but not another of the same kind of fruit in our catalog, either that variety is susceptible, or it has not been tested so is unknown.
Now It’s Time to Think About What You Want
How will you use the fruit?
If you will process the fruit, i.e. make jams, dehydrate, juice or can, it is valuable to have the fruit ripen over a short period of time. For storage later ripening varieties are the better choice. If you are looking primarily for fresh eating, then selecting for a longer harvesting season will probably work better for you. For example, if you want to grow strawberries, choose a June or July bearing variety for processing, or an everbearing for all summer fresh eating. Choose both for the best of both worlds. If you want apples for fresh eating, choose one variety each from the August, September, and October ripening columns for a nicely spread out harvest. If you plan to make cider you will need a lot more fruit, with more similar ripening times, so you can make your own private blend.
How much spraying and maintenance do you have time for?
If you select varieties that are resistant to the disease issues you expect in your area you will significantly reduce or eliminate your spray requirements. When known, we provide disease resistance information in the variety description.
Is there a particular variety of fruit you know you want?
Make a list of your favorites, then make sure you can reliably grow them in your area. For instance, many back yard growers want to grow Braeburn apples. If you live in an area that has a long summer with plenty of heat, and not too much humidity, Braeburn will grow and ripen with excellent flavor for you. In western Washington you will probably be disappointed though, the lack of summer heat will result in fruit with less flavor, or in some locations will never fully ripen.
When do you want the fruit to be ripening?
If you are usually on vacation at a particular time during the summer or fall, try to select fruits that don’t ripen at that time. If the vegetable garden overwhelms you in August maybe you just need a little fruit for fresh eating at that time and should select varieties for processing that ripen earlier or later.
How to Use Raintree Nursery Charts
Pollination charts are found in the catalog, with each major type of fruit, or on our web site under Growers Info in the right side bar. If there is not a chart for the fruit you are looking at, there should be information in the How to Grow section for that fruit in the catalog indicating whether it is self-fertile or needs another variety for pollination.
Most of our pollination charts are in graph form. The varieties will be in approximate bloom time order, earliest at the top of the chart, latest at the bottom, reading down the left side. Find the variety you are interested in on the left side and read across the chart from that variety. A potential pollinizer from the list across the top of the chart will line up above a white square, a red square indicates pollination will not work, a green square indicates the variety is self fertile.The apple pollination chart has grown too big to fit in a graph, so we are using columns, divided into 5 bloom seasons. A particular variety will bloom with another in the same bloom season column, and have good over lap with the season column immediately before or after. If the variety is written in red it has a triploid pollen grain, which will not pollinate other apples. If the variety is written in green it is considered reliably self-fertile.
Our pollination charts are meant to be a guideline. While the bloom order stays generally similar in different parts of the country and in different years, the actual bloom dates change from year to year depending on the weather.I like to make variety selections that will allow for a long picking season of a particular kind of fruit, but I also have to keep bloom times in mind to insure there will be fruit to pick. For example, I know I need at least two varieties of apple for pollination. If I choose Akane and Enterprise their bloom times are similar enough for pollination, and I will be harvesting fruit in early September and mid-October. On the other hand, I might decide I want all of my fruit in September and choose Akane and Queen Cox. The Queen Cox is reliably self-fertile and will set plenty of fruit, the Akane, however, will not set much fruit because it blooms too early relative to the Queen Cox and is not self-fertile. To fix this I will either need to choose a third variety which blooms in between the other two, or start over in the selection process.Blueberry is another favorite fruit that needs at least two varieties for best pollination. While they are partially self fertile, you will get an increased number of fruits set and larger fruit size if you choose at least two varieties. There is some variability in blueberry bloom times, but not enough that we need to know bloom order. If you choose one variety each from the early, mid, and late season ripening columns you know your pollination needs are met, plus you can pick fresh blueberries for about 3 months.
THE APPLE HEIGHT AND SPACING CHART in the catalog will help you determine the approximate height at which you can readily maintain your apple tree, and the minimum recommended spacing between the trees. Some varieties are more vigorous than others; different rootstocks also have an effect on size. The most vigorous varieties grafted onto the EMLA 26 rootstock can grow to about 18-24’ tall and wide, but can be readily maintained at 12-14’ tall and wide. The least vigorous varieties grafted onto the M27 rootstock might grow to 6’ or so, but are readily maintained at 4’. Except for the columnar apples, apple trees tend to have a rounded shape, so height and width will be similar. The minimum spacing we indicate is also the height you can readily maintain the tree at. If you want to maintain your tree at a taller height than we have indicated, then you need to increase the spacing you provide by the same amount.
RIPENING ORDER information is provided for the major fruits we offer in the catalog and under Growers Info in the right side bar of our web site. Remember that bloom time order and ripening order will be different. An early blooming apple will not necessarily ripen early. As you select your variety choices to harvest at different times remember to cross check that pollination will also work.
A Final Note
You’ve done your homework and made your selections and are eager to start harvesting your fruit now. But you should also know when to expect to harvest the first fruit from your new fruit tree.
Our standard answer is 2-3 years to first fruit. In some cases your trees may arrive with flower buds and be apparently ready to produce fruit. It is best, however, to remove any fruit that sets in the first two years. This allows the plant to focus its available energy on establishing a strong root system, trunk, and primary branches. After two years fruit trees are generally established well enough to continue growing strong while producing a moderate crop of fruit.
Expect your tree to need another 2-3 years to produce heavier crops. Newly planted fruit trees that are allowed to mature fruit in their first year might not initiate fruit buds again for several years, as they make up for the excessive energy drain making fruit in that first year.There are, of course, some exceptions. Small fruited cherries and plums can produce small crops right away without compromising growth; thin the fruit if a lot of fruit sets. Finicky persimmons may start fruiting between 3 and 7 years after planting, or more. To encourage earlier production in your persimmon feed your tree with a fertilizer that is high in Nitrogen and Iron the first few years. If you live near enough to Raintree Nursery you could also consider taking home more mature ready to bear fruit trees we offer each year. Allow the trees to re-establish for one year and they will be ready to produce nice crops of fruit for you.
How about first fruit for berries? Floricane blackberries and raspberries produce fruit in the second growing season of the cane; primocane berries produce fruit in the fall of the first growing season of the cane. It will take 2-3 years for the root system to be fully established and your planting ready to produce full crops.Blueberries tend to be slow growing plants. Again, 2-3 years is a reasonable time expectation to harvest good quantities, with full production needing another 2-4 years. There will often be some berry production in the first year, thin the fruit if a lot of fruit set, otherwise it is OK to allow those fruit to mature.
Day-neutral strawberries will produce a good crop the first year when planted early enough to establish the roots, generally by mid-April. Remove blossoms until you have 3-5 mature leaves on the plant, then you can allow fruit to set. June-bearing varieties will also bloom in the first year. Remove those blossoms and position runners to fill in your row and you will be rewarded with a heavy crop in the second year.
Unusual fruits and berries, such as goumi, goji, Sea Buckthorn, currants, gooseberries, and Blue Honeysuckle tend to start producing fruit at 2-3 years, or when the plants are established.