Growing fruits in your garden doesn't have to be chore. You're only a few steps away from fresh, bountiful fruit plants—and we have the tips and tricks to help you get started.
The first step is to choose your plants. You'll find fruit trees, berry bushes, and vines sold three different ways—bare root, balled and burlapped, and in a container—depending on the time of year and where you shop.
Bare Root: Bare-root plants are typically available in late winter or early spring and are purchased while they're dormant and leafless. They're usually the least expensive way to purchase plants because they don't have the cost of soil or containers associated with them.
Balled and Burlapped: Balled-and-burlapped fruit trees and shrubs, often simply referred to as b-&-b, are available from spring to fall. They feature a rootball that's wrapped in a sheet of burlap or a similar material. Balled-and-burlapped plants are usually the largest specimens your nursery offers.
Container: Container-grown fruits are most commonly available and easiest to plant. Liked balled-and-burlapped plants, they're available throughout the year and come in a wide range of sizes.
No matter which method you use to plant your fruit trees, berry bushes, or vines, water them well after planting. Spread a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch over the soil around the plant; this helps the soil maintain moisture longer so you have to water less. It also helps to control weed growth.
You may need to stake newly planted fruit trees, especially if they are bare-root or if they're in a windy location and want to tip over. Support them only for the first year or two; remove the stakes after that so your trees can develop a sturdy trunk and root system.
One of the simplest ways to support a young tree is to use a single stake about as tall as the tree. Drive the stake in the ground about 18 inches deep and about 6 inches away from the edge of the planting hole. Use heavy wire wrapped by a section of old garden hose and tie the tree to the stake using a figure-8 pattern. (The hose prevents the wire from grinding against the bark.)
Test Garden Tip: Avoid pulling the wire tight because it can damage the tree. The trunk should be able to move lightly in any direction if you push against it.
No matter what trees, shrubs, or vines you're growing, it's a good idea to prune out any dead or diseased branches and stems. This helps the plant look better and can prevent disease from spreading.
Prune out wayward stems that block pathways, driveways, or grow into the side of a house or other structures. Remove branches that cross and rub against one another; as the bark gets rubbed off, it makes the tree more susceptible to disease.
It's best to prune most fruit trees in late fall, winter, or early spring when they're dormant and leafless. Avoid pruning them in early fall—otherwise you make the trees more susceptible to winter injury. Currants and gooseberries also should be pruned in the dormant season, removing approximately one-third of their oldest stems. Grapes and kiwi vines require severe pruning during the dormant season to keep them productive. Most raspberries and blackberries fruit on two-year-old canes. Remove the old canes in summer right after they are done bearing. Tip prune them in summer to make them branch.
Test Garden Tip: Dip your pruning shears in rubbing alcohol or a 10 percent bleach solution between cuts. This prevents the disease from spreading to healthy branches. Dip pruning shears in oil after use to prevent corrosion.
Watering: Most fruits require consistent moisture to produce well. The exact amount to give them depends on soil type, weather conditions, and what kinds of fruits you're growing. For example, you'll need to water plants in sandy soils more often than those in clay. And plants use more water during hot, windy conditions with low humidity than if the weather is cool, humid, and cloudy.
Regardless, apply enough water to moisten the root zone at least 6 inches deep. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems are two efficient ways to give your plants the water they need. These methods reduce water use (by applying it just to the root zone there's little lost to evaporation) and help prevent disease by keeping the foliage dry.
Feeding: Not sure if you need to feed your fruits? Start by getting to know your soil and the basics of fertilizer. The best way of evaluating your ground is to have a soil test done. Most university cooperative extension services provide this service for a fee. Some commercial garden centers and professional soil testing laboratories do so as well.
You might be tempted to add more fertilizer than the packaging instructions recommend, but resist the urge. Overfertilization can burn plant roots, causing injury to the plant. Fruiting trees and shrubs that get excess fertilizer, especially nitrogen, may flower and produce less than plants that are not overfertilized.
In many regions you may need to acidify the soil to grow blueberries. Adding elemental sulfur to the soil will lower the pH, making the soil more acidic. Use your soil-test results to tell you what your soil's current pH is, then use the instructions on the sulfur bag to determine how much you need to add for your blueberries.
If you grow fruits, you'll almost certainly find insects attacking them at some point. If a pesticide is necessary, use the least toxic alternative. Insecticidal soap is effective on most soft-bodied pests such as aphids and spider mites. A forceful spray of water from a garden hose may knock down the population of pests, too. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a natural bacteria that controls the larvae of moths and butterflies, such as those of leafrollers.
A dormant-oil spray is an effective means of controlling many early-season insects such as borers. During the growing season you can use pheromone traps to detect when insects are present and time pesticide controls accordingly.
Apple maggots are small flies that lay eggs in apples. The eggs hatch into worms that tunnel through the fruit. Control the insect by destroying affected fruit before or when it falls on the ground, use red-sticky traps to catch the flies, or by using an insecticide labeled for use on apple maggots in midsummer.
Codling moths feed on apples, creating small holes surrounded by dead tissue. Control this pest by spraying with an insecticide containing Bt in spring, just as the flowers fade. Or try using pheromone traps.
Plum curculio is a mottled brown beetle that causes misshapen fruits that rot and fall off the tree. Lay a sheet under young trees and shake them in late spring or early summer; the beetles will fall off the plant and you can throw them in the trash. Or spray with an insecticide containing neem oil.
Keep diseases to a minimum by providing good air circulation throughout the orchard and garden so that plants dry quickly. Avoid splashing water on the foliage of your fruits. Remove and destroy diseased plants as they develop. Some diseases spread by insects, so keeping the insect population in check helps prevent disease problems. When possible, grow varieties resistant to diseases such as apple scab and cedar-apple rust. Dormant lime sulfur sprays control many fruit fungal diseases.
Black knot (shown above) often attacks plums, prunes, cherries, and peaches. It looks like black, warty growths on branches that kill them. Control it by selecting resistant varieties, cutting out young branches as soon as the disease starts to manifest, and using a fungicide labeled for use on black knot.
Cedar-apple rust is a disease that causes bright yellow spots on apple leaves and horn-like growths on leaves and young fruits. Use a fungicide labeled for use on cedar-apple rust to help control it.
Fire blight is common on apples and pears, attacking branches, fruits, and flowers. Control it by pruning infected branches out and treating with a bactericide labeled for use for fire blight.
Mildews, including powdery and downy mildew, attack many fruits. Try to keep foliage dry as much as you can and prune and train the plants to encourage good air circulation. Apply a fungicide labeled for use on mildew when necessary.
Scab often attacks apples after periods of wet, spring weather. It causes scab-like wounds on leaves and fruits. Control it by planting scab-resistant varieties, removing any affected foliage and fruit, or using fungicides labeled for use on scab.
Viruses often cause mottled or misshapen growth. Unfortunately they cannot be treated and affected plants are best destroyed. Purchase plants from a reliable source to ensure they're virus-free when you plant them.
Deer, rabbits, voles, and birds may attack fruits if given the chance. Repellents may keep the animals away, but the surest way to protect your fruiting crop is by exclusion. In the cases of deer and rabbits that means erecting a fence or other enclosure to protect the plants.
Voles chew bark of fruit trees and shrubs over winter. Place a hardware cloth ring around the trunk of fruit trees or around entire shrubs over winter to protect them from voles. Stop birds from stealing or damaging ripe fruit by covering the crop with bird netting.
It may seem like a tough thing to do, but remove the blossoms on your strawberry plants the year you plant your strawberries so they put their energy into rooting and making new plants rather than producing fruit. If they bloom more than once the first year, allow them to produce a crop beginning with the second cycle of bloom.
To keep strawberry beds productive, renovate them right after they finish bearing their early summer crop. Rototill or dig under the oldest plants and save a narrow row of daughter plants. The daughter plants will send out runners to fill in the bed and produce the crop the following year.