What you need to know before you plant fruit

Apples

Apples (Credit: Handout)

Jessica Damiano

Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist Jessica Damiano

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more

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Fruit is among the most rewarding things a gardener can grow at home. It's nutritious. It's delicious. And in many cases the trees and shrubs are beautiful additions to the home landscape. What's more, you can grow a lot of fruit in a relatively small space.

Before you plant a fruit-bearing plant or tree, check the plant tag to ensure it's cold hardy to at least zone 7 (6B if you live in the pine barrens area). Otherwise, it won't likely survive winter on Long Island. (The lower the zone number, the higher the cold tolerance.) Select a site that will provide adequate sunlight, and be sure to take into account shade that will be produced by deciduous trees that are currently bare. Remember that fruit plants do not like "wet feet," or soggy roots, so if you have heavy or clay soil, till in generous amounts of compost to a depth of 8 inches to improve drainage. Do the same with sandy soil. And avoid planting at the bottom of a hill or wherever water collects.

Before planting, take time to eradicate weeds. And, finally, check and correct the soil pH. The listing for each plant specifies the ideal pH range for optimal health and fruit production. If the pH isn't hospitable, the plant will not be able to absorb nutrients from the soil. Keep in mind that it can take a year for such changes to fully work their way into the soil, so ideally, steps to raise or lower pH should be undertaken 12 months before planting, though this isn't absolutely necessary.

Kits to test for pH are widely available at nurseries and home improvement centers, and local Cornell Cooperative Extension offices will test your soil and provide advice for a nominal fee (call 631-727-4126 in Suffolk; 516-228-0426 in Nassau). Typically, sulfur is added in specific amounts to lower pH (make it more acidic), and lime is added to increase pH (make it more alkaline). Test results will indicate how much should be added per square foot of soil. And if soil is deficient, fertilizers should be added at this time, too, to ensure that nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients necessary for growth, pollination and fruiting will be available to the plant as needed. All soil preparations should be done before bringing the plant home.

Before planting, trim any broken or injured roots. If trees can't be planted immediately, set them in a cool, shady spot and keep watered, but be sure to plant before buds break or leaves grow. If you've purchased a bare-root plant, soaking roots in a pail of water for 6 to 12 hours before planting can be beneficial. If planting a container-grown tree, dig a hole twice as wide but exactly as deep as the pot; for bare-root plants, ensure the hole will accommodate roots in their natural position. Don't skimp on digging. For grafted trees, plant so that the graft union lands 2 inches above ground level.

Mix more compost in with the backfill and replace soil gradually, periodically stopping to tamp it down firmly as you go. Never add fertilizer to the planting hole; instead, water thoroughly immediately after planting. Incorporate 1 tablespoon of starter fertilizer for each gallon of water. (This is in addition to nutrient corrections made to soil earlier.) Apply 2 inches of mulch around the base of trees, taking care to keep mulch about 2 inches from the trunk. Water regularly throughout the first two growing seasons.

Be realistic about the amount of time you can dedicate to maintenance: Plants and trees should be monitored daily for pests, disease and moisture levels, and some have other time-consuming requirements such as trellising and pruning. Start smaller than you think you should, maybe with just one or two plants the first year. You'll appreciate a small crop of ripe, juicy, healthy fruit from one tree a lot more than you will cleaning up the rotted, fallen fruit from plants you have neglected because you were overwhelmed.

Dwarf cultivars are worth considering because they're easier to care for and bear fruit sooner than their full-size counterparts.

It's important to note that some fruits are self-pollinating; only one plant is needed for fruit production. Others require "male" and "female" plants. (They are noted below.) Many fruits, such as pears and plums, experience "June drop," when developing fruit simply falls from the tree, typically in June. This is not a concern, just the tree's way of reducing an overabundance so the remaining crop can successfully ripen.