This winter, I finally took things seriously and did a little research to see where one would buy such a thing and how I should go about choosing a location for it and how to grow it. When I happened upon Peaceful Valley Farm, it became a matter of which to choose. Since their prices are pretty reasonable and they have multi-tree shipping discounts, I ended-up with 5 trees...my own mini orchard:
During the process of researching the trees, I learned a lot of things and I thought I'd share some with you:
- Zones - Gardeners and Farmers divide the country into Hardiness Zones. Using a zone map, you can figure out what zone your garden is in and then plants are sold by listing the zone range they can survive in. This is probably the most handy way of choosing any plant--particularly larger investments like trees that you want to last through many many seasons. It's also a great way to make sure you're getting what you expect as, in today's trucking-based economy, many plants in your garden center came from far far away and they're not always careful to order stuff that's location-appropriate.
- Chill Hours - Many fruit trees list the number of "chill hours" that are needed in order for it to set fruit. The chill hours for your area are the average number of hours the temperature drops between a certain range over a given winter season. Since we don't all stand out there with clipboards, counting the chill hours, you would need to contact your local Cooperative Extension office to find out what the average is for your area. To be honest, I didn't bother. I found the zone map to be more useful and it should serve roughly the same purpose.
- Self-Fruitful vs. Cross-Pollination - The majority of fruit trees cannot produce fruit without cross-pollinating with another tree of similar, but not the same type. Often, when you read a listing for a fruit tree, it'll tell you what other trees will successfully cross-pollinate with the one you're looking at. To get fruit, you'll need to buy at least two trees and plan to plant them only so far apart--a big investment. Some trees have the ability to produce fruit without a mate. I don't know the biology behind it but these are the trees I chose for my orchard to keep costs down and variety high.
- Root Stock - Commercial fruit trees are grown from a cutting taken from the branch of a mature fruit tree that has been grafted onto the root system of another tree. This is done for two reasons. First of all, if they were grown from seed, the seed would have been pollinated by some other unknown tree. Thus, you wouldn't get the same exact fruit from it, if any fruit at all. By propagating (essentially, cloning) an existing tree, you're guaranteed to get what you expect. Secondly, root stocks are specifically chosen by the nursery that will support the tree better than its native root stock. By doing this, you'll get much better fruit yield.
- Bare Root vs. Potted - There seem to be differences of opinion as to whether bare-root or potted trees work better. In the end, it came down to shipping and packaging for me. Bare root trees can be pulled out of the dirt, their roots wrapped in a little moist medium and plastic, and then shipped via UPS for a somewhat reasonable price. Trees of this size (about 5 feet tall) shipped in a pot with the added weight of wet soil would have required freight shipping, which is not only expensive but a hassle for delivery (like waiting for the cable guy to show-up between the hours of 9 and 5).
- When to Plant - Since I bought bare-root trees, they are currently dormant. From what I could tell from the accompanying literature, the idea is to get them in the ground as quickly as possible and they can be planted as long as the ground isn't so hard that you can't dig the hole. There are ways to trick them into staying dormant, but none were really realistic for my situation. So out I trudged into the very early spring mud and much and dug 5 holes. Hopefully, the roots will take hold well and we'll get nice leaves this year.