Apples

Last week we began to cover “stealth prepper gardening” by planting fruit and nut trees. I call it “stealth,” because for a lot of busybodies, a few new trees in a front and back yard isn’t the sign of a whack-job survivalist. No, it’s an expression of love and reverence for Gaia, or some such twaddle. And most people won’t know the difference between a young pear tree and a shoe tree anyway.

But because my email tells me a lot of folks don’t really read my columns before telling me what’s wrong with them, here’s an important reminder: I am in no way suggesting a diet of fruits and nuts alone will provide you with all the nutrients you’ll need to sustain your mortal coil. At least, not directly. But I’ve made plenty of trades in my life – of pears for pork and strawberries for steaks. Where I live, there are a lot of people raising meat but not a whole lot harvesting peaches. A pound-for-pound swap of protein for produce is fairly common. So maybe you’ve decided to go “Johnny Appleseed” after all.

(By the way, here’s an interesting side-note concerning the beloved historical character of Johnny (John Chapman) Appleseed. John Chapman, unlike the happy-go-lucky and free-handed character created primarily by Disney, was actually a pretty shrewd man of business. Yes, he roamed the eastern United States, often barefoot with a tin pot on his head for a hat. But rather than just planting apples hither and thither, he usually located prime ground, bought it, set up a nursery and hired a manager to run the place before moving on. At the time of his death in 1845, he left an estate of 1200 acres of prime land to his sister. Also Johnny, for religious reasons, didn’t approve of grafting cultivars to root stock (the almost universal way of consistently growing apples suitable for consumption), so while most of his apples were pretty much inedible, they were absolutely perfect for making hard cider. And thus the west was won.)

But enough about that. Let’s get back to fruit tree planting. Obviously there are a lot of varieties available when considering which types of fruits or nuts you’d like to grow; but just like every other garden-producing plant, only certain varieties can grow in certain places. You won’t have any luck with lemon trees in North Dakota and apples don’t grow well in Florida. So the first thing you need to determine is what types of trees grow in your location, and the best way to do that is to head over to a local tree nursery and ask them.

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This doesn’t mean you should necessarily buy your trees there (although supporting local businesses is good for community-building). After you’ve gotten the nursery’s advice, get online and hit up some of the e-stores. Not only will they likely have more variety, but sites like Stark Bros often have voluminous how-to sections with planting advice that can really help you out.

Obviously, I can’t provide too much detail on fruit and nut tree production in this limited space. If you really want to bone up before you go to digging, I’d recommend taking a look at “The Fruit Gardener’s Bible .”

As I said above, some trees do well in some locations and not-so-well in others. One of the best ways to determine what will do well where you are is to make use of the Sunset Climate Zone system. Yep, Sunset, the magazine that used to be on your parent’s coffee table, especially if you lived west of Kansas. The folks at Sunset Magazine put a lot of effort into creating climate zone maps for most of the United States that are a big improvement over the usual USDA plant hardiness zone maps. By incorporating other factors into zone creation like latitude, elevation and topography into their model, you can get a lot closer to the ideal for your specific location. Most tree sellers are now using the Sunset system. You can find the Sunset zone map here (scroll down a bit).

Aside from tree type and zone, the next biggest hurdle is the soil that tree will go into. Most fruit and nut trees don’t like wet feet. Well-drained soils are therefore important. Here at the McLene compound, we rest on a hard clay base at about a foot down. When I planted my trees, I had to amend both the underlying soil with sand and well-aged compost, as well as plant on mounds of the same. Other growers have used buried drain tiles to increase permeability. And while certain fruits like apple and cherry can be pretty particular about having drier roots, some fruit trees, like pears, are more tolerant

Now, let’s take a look that tree size and yield. Most varieties of fruit-bearing trees come in different sizes defined as dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard. A mature dwarf apple tree might produce as much as 200 pounds of apples in a season, while a mature standard of the same variety might grace you with twice as much fruit. The choice you make can be based on space requirements as well as your ability to store 400 pounds of produce per tree. Remember, fruit trees need at least 6 hours of sunlight for best production during the growing season, so make sure there’s nothing between your trees and the sun.

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Finally, consider a little something called “chill hours.” To get proper flowering and fruiting in the following spring, fruit trees require a certain amount of cold temperatures each winter. A failure to get sufficient chill hours under 45oF each year – based on the variety – can cause a failure in bud, leaf and fruit production in the following season. So before you buy that tree for planting, make sure you have the necessary average cold days per year to fulfill the chill hour needs of your trees.

Planting and growing fruit and nut trees isn’t rocket science. It’s more like following a cook book recipe. You want your trees to grow. They want to grow. God wants them to be fruitful and to multiply. If the tree you planted in spring doesn’t make it to fall, it’s because you didn’t follow the recipe. This article doesn’t begin to provide that recipe, of course. I didn’t get into the fact that some fruit trees will self-pollinate while other must cross-pollinate (but even the self-pollinating types do better production-wise with a cross-pollinator).

Study up. Hit the Stark Bros web page. Buy a book or two. Then plant a couple of fruit trees. They are absolutely God-designed for long-term prep. Plus they make a good sitting shade while sipping some cider and toasting the memory of Johnny Appleseed.

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