Selection of Fruit Trees for the Small Farm

The following information on the selection of fruit trees for the small orchard comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

Income from fruits, especially tree fruits (most of all from the apple) is so largely dependent upon the variety or varieties grown that it is essential to success to ponder the main points before placing a nursery order. (Chapter 33)

Recent surveys show that whereas Michigan and New York orchards contain nearly 250 varieties each of apples, Washington State has less than 75. This is because in the former states orchards were planted mainly to supply relatively local markets, whereas Washington growers aimed for distant ones, even the Atlantic Coast and Europe. Taking the country over, estimates place only 25 varieties in the prominently commercial class, of which 15 make up more than 70% and of which more than half (37% of the total) consists of five leaders—Delicious, Jonathan, Stayman Winesap, Winesap, and McIntosh.

More striking even than this: the survey brought out the fact that though in former years many varieties of high production and good color but of low quality were largely planted, recent plantings indicate that such kinds—Ben Davis, York Imperial, Gano and Arkansas, as instances—are being omitted from nursery orders and higher quality varieties substituted.

Before the advent of the automobile when shipments to market were made almost exclusively by rail and water, individual commercial orchardists restricted their lists of varieties to less than half a dozen—usually only three or four—because they shipped in car-lots or cargoes. Now that auto-trucks are so largely used the tendency is to plant six to ten successionally ripening varieties so as to reduce the rush at harvest and thus employ smaller numbers of men over longer periods.

Except in orchards where special marketing advantages exist, summer and early autumn varieties of apples and pears are shunned by commercial growers because of their perishable nature. Winter varieties are far more widely planted because they can be handled to greatest advantage, especially for distant markets and where the grower has his own cold storage house, as many of the larger ones have. The result is city markets are poorly supplied with summer and early fall apples and pears.

So here is one of the most important points for the small grower to consider when choosing varieties for the local market, especially the roadside market. As the small farm cannot produce winter fruit in competition with the large growers these varieties should be the first to pass by. For the roadside market they should also usually be omitted because the season of such marketing generally continues only during the growing season, if that long—April to November—so winter fruit would have to be sold through some other outlet.

Conversely, summer and fall ripening varieties are ideal for local and roadside markets, first because of their usually short supplies and second because of their generally perishable character—they cannot be kept or shipped as successfully as winter fruit.

Two other advantages summer and early fall apples have over late fall and winter kinds are first that they generally begin to bear fruit when much younger—often in less than five years; second, early kinds usually bear moderate to even large crops every year, whereas most winter kinds have their “full” and “off” years, unless specially trained and their fruit well thinned. The assigned reason for this latter characteristic is that as the fruit ripens early the trees have opportunity after harvest to store up plant food and develop flower buds for fruit production the following year; whereas after winter fruit has been gathered there are only a few days or at most weeks before winter. Thus under normal conditions and treatment summer and autumn varieties not only begin to pay sooner than do the winter kinds but they assure an increasing annual income until they reach full bearing when they often yield larger profits than do winter kinds of the same age.

No matter whether the varieties chosen be early or late ripening kinds, too much emphasis cannot be placed upon high quality, especially for one’s own roadside market or for “personal customers.” In spite of the steady enhancement of quality in commercial orchards the markets are still full of inferior fruit. So when a customer discovers a reliable source of high quality fruit not only his custom but that of his friends is assured.

Though many of our choicest quality apples have unattractive color (for instance, Swaar, Pomme Grise, and Roxbury Russet) the public is so slow to learn and to recognize them that such varieties should be planted solely for home use and to share the surplus, if any, with a few discriminating friends and patrons. The general public “eats with its eyes”; therefore “any color so long as it’s red” is what will open the public purse. If pleased with the quality there will be no difficulty in making further sales. So for profit it is wise to plant only red skinned varieties.

Before deciding on the list of varieties to plant it is advisable still further to know intimately the characteristics of each one so as to avoid trouble or loss later on. Some varieties such as Tompkins King and Grimes Golden are subject to collar rot, a disease that attacks the trunks at the surface of the ground and kills the trees. It may be avoided by “double working,” that is, grafting the Grimes on a variety known to be resistant or immune to this disease. Some nurseries list such trees, always however at prices above those of ordinarily propagated trees. Alexander and Wolf River (baking varieties) are subject to more or less decay of the fruit while still on the trees, so they require extra spraying. Chenango Strawberry, a delicious dessert variety, is also subject to this disease. Baldwin seems specially subject to attacks of bitter rot and railroad worm, both of which are difficult to control. Canada Red shrivels badly in storage, Hubbardston also to some extent. Lady and Pomme Grise (the former beautifully colored, the latter not), are so small that unless one has a special market they will not pay. Esopus Spitzenburg, though delicious, beautiful and fragrant, often bears too few fruits to be profitable. McIntosh and Yellow Transparent are subject to fire blight. And so on! The peculiarities of each variety should be carefully weighed before a decision is reached whether to discard or to include it. You cannot know too much about a variety before ordering it!

For local market, personal customers, mail and express orders, and roadside marketing one of the most important points to assure in an orchard planting is selection of varieties that ripen successionally from earliest to latest—at least the latest that one desires to have the season extend, not necessarily to include winter varieties. By having such a sequence a customer pleased at the beginning of the season will continue to buy until the close, whereas if there are serious breaks his trade will be much more difficult to re-establish when a new supply begins to ripen.

So far as supplying home needs is concerned, every farm, large or small, should have its quota of tree fruits, enough trees of each species to supply, but not over-supply the family during the entire year with all the fruit it can use either fresh or preserved. Calculation as to the amount likely to be needed should be made on the basis of trees in full bearing, even though while young they will not bear enough to supply the demand for fresh fruit, to say nothing of canning. Otherwise the probability is that there would be over-supply and waste.

The varieties of each species should ripen successionally so as to avoid having a greater quantity of any one kind than can be conveniently handled. Thus, as maximums, one sweet cherry tree of each of three varieties—early, mid-season and late—when full grown should produce fruit for even a large family. Sour cherry trees, being much smaller, two each of three varieties should be ample. Five or six varieties of peaches, two trees each of the earliest for slicing and three or four of the later ones for canning should give abundant fruit for eight to ten weeks used fresh and as canned throughout the year.

field mice poison station

Fig. 56. Field mice poison station made from old 1″ boards. Poisoned grain is placed in 1/2″ depression beneath hood.

Early pears, like early peaches, are useful only for eating raw; they are too watery or soft for canning and too perishable to warrant planting more than one tree of a variety for home use. A total of eight or ten trees to cover the season from August to December and for canning (in September and October) will be all that any family will be likely to need. Summer and early autumn apples are also perishable, therefore only one or at most two trees of a variety should usually be planted. Later fall varieties are less perishable, and among them are some of the best for canning, so two or even three trees may not be too many, provided space can be spared for them. Where space is too precious winter varieties may be omitted because cooking apples may be bought in the neighborhood or the markets until strawberries are ripe the following summer.

One or two quince trees will usually bear enough fruit for any family. As they are smaller than any orchard trees they should be planted separately. Though apricot trees are hardy, their blossoms are often killed by spring frosts. They should, therefore, be planted for ornament and in the hope that they may escape damage. Two or three trees of different varieties—early, mid-season and late—should be enough for a family. Two or three nectarines might be added more for curiosity than anything else. Of course, if there is any surplus from any of these trees it should be easy to sell, provided its quality is sufficiently good to attract buyers.

Just what, if any, tree fruits one should grow on a small place in the hope of making them profitable is a question to be weighed seriously before deciding. As it is folly to plant trees closer together than they should stand when full grown (See the Appendix), the space they would occupy may perhaps be made to pay larger returns during the same period of years, but normally less after the trees reach full bearing.

Peach trees often begin to bear when three years old and though their commercial life is only about ten years, they may be made to continue in bearing for two or three times as long. Sour cherry and plum trees sometimes start to bear when four years old and unless killed by black knot or other diseases continue for 20 or 30 years. Sweet cherry may start when four years old but continue for 40, 50 or more years. Some varieties of apple, mostly early ones, begin to bear when three or four years old, others not until 10 or even 15, though much time may be saved by proper management. Often they bear well for so to 75 years or even longer.

Before discarding the idea of growing tree fruits for profit on the small place consider this point: While the relatively slow-maturing sweet cherry and apple trees are developing the spaces between them may be occupied with “filler” trees of smaller kinds which mature quickly, bear liberally, and under ordinary conditions are shorter lived. The peach is the favorite filler in apple orchards for these reasons. However, objections are often raised concerning it. Among them are the facts, first, that the trees require spraying or dusting with different (or weaker) mixtures than do apple and thus demand unreasonable expenditure of time and attention; second, the filler trees may be so profitable that they may be allowed to remain so long that the permanent cherry or apple trees may be injured by crowding, especially when they are set closer together than the recommended distances. The only way to prevent such a calamity (for so it may become) is to delegate their destruction to some heartless hireling and absent oneself from the murder of the innocents!

Even when permanent and filler trees are planted together it is not necessary or even advisable to let them have exclusive possession of the ground while they are small. Temporary, inter-tilled crops may be grown between the trees for several years. Under no temptation should such crops be hay, grain or any perennial vegetable like asparagus. These demand much moisture and plant food (the former especially), encourage neglect of the trees and make losses by borers much more likely than when the ground is cultivated cleanly.

Among the best inter-tilled crops are strawberries (cropped one year and then plowed under), tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, early (not late) potatoes; in fact, any crop that is shallow rooted, does not require deep stirring of the soil after late summer, and preferably is gathered before the first autumn frost or soon after so a cover crop may be left in possession of the land for the balance of the season. By using such crops many a man has paid all the costs of his orchard from planting to profitable bearing age, and in some cases even made a profit before the trees began to bear. It must always be borne in mind, however, that the permanent crop—the orchard—is the real investment. This must not be neglected for any incidental profit that might be derived from any temporary crop. As the trees increase in spread the available area between them will necessarily become narrower until, eventually, they will shade the ground too much to make the growing of temporary crops feasible.

Unless the orchard area is very narrow in proportion to its length it is a good plan to have the rows of temporary crops extend lengthwise one year and crosswise in the following season. Such alternation of direction will break up and aerate the soil between the trees in each direction and thus not only better control perennial weeds but prevent the soil from becoming unduly compacted.

The 25-year-old apple orchard soil fertility experiments at the Pennsylvania Experiment Station support the opinions of fruit growers in the conclusions chosen and condensed from Bulletin 294 as follows: [Italics are mine. M.G.K.]

  1. Orchard soil fertility is more than its plant food content. It involves the nature, depth, topography, previous treatment, use of fertilizers and manures, amount and nature of cultivation and covers or sods grown. Fertilizers are only part of the problem of soil fertility.
  2. In this orchard, any treatment that has influenced the trees at all has done so in the following order: first, cover crops; perhaps several years later, leaf color; shortly after, branch growth and circumference increase; and last of all, yield.
  3. The reason for this sequence of results is that the treatments—whether chemical fertilizers, manure or cover crops—have influenced yields chiefly by changing the organic content of the soil; that is, those treatments which have resulted in larger cover crops have ultimately resulted in more fruit.
  4. The organic content of the soil has been a considerable factor in determining the amount of water in the soil. Those treatments which built up organic content have enabled the soil to soak up rainfall rather than to lose it by surface run-off. A larger water supply, in turn, has produced more cover crops.
  5. Good treatments have nearly offset the initial disadvantage of poor soil; but it is more economical to plant an orchard on good soil, than to attempt the improvement of a poor one.
  6. A short, non-legume sod rotation is an efficient means of building up a depleted orchard soil. After a sod of any kind becomes thick, tree growth is checked and yields decline. Orchard sods should be turned under, or partially broken, frequently.
  7. Moisture conditions are often more favorable in sod orchards than in cultivated ones. Run-off is checked by the sod and less water is used by a sod in midsummer, after it has been mowed, than by a heavy cover crop.
  8. Under a non-legume sod, the soil nitrate supply becomes low in late May or early June, necessitating early applications of nitrogenous fertilizers. Annual, per tree, applications of 10 pounds of nitrate of soda or its equivalent of ammonia or other forms, have proved profitable. Superphosphate, in light applications, has increased sod and cover crop growth.
  9. Trees that received annual tillage and July seeding of cover crops have not done so well as those under sod culture rotations. If the cover crops are seeded in early June the difference may not be marked.

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Selection of Fruit Trees for the Small Farm

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