Tree Fruit & Small Fruit Tips

Tree Fruit & Small Fruit Tips

by Rod Smith

Former Iowa Certified Nurseryman and
Oregon Certified Nursery Professional

© 1999-2024 Rodney A. Smith
All rights reserved.

Tree Fruits

Many fruit trees require at least two varieties for cross pollination in order to get a good crop of fruit, but these fruit trees will have a good crop by themselves: apricots, pie cherries, figs, nectarines, peaches, prunes and persimmons.

Also these varieties will have a good crop by themselves, though they will often have more fruit with cross pollination:
Apples: Braeburn, Chehalis, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Jonathan, Pink Lady, Red Rome, Summer Red and Winesap,
Sweet cherries: Early Burlat, Lapins, Rainier and Stella,
Pears: Moonglow, Red Bartlett, Starkcrimson and 20th Century,
Plums: Beauty, Green Gage, Methley and Shiro.

If there is room for only one fruit tree, plant a self-pollenizing fruit or a combination tree with two or more varieties grafted onto it. There are also combination trees that include apricots, cherries, nectarines and peaches.

The difference between plums and prunes is that prunes can be dried with the pit inside, while plums will spoil if the pit is not removed before drying. Both can be eaten fresh or dried. Also, prunes are egg shaped and self-pollenizing, while plums are round and most varieties need a pollenizer.

Asian Pear

Asian pears will often have fruit the first year. They are the easiest tree fruit to grow. Apples, European pears, figs and persimmons are also easy to grow. Apricots, nectarines, peaches, and cherries need more care because of disease problems. OSU Extension Services has a excellent guide at Managing Diseases and Insects in Home Orchards

Dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks are available for most fruit trees. These smaller trees are much easier to prune, spray and harvest than full sized trees. Plant the tree so the graft is at least two inches above ground level, because the tree will grow to full size if the trunk sends out roots above the graft. Dwarf trees will grow 8 to 15 feet tall. Semi-dwarf trees will grow 12 to 20 feet tall. Pruning makes a big difference in size. Semi-dwarf trees are usually stronger and bear fruit sooner than dwarf trees.

Fruit trees should be trained to have a single, upright trunk with well spaced, spreading side branches. The tree should be cone shaped so the upper branches do not shade out the lower branches. The first five years are the most important for training a fruit tree so it develops a strong structure. After many years, branches becomes less productive. Sometimes a newer sprout should be allowed to develop for a couple of years, then, remove the nearest old branch.

Fruit trees have to be pruned differently, depending on whether they produce their flowers and fruit on old wood or new wood. At harvest time, look to see where the fruit is found. Notice if more fruit is produced on branches that grow fast or slow. Then adjust your pruning and fertilizing accordingly.

Apples, cherries, pears, and plums bear fruit on fruit spurs, which are short twigs on older wood. Spurs will die out if they are shaded too much. Upper and outer branches should be pruned to let light and air into the center of the tree so the fruit spurs will remain healthy. Pruning the longest twigs back to three to five leaves in mid-July to mid-August, when they are at least the thickness of a pencil, will encourage more fruit spurs to form.

Peaches, nectarines and apricots bear fruit on one year old wood. A few older branches can be removed each year to encourage more new growth.

Suckers and water sprouts grow rapidly straight up. They do not produce fruit, and they shade out the spreading branches that do produce fruit. They can be plucked off when they first appear in June much easier than cutting them off later. Or, they can be tied down so they grow outward and become productive branches. The most productive branches grow at an angle between horizontal and forty-five degrees. Thirty degrees is ideal.

Ringing young tree

Ringing is a technique that can help young fruit trees start bearing more fruit at a younger age. In late July or early August, a knife is used to cut through the bark to the wood all around the trunk below the lowest branch. A second cut is made a sixteenth of an inch above or below the first cut. Then the ring of bark is removed. This prevents sugars from flowing down to the roots, so there is more food in the top of the tree to promote the production of more flower buds. The cut has to be narrow enough that the ring will heal before growth stops in the fall. Ringing a tree the first two years is enough to switch the tree from growth mode to fruiting mode.

Fruit trees can be pruned in the winter, spring, or summer. Winter pruning causes a tree to grow more vigorously. Spring pruning, after the fruit has set, keeps dwarf trees smaller and does not reduce the fruit crop as much. By mid-spring, it is obvious which branches are producing fruit and which are not, so productive branches can be saved. Cutting back vigorous apple and pear twigs to three to five buds in mid-summer will encourage more fruit spurs.

Tree fruits will have the most flavor if they are allowed to ripen on the tree and eaten right away. But, they will store longer if they are picked before they are fully ripe. When ripe, the green background color will change to yellow. For red fruit, look at the bottom of the fruit to see the background color.

Another test for ripeness is to push on the fruit to check for softness. Ripe fruit will be considerably softer than green fruit. A ripe peach or nectarine will dent easily with a fingertip. For apples and pears, a piece of skin is peeled off and a special pressure gauge is used to test for firmness.

European pears should not be allowed to ripen fully on the tree, because by the time the outside is ripe, the inside is mushy. It is better to pick European pears when they first begin to show a hint of yellow, and let them ripen indoors. A few days in the refrigerator begins the ripening process. Pears will then ripen in a few days to a few weeks at room temperature.

To harvest fruit easily without bruising or damaging it, put your thumb next to the stem and wrap your fingers around the fruit. Lift and rotate the fruit so the stem is bent. If the fruit stem does not separate easily from the tree, the fruit is still green. Twisting and pulling on the fruit will bruise it and it will start to decay much sooner. Handle fruit carefully, because dropping a freshly picked apple even a quarter of an inch will bruise it.

Recommended Varieties

The Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks has Cultivar Susceptibility Tables for some fruits.

Braeburn: Green/red. Excellent flavor. Self-pollinizing.
Chehalis: Yellow. Resistant to scab and mildew. Excellent flavor, crisp and juicy. Self-pollinizing.
Freedom: Red. Highly resistant to scab, mildew and rust. Self-pollinizing.
Gala: Orange red. Excellent flavor. Self-pollinizing.
Jonagold: Reddish gold. Resistant to scab. Excellent flavor.
Liberty: Dark red. Highly resistant to scab and mildew.
Shay: Red. Resistant to scab and mildew.

Chinese: Orange with red blush. Tolerates late frosts. Self-pollinizing.
Puget Gold: Orange. Very good flavor. Tolerates cool spring weather. Self-pollinizing.

Fig trees

Bing: Almost black. The most popular variety.
Rainier: Yellow and red. Resistant to cracking. Excellent flavor. Self-pollinizing.
Stella: Black. Resistant to cracking. Self-pollenizing.
Van: Dark red. Resistant to cracking. Very sweet.

Brown Turkey: Mahogany brown skin. Cold hardy. Self-pollinizing.
Lattarula: Yellowish green. Honey colored flesh. Cold hardy. Self-pollinizing.

Frost: Yellow. Freestone. Very resistant to peach leaf curl. Self-pollinizing.
Redhaven: Red. Semi-freestone. Very resistant to peach leaf curl. Self-pollinizing.

Anjou: Green. Good keeper.
Bartlett: Yellow. The most popular pear.
Red Bartlett: Red. Self-pollinizing.

Asian Pears
20th Century: Yellow. Self pollinizing.
Hosui: Golden brown. Excellent flavor.

Nubiana: Purple-black. Midseason. Self-pollinizing.
Santa Rosa: Purplish red. Early. The most popular Japanese plum.

Brooks: Blue skin. Yellow flesh. Midseason. Very reliable. Self-pollinizing.
Stanley: Purplish black. Yellow flesh. Midseason. Self-pollinizing.

Watering recommendations for fruits taken from The Sunset Western Garden Book.
Apple        Low-Medium    Water during long dry spells.
Apricot      Medium        Infrequent, deep watering.
Blackberry   High          Water during growing season. 
Blueberry    Very High     Frequent water.
Cherry       High          Regular, deep watering.
Currant      High          Regular water.
Fig          Low           Needs no water once established.
Gooseberry   High          Water to maintain growth.
Grape        Low-Medium    Little water once established.
Kiwi         High          Regular watering.
Mango        High          Maintain steady soil moisture.
Nectarine    High          Water while fruit is forming in hot weather.      
Peach        High          Water while fruit is forming in hot weather.
Pear         Medium-High   Regular water during growing season.
Persimmon    High          Regular deep water.
Plum         Medium        Best with some deep watering in summer.
Raspberry    High          Regular water.
Strawberry   Very High     Frequent, deep soaking.

Small Fruits

King Berry

Blackberries, Blueberries, Currants, Gooseberries, Grapes, Kiwi, Raspberries and Strawberries are all Small Fruits. Most do not ripen all at once, so to harvest the fruit at their peak of flavor, they have to be picked every few days. The fruit are evenly colored when they are ripe. However, blackberries that are shiny black are usually a bit sour. They are the sweetest when they lose some of their shine. Likewise, gooseberries are often picked when they are green and sour, but they are sweetest when they turn brown.

Blackberries, Raspberries and Strawberries have a king berry that is on the very end of the fruit stalk. It is always the first to ripen. The secondary and tertiary berries ripen later. It takes a gentle touch to harvest them without smashing them. Bending blackberry fruit sideways will make them break free from the stalk.

Blackberries are trained on a trellis like grapes. After harvest, the canes which have fruited are cut down to make room for the new canes which will produce fruit the next summer. In the fall, the canes are gathered into bundles and trained on a trellis.

European Grape

European Grapes, Vitis vinifera, are trained differently than American Grapes, Vitis labrusca. European Grapes are trained vertically to encourage them to grow more vigorously. As the new canes grow, they are tucked between pairs of wires. American grapes are trained horizontally to slow down their vigorous growth. Two common training methods are cane pruning and spur pruning. For cane pruning, only the trunk is permanent. Each winter, the old canes are cut back to two buds, and two new canes which have grown from the trunk are trained horizontally. For spur pruning, the trunk and horizontal canes are permanent. Each winter, the new canes are cut back to one or two buds. A starting guide is to leave 35 buds on each grape plant.

Recommended Varieties

Bluecrop: Blue. Midseason.
Blueray: Light blue. Midseason.
Earliblue: Blue. Early midseason. Bright red wood.

Boysenberry: Reddish black.
Marionberry: Black.

Flame: Red seedless. Early. Crunchy sweet.
Lakemont: White seedless. Midseason.
Suffolk Red: Red seedless. Midseason.

Autumn Bliss: Red. Everbearing from late July through September. Disease resistant.
Canby: Bright red. Thornless.
Heritage: Dark red. Berries in June and September.
Meeker: Bright red.
Munger: Black.

Tri-Star: Very sweet and flavorful. Day neutral so it bears fruit from June through September.
Hood: Sweet and flavorful. June bearing.

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