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Fruit Tree Basics

Question. Can I grow Red Delicious apples in my yard from the seeds of store-bought apples? When my mother came here from West Africa at the age of 94 to see her grandchildren for the very first time we picked Red Delicious apples at an orchard together and they became her favorite fruit. That's a time I will never forget, and I would really like to grow at least one tree as a memorial to her.

---Gore in Upper Darby, PA

When and what should I use to protect my peach tree from insects and other harmful things?

---Ray in Broken Arrow, OK

I have a dozen five-year old fruit trees in New York's Hudson Valley. They received no attention after being planted and have not grown very well. Last fall I put a layer of wood chips around them to try and retain moisture, and cut the limbs back hoping to generate more root growth. What is the best way to supply them with a lot of nutrients in the spring? I want something that won't get washed away in the first good rain.

---Sean; West 29th St. in New York City

Answer. Fruit trees require much more attention and care than I can detail in a couple of minutes. But this is a good time to discuss the basics—and I have to yell at Sean.

Don't guess at what these trees need! If they've been neglected for five years you should be happy they're alive—if they still are after your double-barreled attack. Wood mulches can be death to any plant, especially ones starved for food. And no plant should EVER be pruned in the Fall—especially Spring bloomers like fruit trees. You go and apologize to those poor trees right now, young man! (And get rid of that wood mulch!)

Alright. Now, yes, you can grow apple trees from seed; John Chapman (better known as the legendary but very real "Johnny Appleseed") did it over a vast scale. But it is not recommended, for two big reasons.
  1. Apples do not 'come true' from seed; that means you never know what kind of apples you'll get. As the old saying goes, "Seeds from even the sweetest apples may bear sour fruit."

  2. It adds many years to an already fairly lengthy growing time.
So start with purchased trees. Look for varieties that say they're disease resistant; the older the trees the better. And stick with dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties in home landscapes.

Plant in early Spring or early Fall, but never in summer; on high ground (not down in a frost pocket) in an uncrowded area that gets morning sun. Dig a wide hole so the roots can expand outward, but don't improve the soil in the hole or those roots will stay huddled close to the tree. Fill the hole back up with the nasty soil you dug up; we'll improve it slowly over time by adding compost on the surface.

Immediately after planting, let a hose drip very gently at the base of the tree for 48 hours. Repeat for a few hours every couple of days if rain is scarce over the next several weeks. Then be ready to water during any drought—that's a week without rain—the first year.

Mulch the ground around the tree with an inch of high quality compost. Start six inches away from the trunk and go out as far as you can. This will feed the tree, encourage the roots to spread, prevent weeds and disease and promote world peace. Do not use wood, bark, triple-premium-shredded anything, rubber, stone, crushed wombats or any other mulch; only compost. And top it off with a fresh inch later in the season.

To prevent disease, I spray my wife's three year-old peach trees several times during the growing season with "Messenger" (also sold as "Green Guard"). This relatively new product contains a protein isolated from a common fruit tree disease, and essentially vaccinates plants against illness. So far—dare I say it out loud?—it has completely kept at bay all those nasty diseases that love to attack fruit trees.