Wednesday, November 20, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1, I am writing this series to describe my real-life experiences in growing various fruits and nuts. I won’t be showing you pictures of flawless fruit or claiming that growing any of these plants will rescue us from the follies of treating a limited supply of fossil fuels as a limitless source of energy and riches. Rather, I’ll tell you honestly, and sometimes grumpily, what I’ve learned from growing them, in the hope that it will help you enjoy the fruits (and nuts) of your labor and save your neighborhood from the hazards of overfed wildlife.

In Part 1 I considered plants that can provide fruit in a single growing season and those that provide good crops after 2 or 3 years, for the benefit of those of you who have limited growing space or expect to be in your current location for five years or less.

For those of you who expect to remain in your current location for somewhere in the 6 to 10 year range and who have access to some land on which you can grow shrubs or trees, more possibilities lay before you. While I’m not going to go into the details on how to grow any of these plants, I will mention the things that I wish I had known before I planted them.


I have about 10 different blueberry plants. They are long lived and easy to care for, requiring only a winter pruning. Most people like blueberries and know how to use them in the kitchen. The plants are pretty when they bloom and the leaves are colorful in the autumn as shown above, so they are an attractive landscape plant as well as potentially providing delicious fruit.

I was quite excited when my plants began making berries for what I hoped would be several weeks’ worth of breakfast fruits. But I was not the only one watching the berries, and the birds won’t wait long enough to harvest ripe fruit. It wasn’t long before I caught a bird in the act of eating the unripe berries. OK, I thought, I’ll just get some bird netting and put it over the plants. Problem solved, right?


If you haven’t worked with bird netting, let me assure you that it is no fun at all. The material readily tangles with itself and with stray twigs, stems, and other small bits of poky stuff. Assuming you get it untangled and arrayed over the blueberry plant, you’ll have to figure out how to close off the bottom to keep the birds from walking under it. No, you won’t be able to neatly tie it around the stem of the plant like the catalog illustrations show you; the stuff is far too bulky when it’s gathered together in that fashion to secure. You’ll have to lay it on the ground and put weights on the edges to hold it down against the wind, or attach it to stakes around the plant. Don’t lay it down next to grass that you intend to mow, because sooner or later your mower will catch it.

And this isn’t the end of your problems with netting, not at all. For you’ll soon find that the plant is quite happy to grow through the net, rendering it more difficult to remove than it was to put on. Nor does even well weighted down or staked netting keep out all the birds … and some of those birds will die before you can remove them. And then you have to figure out how you are going to get into the net to get the ripe fruit. My advice on bird netting: skip it. And don’t bother with scare balloons or any of the other bird “repellents” being promoted to gullible growers. Take a deep breath and accept that the birds will eat more of the blueberries than you will. Maybe all of them. If you’re lucky, the neighbor’s mulberry tree will have ripe fruit at the same time your blueberries are ripening and the birds will spend enough time in the mulberry tree to leave you a few half-ripe blueberries to eat. That’s the only time I’ve ever eaten any blueberries from my plants. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I have both the native serviceberry, a large shrub to small tree, and one of the smaller shrubby species that are grown in parts of Canada as a cold-tolerant fruit crop. Both species bloom early and are very pretty in bloom but don’t bloom for long. I like the taste of the few fruits I’ve been fortunate enough to eat, which ripen about the time the strawberries finish, but the birds like them at least as much as I do and eat the vast majority of the fruit. If you plant it, plant it for the spring show of flowers and for the birds. As long as you don’t expect to eat any of the fruit yourself, you’ll be happy with serviceberries.

 Nanking cherries

Nanking cherries are shrubs in the same genus as cherry trees. They make fine landscape plants with their attractive white flowers and red fruits. You may harvest some cherries from if you catch them just as they ripen, before the fruit-eating birds have looked up from the nearest mulberry tree long enough to notice that the Nanking cherries are also ripe. The cherries are small enough to preclude eating out of hand (they have inedible pits just like their larger cousins), but they can be juiced and the juice makes a good wine. My shrubs did fine until the severe drought of late spring and summer 2012. The following year all three shrubs died. Possibly they would have lived had I irrigated them the previous summer, but I chose to focus my irrigation efforts elsewhere, and I decided not to replant them in favor of fruits that do better in my conditions.


This fruiting shrub has earned a place of honor in my heart, yard, and diet. These spreading, 10 to 12 foot tall shrubs leaf out early in the spring but don’t flower until late May or June, long past any danger of frost. The showy white flower clusters stand out since no other shrubs or trees bloom at this time. Best of all, the small red-black berries of the native elderberry make a delicious deep red wine, and although the birds do eat them, they will do so at a leisurely pace, allowing you to harvest enough for 2 or 3 gallons of wine from just two shrubs. If I only had enough room for one kind of fruiting shrub, this is the one I would choose. But the fruit isn’t tasty to eat out of hand, and it takes time and patience to pull off only the ripe berries on each cluster (there will always be some unripe berries to avoid picking). Still, if you decide you don’t want to bother harvesting them, the birds will happily do so, and you’ll still have the beauty of their flowers to enjoy. Or you could make elderflower wine from the flowers, if you can bear to remove them.

Mini-dwarf and columnar apples

If you want to have apples but don’t plan to stay in the same place past 10 years or have minimal space in which to grow them, consider the columnar apple trees or the mini-dwarfs. According to the nursery catalogs I receive, these will begin to bear within a few years. Dwarf apple trees may also bear well in this time frame; check with the seller to be sure. My apple trees are all semi-dwarfs and didn’t begin to bear well until they were 10 or so years old. I’ll discuss them in Part 3.


Mike is very fond of ripe pears and I like them too, so I planted two pear trees, one ‘Seckel’ and one multiple-cultivar tree. Soon I ran into the first problem: maintaining the multiple-cultivar tree so all four cultivars grafted onto the truck grew reasonably well. Pear trees would much rather send all their resources to only the highest-up cultivar, as my tree proceeded to do. For those of you who only have room for a single pear tree and need the multiple-cultivar trees to allow for cross-pollination, you must do a better job than I did to properly prune the tree to force it to devote resources to all of the cultivars.

Don’t think that just because you have enough room for two single-cultivar trees that will pollinate each other, you will harvest many sweet juicy pears. Most pear cultivars are very susceptible to fire blight, a bacterial disease that spreads rapidly during the warm, wet spring weather that we are prone to. While the ‘Seckel’ pear has not been affected too badly, the multiple-cultivar pear is nearly dead from this disease. Only in the dry and hot spring and summer of 2012, during which I noticed very little fire blight infection, did I get a large enough crop of pears from the tree to be worthwhile. And squirrels have proved willing to take more than their share of the pears. My advice: unless you live in a place with a dry growing season and you’re willing to irrigate the trees, leave the pears to others. 

Peaches, plums, and apricots

While I grew the pears more for Mike than for myself, I grew peaches, plums, and apricots for me. A ripe, juicy peach is one of the best gifts of summer in my opinion, and having apricots and plums, delicious in their own rights, would extend the availability of fresh home-grown fruit. My trees were bearing by the time they were 5 or so years old. Of the two peach varieties I planted, the dwarf peach tree died young while the white-fleshed cultivar is still alive and fruiting. All of the apricot and the purple-leaved plum trees (you can see the purple-leaved plums in the photo above) are in good shape. I’ve also grown the smaller native American plums.

Sadly, none of these trees have lived up to my hopes for them. The culprits include late frosts that kill the flowers and hence the fruits, brown rot afflicting most of the plums and peaches, a caterpillar that finds the area between the flesh and the pit to be its favored abode, and squirrels and birds eating most or all of the fruits before they ripen. Some of the the native American plums sport vicious thorns and all of mine produce sour fruits. You might be luckier with the stone fruit trees than I am if you are careful to remove all the fallen fruits (to reduce brown spot and perhaps the caterpillar attacks) and if you can protect the trees against late frosts or they are not of concern where you live – and if you don’t have squirrels or birds who are looking for an easy snack.


I have grown both the native, shrubby American hazelnut and the European hazel tree. The shrubs come into bearing within 2 to 3 years, the trees a few years later. If you don’t have squirrels you will find these shrubs and trees will happily bear nuts for you. On the other hand, if you have squirrels, they will harvest the nuts for you, and the squirrels around here do not believe in sharing the harvest. A few years back I removed the hazel trees to allow more sun to reach the nearby apricots and pears. The American hazels earn their keep by screening the view of the lots next door and providing shelter and food for all the other lives in the yard, plus the autumn color, shown above, is attractive.

Part 3 will take a look at some fruit and nut trees that take a longer time to bear but are so worth it when they do.