By Hannah Selinger – April 18, 2019
With spring arrives the looming specter of the untended garden, left dormant since the first freeze. There is weeding and digging and clearing to be done, irrigation to turn on, trees to prune. For those interested in growing fruit, however, the beginning of the growing season is even more complex.
“It’s a great area for growing fruit on Long Island,” arborist Jackson Dodds, owner of Southampton’s Jackson Dodds & Co. Landscape, said of the East End. “Apple trees, peach trees, blueberries, and cranberries have grown really well. There’s a little acidity in the soil. The pH is good for it … It’s kind of a finishing touch for the garden.” But planting fruit trees — and, specifically, coaxing fruit from said trees — is a lofty endeavor, and one that requires a dedicated, patient hand (and, sometimes, a little help from a trained professional).
If you find yourself drawn to the idea of an orchard (or even to the idea of a few wayward, fruit-bearing trees), heed the time-tested advice of your local arborist. “The very first thing you want to do is select the right tree,” Dodds said. He suggests recognizing soil conditions, as fruit trees prefer loamy, well-drained soil and full, unadulterated sun. Arborist Shawn Rathjens of East Hampton’s ArborTech Tree & Lawn Care, expands upon that point. Prior to planting, he recommends a soil test. “Soil test and irrigation would be the first two factors, before I even thought about buying a tree,” he said. “And location. You don’t want to put it in the shade.”
Fruit lovers should also know that a tree cannot produce fruit unless it is planted within 50 feet of other fruit trees; cross-pollination between trees is necessary for fruit bearing. Rathjens recommends that people looking to plant five or more mature fruit trees consider investing in a beehive, to assist with pollination. Once the soil has been tested, it comes down to the brass tacks of tree selection. Different varieties of the same fruit grow on different sized trees, which can play a role in knowing what to plant on which property. Some hybrids, like the 3-in-1 apple tree, have been hybridized to grow more than one type of apple in the same tree, offering those with smaller dedicated planting space more variety for their money.
Soil conditions and sunlight notwithstanding, fruit trees are stubborn. Most will not cooperate without regular attention — and that means, among other things, dedicated pruning. On the South Fork, humidity encourages the growth of fungus, but intervention can lessen the damage. “You’re going to have a certain amount of leaf disease on the South Fork no matter what,” Dodds said. “It’s a very wet spring here. But what you can do is reduce the amount of activity by doing proper pruning in the winter, thinning out the tree. It’s maintaining that balance between aesthetic and proper pruning for fruit. If you don’t prune enough, the new branches won’t support the weight of the fruit.”
Pruning may be the most useful tool in the amateur orchard owner’s arsenal, it turns out. “Often, if people have issues [getting fruit], it’s related to the fact that the trees haven’t been pruned,” Alex Feleppa, sales manager at East Hampton’s Whitmores Tree Farm, said. “You need to make sure that they’re well pruned, and pruned annually. Pruning promotes new growth, and proper pruning promotes new growth the way you want it.” At Whitmores, the tree team also offers trained trees, which have been pruned in a manner consistent with grape vines, thinning the leaf canopy and allowing an increase of light contact with the fruit itself. Training a young tree may be outside of the scope of a first-time fruit tree owner, but a once-yearly hard prune on an adolescent tree is the type of landscaping task that anyone can achieve, with a little direction. “There’s fabulous pruning guides out there,” Feleppa said. “You can definitely do it yourself.”
Consulting an arborist, however, is never a bad idea. At ArborTech, Rathjens offers a specific fruit tree care program, which clients can customize to meet their needs. “I offer full organic programs and hybrid programs, which is half chemical and half organic,” he said. “[For the hybrid programs] I will do applications up until bloom, and after that I will maintain organically. I also do lures, which are pheromone traps for different kinds of insects.” Beyond pest and fungus treatment, arborists are also able to test the acidity of the soil in advance of planting, so that gardeners can adjust the pH level to meet their trees’ needs. Arborists, Dodds said, can identify soil drainage problems, offer recommendations for future success, and diagnose tree diseases and issues, like sun-scalding, a condition that occurs when a tree abruptly encounters too much direct sunlight, or cedar apple rust, a disease spread by planting an apple tree near a juniper.
Although first-time tree growers might be ambitious, envisioning an orchard filled with everything from heirloom apples to tender apricots, most tree professionals recommend staying within some fairly strict parameters. While box stores, like Home Depot, may carry a variety of specialized fruit trees, growers are better off sticking to what the microclimate dictates. “Apples are very consistent,” Dodds said. “Everybody associates them with New York,” Feleppa added. “We can do peaches, but they’re so much work. You need to treat them all the time. They’re all in the rose family. Some of the fungal issues for peaches, and the fruit being so delicate… I remember my dad having a peach tree growing up, and him feeling so victorious getting one peach.”
On the South Fork, then, the apple is still king. “Here at the farm,” Feleppa said, “we grow tons of different types of apples. We’re growing 10 different varieties of apples. It’s all across the board. It’s kind of market-driven. People love the Red Delicious, the Empire, the Macoun.” Still, there are always overachievers, looking to go above and beyond the expected. Pears, plums, cherries, peaches, and figs also can grow on Eastern Long Island — with some caveats. Plums, Dodds said, are notoriously inconsistent on the South Fork. “I can get them to grow,” Rathjens said of cherries and plums, “but if you just plant a tree and think you’re going to get fruit from a cherry and a plum, it’s not going to happen. With more sensitive trees like that, I recommend that you have someone put a program together to take care of those trees. They’re more sensitive trees. They’re more susceptible to disease and funguses, so the upkeep on them has to be a little higher. An apple tree is a heartier tree.”
Plum lovers might benefit from embracing a local species, the beach plum, which offers the added bonus of a spray of lovely white flowers in the spring. These tart fruits, which thrive in sandy soil, are doubly magic; since they’re considered native vegetation, homeowners who are over-cleared can use them to plant back up to town code. Of course, against the backdrop of climate change, what grows well on Eastern Long Island could very well change over the course of the next decade, and some professionals urge clients to expect the unexpected. “As the environment is becoming less stable and we’re having more of these fluctuations, we have to become more adaptable,” Feleppa said. “The thing that I’m always trying to drive home to people is to educate yourselves and practice proper horticulture. Otherwise, your gardening is always going to be reactionary. The smarter the consumer, the easier it is.” For the novice fruit-grower, that’s advice worth heeding.