NC Cooperative Extension Resources

Author:

Photo of Michael Parker
Extension Horticulture Specialist and Associate Professor (Tree Fruits/Pecans)
Horticultural Science

Growing tree fruit in the home garden or yard can be a rewarding pastime. However, careful planning, preparation, and care of the trees are essential for success. This publication tells you what to consider before planting, how to plant your trees, and how to take care of them to ensure many seasons of enjoyment.

Fruit Selection

Selecting the type of fruit to grow is the first step in tree fruit production. To begin, you need to know which tree fruit can be grown in North Carolina.

Your region's climate determines the type of fruit you can grow successfully. The climate must be compatible with the growing requirements of the selected fruit crop. To take an extreme example, a tropical fruit such as the banana simply cannot survive in North Carolina. Bananas require a warmer climate and a longer growing season. Other tree fruit that may look promising in the glossy pages of mail order catalogs are also destined to fail if grown in incompatible climates. Climatic conditions vary greatly from one region to another in North Carolina, so make sure that the fruit you choose can grow successfully in your area.

Table 1. Potential Tree Fruit Crops for North Carolina
Fruit Location Varietal Considerations Management
Apples Throughout North Carolina Most varieties will grow in North Carolina Moderate
Asian Pears Throughout North Carolina Plant fire blight-resistant varieties only Moderate
Chestnuts Throughout North Carolina Chinese and Chinese-American hybrids Low
Figs Eastern North Carolina and southern piedmont Select varieties that set fruit without pollination Low
Nectarines Throughout North Carolina except at higher elevations Select varieties that require at least 750 hours of chilling Very high
Peaches Throughout North Carolina except at higher elevations Select varieties that require at least 750 hours of chilling High
Pears Throughout North Carolina Plant fire blight-resistant varieties only Moderate
Pecans Eastern North Carolina and southern piedmont Select varieties suitable for North Carolina conditions Low
Persimmons Eastern North Carolina and southern piedmont American and Oriental are suitable Low
Plums Throughout North Carolina Use late-blooming varieties Moderate

Fruit crops that can be grown in North Carolina are listed above in Table 1, along with additional information that will help to ensure success. Tree fruits that are not included in the list may grow in North Carolina, but few consistently produce quality fruit. For example, apricot and cherry trees can grow in certain areas where the climate is favorable, but they must be carefully managed and usually do not bear fruit consistently.

Note also that different crops require different levels of management. Low-management crops such as pecans, figs, and persimmons require little attention to training, fertility, or insect and disease control. On the other hand, peaches and plums require intensive management.

Site Selection

Selecting a good site for your fruit trees is crucial to their success. A number of factors should be considered (Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b).

Soil Type and Drainage

Plant fruit trees in well-drained and fairly fertile soil. Avoid poorly drained soils. A tree's root system grows throughout the year. Water that remains standing in the root zone (18 to 24 inches deep) at any time during the year can drown the tree. During the growing season, standing water can drown some types of fruit trees in just three days. Poorly drained soils also promote the growth of root rot organisms.

When poorly drained soils cannot be avoided, problems may be alleviated by planting the trees in raised beds (Fig. 3). The beds are formed by shaping well-drained topsoil into beds 18 to 24 inches high and 4 to 5 feet wide. Raised beds have been used successfully in both backyard and commercial orchards. Trees grown in raised beds must be irrigated more frequently during the growing season because the beds present a larger exposed surface area from which water can evaporate.

Soil Fertility

It is also important to consider soil fertility and acidity. Ideally, the soil pH should be around 6.5, but North Carolina soils are more typically acidic. Acidic soils reduce the amount of nutrients available to the trees. When this happens, fertilization does not benefit the trees but results in runoff or leaching. To alleviate the problem, it will be necessary to add lime to the soil to reduce the soil pH.

Before planting, collect soil samples for analysis. Soil samples should be taken from two depths; the first from the top 8 inches of soil and the second from the 9- to 16-inch depth.

Soil fertility analyses are free in North Carolina. Contact your county Cooperative Extension agent for instructions on collecting and submitting soil samples and for the necessary forms and sample boxes. Test results will be returned to you with recommendations for fertilization and liming. Once the test results have been received, the soil should be amended with the recommended materials, which should be worked into the soil before trees are planted.

Air Drainage

Adequate air drainage is as important as proper water drainage. In North Carolina, spring frosts and freezes are common, and a small difference in elevation can mean the difference between a full crop and no crop at all. Remember that cold air is heavier than warm air and settles in low areas, so choose a site that allows cold air to flow downhill away from the trees. Select higher sites with an unobstructed, gradual slope. Avoid low sites, which are commonly known as frost pockets.

Sunlight

Plant fruit trees in areas that receive full sunlight. Avoid areas shaded by taller trees, houses, or buildings (Fig. 1a).

Most fruit tree buds require 30 percent sunlight to produce high-quality fruit. Although the exterior of a tree may receive full sun, sunlight can be reduced by one-half just 12 inches inside the canopy of the tree. Eighteen inches into the tree canopy, light may be reduced nearly 75 percent, which is below the level needed for successful fruit production. Partially shaded trees can also have increased disease problems.

Nematodes

Nematodes are microscopic worms that live in the soil. Several types of fruit trees, including peach, plum, and figs, can be damaged or destroyed by nematodes.

An inexpensive soil test can be conducted to check for nematodes. For information, contact your county Cooperative Extension agent. The test results will be returned with recommendations for your crop. Avoid soils with high nematode populations. Soils with unacceptable nematode populations can be treated with a soil fumigant. However, most fumigants must be applied by a licensed pesticide applicator and can be costly. Contact your county Cooperative Extension agent for specific recommendations.

Figure 1a

Figure 1a: Poor site selection. Fruit trees should not be planted in areas shaded by houses, buildings, or other trees. They also should not be planted near fences or hedges, as these keep cold air trapped around young trees.

Nickola Dudley

Figure 1b

Figure 1b: Well-selected site. All fruit trees are planted away from barriers and in areas that receive sufficient light.

Nickola Dudley

Variety Selection

After selecting the fruit and the planting site, you must choose the variety of fruit to plant. Novice growers often try to plant the same varieties that they see at their local grocery stores. Many times, however, these fruit are produced in areas with different climatic conditions from those in North Carolina. The result, at best, is fruit that looks much different than expected. At worst, the variety will fail to produce a crop. Plant varieties that are known to grow well in your region. Check temperature requirements and chilling factors before purchasing your trees. Table 2 lists some of the fruit varieties recommended for North Carolina.

Table 2. Variety Recommendations for North Carolina
Fruit Recommended Varieties Pollination Notes Disease Notes Other Considerations
Apples Gala, Ginger Gold, Jonagold, Empire, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Crispin (Mutsu), Stayman, Rome, Fuji Requirements vary. Some varieties are self-fruitful. Others require pollination (see note 1). Summer rots are the most serious disease problems and can destroy an entire crop. No varieties are resistant. Some varieties are resistant to apple scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust, or fireblight. These include Redfree, Prima, Priscilla, Jonafree, and Liberty. In warmer regions, red varieties may not color well.
Asian Pears Twentieth Century (Nijisseiki), Nititaka (pollen source), Shinseiki (New Century), Chojuro. At least two varieties are needed to ensure adequate pollination. Fire blight is the biggest concern. Asian pears are very crisp and juicy.
Chestnuts

Chinese: Nanking, Meiling, Kuling, Abundance, Crane

Chinese-American Hybrid: Revival, Carolina, Willamette

All require pollination from another variety. Plant at least two varieties of the same type to assure optimal nut size and production. Most Chinese and hybrid chestnuts are highly resistant to the chestnut blight fungus. Many people prefer the hybrid chestnut varieties, citing superior quality over the Chinese varieties.
Figs Celeste, Brown Turkey, Brunswick/Magnolia (for preserves), Greenish, Marseille. Only varieties that do not require pollination can be grown in North Carolina. No serious disease problems except nematodes. Fruit may drop prematurely as a result of drought or excessive shade, moisture, or fertilization.
Nectarines Summer Beaut, Sunglo, Redgold, Flavortop, Fantasia, Carolina Red (see note 2). Self-fruitful. Do not require pollination by other varieties. Nectarines should be planted only on Lovell or Halford rootstocks to avoid premature death. The lack of hair on nectarines makes the fruit more susceptible to diseases than peaches, and a multipurpose fungicide and insecticide spray program will be required. Many varieties were developed in California and may not do well in North Carolina.
Peaches Redhaven, Norman, Carolina Belle (white-fleshed), Winblo, Contender, Summer Pearl (white-fleshed), Cresthaven, Encore, Legend. (Many varieties are the result of a peach breeding program at NCSU and have been developed for North Carolina (see note 2)). Self-fruitful. Do not require pollination by other varieties. A multipurpose fungicide and insecticide spray program will be needed during the growing season. Only varieties that require 750 hours of chilling are recommended.
Pears Moonglow, Magness (not a pollen source], Kieffer, Harrow Delight, Harrow Sweet, Harvest Queen, Seckel. At least two varieties are recommended to ensure adequate pollination. Plant only fire blight-resistant varieties. Pears bloom earlier than apples and should be planted on higher sites.
Pecans

Type I: Cape Fear and Pawnee.

Type II: Stuart, Forkert, Sumner, Kiowa, Gloria Grande

Pollination by another variety is essential. One variety from each of the two groups must be used for pollination. Scab is the most serious disease in North Carolina. However, a fungicide spray program is usually not practical. Careful variety selection is essential to avoid frost or freeze problems and to allow a long enough season for maturation.
Persimmons Fuyu, Jiro, Hanagosho (very good pollen source). (Only large-fruited Oriental persimmons are recommended for North Carolina.) Pollination is not required for fruit set but is recommended. No serious disease problems. If nonastringent varieties are planted, fruit may not be suitable for eating until they are fully mature and their flesh is soft.
Plums

Japanese: Methley (self-fruitful), Byrongold, Burbank, Ozark Premier (may bloom early).

European: Bluefre, Stanley, Shrophire (Damson) (see note 2)

Some varieties are self-fruitful, but planting two varieties is recommended. A multipurpose fungicide-insecticide spray program will be needed during the growing season.

Later blooming varieties should be selected to avoid damaging spring temperatures.

Note 1. Pollination requirements for apples vary with variety. For varieties requiring cross-pollination, it is recommended that at least two varieties with overlapping bloom periods be planted together. For self-fruitful varieties, pollination by another variety will increase yield and quality.

Note 2. To break bud and grow properly in the spring, peaches, nectarines, and plums must be exposed to temperatures in the 40°F range for a required number of hours during the dormant season. This period is referred to as the chilling requirement. In North Carolina, varieties with chilling requirements of at least 750 hours are recommended to prevent trees from blossoming too early in the spring, which increases the risk of freeze damage and resultant crop loss.

Rootstock Selection and Tree Spacing

Almost all commercially available fruit trees have been budded or grafted; that is, the top portion, or scion, of the desired fruit variety is attached to the root system, or rootstock, of a different variety. Trees are grown this way because some popular varieties grow and crop better on rootstocks other than their own. In some cases, the rootstock is more resistant to certain troublesome diseases. In the case of apple trees, the rootstock can be chosen to limit growth, producing trees that crop well and are easier to manage than full-sized trees. The choice of rootstock is very important for some fruits, such as apples, but not of much consequence for others.

Apple trees are grown on a wide variety of rootstocks. These are called size-controlling rootstocks because they control the size of the tree; however fruit size is not reduced (Fig. 2). In general, the smaller the tree, the sooner it will bear fruit after planting. Table 3 lists the rootstocks commonly used for apple trees and indicates their effect on tree size, using the "seedling" or standard rootstock as the basis of comparison. Thus, for example, the M.9 rootstock will produce a nonspur-type tree that is only 35 percent as large as it would be if grown on a seedling rootstock. The table also lists the time required for the trees to reach bearing age and the degree of rootstock resistance to two important diseases.

Table 3. Commercially Available Apple Rootstocks and Their Characteristics
Rootstock Percentage of Seedling Tree Size as Percentage of Seedling (Spur)a Fruit Bearing Age (Years) Resistance to Crown Rot Resistance to Fire Blight
Seedling 100 80 6-10 Medium High
MM.111 85 70 4-6 Medium Low
MM.106 80 70 3-4 Very Low Low
M.7a 70 60 3-4 Medium High
M.26 50 40 2-4 Medium Very Low
Mark 45 35 2-3 Medium Low
M.9 35 20 2-3 Medium Low
a See Fig. 2.

Two categories of growth habit are included in the table: spur and nonspur. Trees with a spur-type growth habit bear the majority of their fruit on very short branches called spurs. Nonspur varieties produce fruit on longer branches. Since spur-type varieties have fewer long branches, the trees are more compact.

Because the choice of rootstock affects the size of the trees, it also affects the optimum spacing between the trees. Table 4 gives the recommended distance between trees for both spur and nonspur varieties. Note that very vigorous varieties should be spaced farther apart.

Table 4. Recommended Planting Distances for Apple Trees Grown on Size-Controlling Rootstocks
Rootstock

Distance Between Trees (feet)

Nonspur Varieties Spur Varietiesa Very Vigorous Varietiesb
Seedling 18-25 12-16 25-35
MM.111 14-18 9-12 20-25
MM.106 12-16 8-11 17-22
M.7a 10-14 7-9 14-20
M.26 8-12 5-8 11-17
Mark 6-8 4-5 8-11
M.9 4-8 3-5 6-11
a For spur-type varieties such as Redchief Red Delicious, Starkrimson Red Delicious, Lawspur Rome, and Oregon Spur.
b For very vigorous varieties such as Rome Beauty, Granny Smith, and Jonagold.

Apple trees on rootstocks of a size class smaller than M.7a bear fruit while they are still very young. They should be supported by stakes to promote optimum growth and to help support the fruit load in the early years. Use 10-foot stakes and drive them 2 feet into the ground. Stakes are commonly made from 1-inch-diameter aluminum electrical conduit or 3-inch-diameter wooden posts. Tie the tree loosely to the above-ground portion of the stake. Strips of plastic or heavy-duty canvas or cloth can be used as ties. Do not use materials that will restrict tree growth or girdle the tree.

Peaches, nectarines, and plums are also affected by choice of rootstock. In the Southeast, trees are susceptible to peach tree short life (PTSL), a condition that causes sudden death of the tree after only four or five years of growth. With proper rootstock selection, nematode suppression, and cultural practices, the threat of this condition can be minimized. At present, only trees grown on Lovell or Halford rootstock are recommended for use in North Carolina. Trees grown on these rootstocks should be spaced 20 feet apart. Spacing recommendations for other fruit trees are given in Table 5.

Table 5. Spacing Requirements for Other Tree Fruits
Fruit Crop Minimum Spacing Between Trees (feet)
Asian Pears 20
Chestnuts 40
Figs 10
Pears 20
Pecans 70a
Persimmons 15
a At maturity, approximately 20 years

Figure 2

Figure 2. Tree size shown as a percentage of the size the tree would reach if grown on a seedling, or standard, rootstock.

Nickola Dudley

Planting

The best planting time in North Carolina is late fall or early winter. The roots will then be able to grow through the winter, resulting in greater tree growth during the first season, which ultimately leads to larger trees. Young fruit trees are commonly shipped "bare root" with the exposed roots wrapped in moist sawdust. Plant the trees as soon as possible after purchase.

To plant a tree, dig a hole twice the size of the root system. The sides of the hole should be loose, not packed down by the force of the shovel. Cut off damaged roots at the point of injury. Shorten roots that are especially long and will not fit in the hole. Roots that are not shortened will wrap around the tree hole and eventually girdle the root system, reducing tree growth in later years (Fig. 3).

In Fig. 3, the figure on the left shows an improperly planted fruit tree. The hole is too narrow and shallow, forcing the roots to be wrapped in the hole, which may eventually girdle the tree. The graft union is also planted below the soil surface, which will negate the effect of the rootstock. The raised bed is not wide enough or deep enough to be of much benefit. The figure on the right shows the correct way to plant fruit trees.

When planting a grafted tree, be sure that the graft union is 2 inches above the soil. If the graft union is below the soil surface, the top portion or scion will grow roots and negate the effect of the grafted root system.

After the tree is in place, fill the hole with native soil, not potting soil. Adding organic matter or mulch to the soil can promote growth if these materials are mixed well with the soil. NEVER add fertilizer to the planting hole. Fertilizers are very caustic and can burn and kill the roots of young trees. After you have filled the hole, be sure to water the area well.

During shipping, handling, and planting, roots are damaged. After planting young trees, prune the top of each tree. Pruning the tree top balances the root system and promotes vigorous growth in the spring. When working with unbranched trees, cut the tree off approximately 32 inches above the ground. For larger trees, remove 13 of the top of the tree.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Nickola Dudley

Weed Control

Weeds or grass growing between or under fruit trees compete for soil nutrients and moisture, reducing tree growth.

Keep all vegetation under the trees controlled up to the drip line (the circle formed by the outermost branches of the tree). Avoid using mechanical cultivation to eliminate weeds because tree roots near the surface will be destroyed in the process. Weed whips are especially harmful. If the cutting line strikes the bark of the tree, it can crush layers of cells under the bark and girdle the tree without any visible signs, such as broken tree bark.

Herbicides are an effective alternative, but be careful to follow the label directions and keep the herbicides off the tree.

Another alternative is to mulch around the tree. A layer of mulch 4 to 6 inches deep will control weeds and conserve soil moisture. Note, however, that mulch can provide cover for voles or mice. These rodents burrow under the mulch and frequently gnaw tree trunks or roots, girdling the tree and killing it or impeding its growth. When using mulch, check for rodent pests. Prevent problems by placing guards around the base of the trees or use traps to control these pests. It may also be beneficial to pull the mulch back 1 foot around the tree trunk in the early fall.

Insects and Disease Control

Unless properly managed, insects and diseases can seriously damage fruit trees and their crops.

Pests can be controlled with commercial pesticides, and moderate control may be achieved using organic controls. Garden centers offer many materials, including multipurpose insect and disease control products. Treatment must be started before problems become severe, causing serious damage or crop loss. It is important to identify pests and diseases accurately so an effective treatment can be selected. Contact your county Cooperative Extension agent for assistance in identifying pests and for recommended control measures. Pest problems can also be reduced through proper sanitation. Remove and burn or bury dead, diseased, and damaged wood and fruit as soon as possible. Also, remove the leaves after they have fallen in autumn. Do not use the leaves as mulch. The infected leaves, wood, and fruit can provide a habitat in which insects and disease-causing organisms can overwinter. By taking time to maintain orchard sanitation, you can reduce insect and disease problems significantly. For additional information on disease and insect control, contact your county Cooperative Extension agent.

Fertility

Tree fertility requires attention throughout the life of the tree, not just at planting time. However, applying fertilizer routinely without knowing whether it is needed can result in poor fruit quality and excessive tree growth. It can also waste money and contribute to environmental pollution. Annual soil analyses can keep you informed about the nutrients in the soil and the soil acidity. In addition to soil analyses, simple observation of the amount of vegetative growth can help in managing soil fertility. Trees with less than 10 inches of current season's growth on lateral branches may need fertilizer. On the other hand, trees with greater than 18 inches of growth may not need fertilizer for several years. Excessive tree growth can promote some pest problems.

If you must fertilize without benefit of a soil test or other information, a useful rule of thumb is to apply 34 to 1 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year of tree age. When fertilizer is used, it is usually applied in late winter. Fertilizer should be broadcast on the soil surface both inside and outside the drip line of the tree. Keep fertilizer at least 6 inches away from the trunks of young trees.

Fruit Thinning

Apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, and Asian pears must be thinned early in the season to prevent overproduction, which can result in smaller fruit, increased tree breakage, and in-creased insect and disease problems. A heavy crop also reduces the chances for an adequate crop the following year.

Fruit should be thinned when they are about the size of a nickel. Remove enough fruit so that the remaining ones are spaced about 4 to 6 inches apart along the branch (Fig. 4). Even though it may look like very few fruit remain, the increased fruit size at harvest plus reduced risk of tree breakage and improved prospects for next year's crop will more than compensate for the reduced number of fruit.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Fruit thinning. Top drawing: unthinned apple branch. Apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and Asian pears should be thinned so that they are approximately 4 to 6 inches apart, as shown in the lower drawing.

Nickola Dudley

Training and Pruning

To ensure abundant harvests, you will need to train and prune your fruit trees regularly. For additional information on cultural practices, see Cooperative Extension Service publication AG-29, Training and Pruning Fruit Trees in North Carolina.

Summary

If you follow the suggestions in this publication and monitor your trees carefully, you will find that growing tree fruit can be a rewarding experience. As with any activity, experience will give you confidence to prune, train, and thin fruit trees properly. Remember that fruit trees, if properly cared for, will last and produce quality fruit for many years. Proper care is especially important during the first five to six years when the trees are not bearing fruit but the tree structure is developing.

Additional Sources of Information

The following materials may be purchased by writing to the address listed below each publication.

Extension Horticultural Science

Peach Production Handbook
Published by
Georgia Cooperative Extension Service
Agricultural Business Office
Conner Hall, Room 215
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
For sale only ($20).

Pecan Production in the Southeast; A Guide for Growers
Published by
Alabama Cooperative Extension Service
Head, Information Services
Alabama Cooperative Extension Service
Auburn University, AL 36849-5623
For sale only ($31).

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

Last modified: Nov. 6, 2014, 9:36 a.m.