I recently attended an Illinois State Horticultural Society summer field day at Christ Orchard near Brimfield. The day included tours of apple orchards, current pest management information, and new technologies for the fruit industry. I left the day even more impressed with the amount of work it takes to grow apples, pears, and other fruits commercially.
For those that want to grow their own fruit, backyard fruit trees can be a great asset to the home garden, but they do require some homework. Proper planting, pruning, fertilizing, and fruit-thinning are essential for fruit production and are important pest management practices as well.
The proper way to prune (and train) a fruit tree really depends on the tree itself. Typically we prune fruit trees annually to keep them short and open. For semi-dwarf apple and pear, a standard central leader system is recommended compared to an open center system used on peach and nectarine trees. At the Christ orchard, we saw a new vertical system where apple trees are grown close together on wires using a high-yield espalier method.
It is imperative to start proper pruning and training in the tree's first year. Reviving old fruit trees is very difficult, if not sometimes impossible. Well-pruned trees are less susceptible to several diseases and are easier to spray.
Many different pests attack tree fruits. The best way to control pests is to start by planting the right tree. Researchers and breeders have developed many cultivars with disease resistance to fruit tree diseases such as apple scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust, and fire blight.
Although organic production is more and more common, we still get a number of questions each year about how to spray home orchards for pests. Most homeowners prefer to use a multipurpose fruit spray. These mixes usually contain one or two insecticides, one or two fungicides, and rarely a miticide. Alternative insecticides that are approved for use on fruits in organic production and are available to homeowners include insecticidal soap and Bt product.
I am often asked why a tree will not bear. Several things influence tree fruit production, but the four main factors are the typical bearing age for that variety, tree health, climate, and pollination.
You can learn more about growing fruit trees by watching our University of Illinois Extension Four Seasons Gardening webinar or taped YouTube video. Horticulture Educator Andrew Holsinger will present "Grow Your Own Backyard Tree Fruit: The Science of Tree Fruits Revealed" live on July 25 at 1:30 p.m. and again on July 27 at 6:30 p.m. All sessions are available for live home viewing. Following the session, a taped version can be found on YouTube. Registration and YouTube information are found at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/hmrs/4seasons.