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The thought of picking your own fruits, steps away from your kitchen, is very exciting. Yet, it can become a frustrating chore if it is not done properly. No matter where you live, you should do your homework before investing in fruit trees. In Austin and surrounding central Texas, growing fruit trees can be very challenging. This is a complete guide highlighting the most important points every home gardener should know.
Is it worth it to grow fruits in your backyard?
Before you head to the nursery or order online your favorite fruit trees, you should ask yourself is it worth the trouble to have them in the first place. There are different reasons why would homeowners would want to have fruit trees. The most evident one is to produce enough fruit that will allow them to skip the grocery store. The second is that many assume fruit trees are the easier way to grow some of their own food with the least effort.
Will a fruit tree produce enough fruit to feed a family?
The short answer is yes, one tree can produce enough fruits to feed a family. The long answer is there are two things you should consider before dreaming of a bountiful harvest. First, most fruit trees take more than five years before you see any considerable harvest. Second, bear in mind that birds and squirrels will be the first to serve themselves.
The bottom line is you should plan to live more than five years in this property and be prepared to face the competition.
Are fruit trees a lot of work?
Contrary to the common belief, fruit trees do need a moderate amount of care. It might not be as frequent as a vegetable garden would require, but enough to keep you thinking about it. Proper fruit tree care starts from the day you purchase one, planting location, fertilization, support, disease, and pest management. Carry on reading to learn more about each task.
How to choose the right fruit tree for the Austin garden?
You might think that choosing a fruit tree relies on its name only. It is crucial to understand that a pear tree that grows well in the north might not be the right one for the south. Each region has its own environmental factor that makes it adequate for a tree to survive.
1- Soil requirements
- Soil Type: Central Texas soil is mostly poor draining clay and lays on limestone, which may be challenging for a tree to grow properly. Your best bet is to plant them in raised beds. A typical fruit tree needs two to three feet of good soil to thrive.
- Soil pH: Many fruit-producing trees and shrubs, such as blueberries and avocados, require acidic soil to produce. Central Texas soil is largely alkaline, so make sure you are choosing trees that do not need acidic soil.
- Poor soil: High pH and phosphorous content of Austin soil prevent trees from getting adequate nutrients. You will have to provide supplemental feeding regularly.
2- Chill Hours
Chill hours are referred to the number of hours a tree gets where temperature range between 45F and 32F. During this cold time, the tree goes dormant with the help of growth-inhibiting hormones. The latter need a certain period of cold time to break down to allow new buds to appear.
Each fruit tree variety has its own chill hour index. Some need up to 1000 of cold while others only require 200. Central Texas is in the 600 hours range. Planting trees in a region with the wrong chilling hour number will result in low production, low fruit quality, and risk of freeze damage. Texas A&M put together valuable information and tools to figure out the right chill hour for your area. Check it out over here.
Some fruit trees need to grow in pairs to insure pollination. Check the label to make sure you do not two of the same tree or its family to get a harvest. There are varieties that are self-fertile, which will save you money and space.
4- Disease resistance
There are many diseases that affect different fruit trees, and finding yourself battling one is no fun. These diseases are mainly caused by viruses, fungi, and root rot.
Common diseases in Travis county are:
- Cotton root rot is caused by a soil-borne fungus. It affects mostly apples and pears.
- Plum Curculio is a beetle that damages fruits. It attacks in early spring and can ruin the whole harvest. Other than plums, it also attacks apples, pears, peaches, and cherries.
Most fruit trees need supplemental water, especially before they are established. Make sure to set up proper irrigation for your plants. Watering should be around the drip line, which is where the tree canopy ends. It would be great if you opt for Texas native trees that are more drought-tolerant, such as persimmon.
Garfted fruit trees
Grafting is an old technique of attaching a limb of a tree to the trunk of another. The latter is also called the rootstock. Some reasons why grafting is useful in agriculture:
- The rootstock will determine the final size of the tree full, semi-dwarf, and dwarf. Each size is useful in a certain situation. As an example, dwarf trees are better suited for commercial use.
- Using a rootstock that is resistant to a certain disease helps improve production.
- A non-grafted fruit tree would take ten years to start producing, while a grafted one starts producing in about four years.
Note: Any growth that comes from below the graft line, is the from the rootstock and not the fruiting one.
Reading the tree name tag
When shopping for fruit tree pay attention to the name tag. All the important information mentioned above are summed in the that tag.
- The picture: some ornamental trees have the name of a fruit tree, so make sure you see there a picture of expected fruit. Some examples of confusing names are flowering pear, fiddle leaf fig, and cherry blossom.
- Pollination: many fruit trees need a companion from the same family to ensure pollination. If you have no space in your garden, look for self-fertile.
- Maturity size: make sure you are providing enough space for the new tree.
- Disease resistance: knowing that your tree is disease resistant will give peace of mind.
How to care for a fruit Tree?
When to plant fruit trees?
The best time to plant a tree in central Texas is in the fall. Having cool temperatures and more expected rainfall will help establish the tree faster. It is also the best time to do this kind of labor. Fruit trees are sold in two forms bare-root and potted. The first being more affordable and usually smaller in size.
How to plant fruit trees?
- Prepare the planting hole. It should be as big as the root ball.
- Test the drainage by filling the hole with water. Then monitor the time it takes to drain. Anything more than 24 hours should be reconsidered.
- It is debated whether to add or not to add amendments to the planting hole. Each side has its valid arguments, so apply your best judgment.
- Shake off the existing soil on the roots.
- Place the tree with its trunk base at soil level.
- Do not coil the long roots, rather clip them off.
- Backfill the hole with native soil, pressing it down ever so slightly to remove any air pockets.
- Prune the tree by a third to focus its energy on establishing the root system.
- Water thoroughly.
Watering adequately is crucial for tree establishment and overall health. The root system absorbs water and nutrients in addition to anchoring the tree. Feeder roots extend beyond the drip line and expand through the topsoil, while thicker roots try to go deeper around the trunk. You should know that a tree does not have one big long taproot that goes deep down, as most people think.
When watering, water should soak each layer of the soil for the roots to absorb it. Water once a week for a long period of time allowing soil particles to take in the water. You may want to create a furrow around the tree and fill it up with water, then give it time to drain in. Note that sprinkler systems do not supply enough water for trees unless a tree bubbler is connected to them. And the time you need to water the lawn is not the same for trees.
Fertilizing depends on the variety and the age of the tree itself. Always follow directions on the product label, and avoid fertilizing in the peak of summer heat.
- In the first year, you should fertilize in May when active growth appears.
- The second year, fertilize in spring by broadcasting it around the tree away from the trunk.
- In the thirds year, fertilize in spring twice as much as the previous year.
- The fourth year, fertilize once a year around the dripline.
- Aerates the tree, increasing airflow preventing disease spread.
- Opening up the tree allows sunlight to reach all branches.
- Concentrates tree energy into making stronger limbs and better fruit quality.
Always prune during the dormant time of the tree. Mostly that starts from fall till late winter, right before new buds appear. Pruning during active growth will encourage new undesired growth defeating the purpose of pruning.
- New growth from old cuts.
- Branches that are crossing each other.
- Limbs that are growing downward.
- Branches that are growing inwards.
- Tin and week branches.
What is thinning?
Thinning is the process of removing fruits at the early stages of development, leaving only a few. While this may seem strange, it will help your tree and fruit quality tremendously.
- Prevents overbearing which leads to fruit drop.
- Improves remaining fruit size and taste.
- Prevents limb damage. The tree branches risk breaking due to the heavyweight of the fruits.
Top Fruit trees for Austin and surrounding central Texas
- Rasberry (bushes)
Trees that grow in central Texas with some extra care
Blueberries require acidic soil and central Texas soil alkaline. You may try growing them in pots, making sure to keep the soil acidity level right.
Citrus trees need special treatment to survive in central Texas. You will have to plant them in pots to be able to bring them in during cold spells. They also need frequent feeding every other month to ensure production.
There is more to growing fruit trees in the home garden. This article is only a scratch on the subject, in hopes of simplifying it to the newbies. Texas A & M website does not skimp on any information you might seek. I encourage you to read about each aspect of the subject thoroughly before committing to growing fruit trees.