by Laura McKissack • Photography by Carole Topalian
Many of my favorite childhood memories involve the dewberries gathered around the lake where my cousins and I swam, the little crunchy pears from the trees growing in an empty lot near my house and the warm figs from the trees in my great-grandmother’s half-acre kitchen garden. Almost all of our neighbors had fruit trees in their yards—peaches, persimmons, pears, plums and sprawling fig trees were all common. And church picnics almost always featured fig preserves, blackberry or peach cobblers and sweet plum or mayhaw jelly.
To the hobby gardener, fruit trees may seem like too much hassle. But if you choose the right species and pay attention to planting specifications, certain types will flourish with little maintenance. Many trees will produce for years, or even decades. Good tree choices for Central Texas are fig, peach, persimmon, loquat, pomegranate, plum, olive, satsuma, lemon and key lime.
Basic requirements for fruit trees include deep soil, adequate water and space, and the proper number of chilling hours (the number of hours where the temperature is above 32 degrees and below 45 degrees). Many fruit trees require a certain number of these chilling hours to come out of dormancy. Deep soil can be an issue in Central Texas but can be solved by planting in raised berms. For watering, lay out soaker hoses along the tree’s drip line, which is equal to the edge of the canopy.
Fruit trees are available in containers or in bare-root form. When buying container plants, pull the plant out of the container and inspect the roots before purchasing. If the roots are thick and tightly wound within the container, choose a different plant; this is a sign that the plant has been in the container too long and has become “root-bound”—a condition that will make it difficult for the plant to spread out its roots properly when planted in the ground. A bare-root tree is simply one that has been pulled out of the ground in its dormant period and packed in a moist medium for shipping or storage at your nursery. Edible fruit trees do not grow true from seed, but are grafted combinations of hearty rootstock and desirable fruit.
Some fruit trees require multiple plants nearby in order to pollinate. It’s also a good idea, if room is available, to plant multiple cultivars of the same fruit to ensure a good harvest—some may do better than others in your particular area and some fruit tree varieties are easier to care for than others. If your garden is organic, it’s best to simply watch the tree for trouble and treat as needed, advises Daphne Richards of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Common pests of peach and plum trees include scale and plum curculio, each of which can be controlled by careful application of neem oil (or other horticultural oil), and by keeping the soil and plant as healthy as possible to fend off pests and diseases. Fungal issues can be controlled with sulfur, available at local garden stores.
It’s vital to keep lawn grass, weeds and leaf litter clear of a tree in its first year, because weeds and lawn grass compete for water and nutrients. Keep trees well mulched to conserve water and deter weeds. If growing stone fruit trees, such as peach or plum, thin the fruit from the limbs in their early stage of growth, says Richards. “[The trees] are producing fruit for the next generation, and will produce as much as possible—putting all of their energy into it.” Thinning the fruit prevents carbohydrate drain and leads to higher-quality fruit and a healthier tree.
With a little effort and cultivar research, the joy of walking out into the backyard and plucking baskets of fresh fruit to share with friends and family can be yours.
To find suggested cultivars for our area, as well as planting times and cross-pollination status, visit aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu