Choosing fruit trees for Western Washington
by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
In fall, the bounty of fruit trees brings apples and pears for munching, canning, and freezing. Earlier in summer, plums, peaches, and nectarines from eastern Washington fill market baskets. Many gardeners begin to wonder about planting trees for home fruit production in future years. Certainly there's a lot of satisfaction in observing fruit from bloom to picking.
To get the best results with planting fruit, choose the varieties that will thrive and produce well in Western Washington, with often-cool summers, coastal fogs, and late spring frosts.
For over 40 years, research at the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Mt. Vernon Unit has concentrated on identifying the tree fruit that produces the best crops in western Washington. Since a fruit tree may take from three to seven years to produce, growers want to see good results from crops they've nurtured for those years. The WSU research, combined with the experience of growers, has led to suggested lists of tree fruits that offer the best possible chances of success, and these evaluations continue and evolve yearly as new fruit trees become available.
Before selecting a fruit tree, check the growing space for good conditions. Tree fruits, without exception, require sunny locations, at least 6 hours of light daily. Sun contributes to achieving fully-ripe, sweet fruit. Tree fruits, especially cherries, also require good drainage so they are not sitting during winter in soggy soils. Supplementary watering during summer is usually also beneficial. If the planting area can meet the requirements of light, good drainage, and water, a fruit tree can be a satisfactory and productive addition.
Taste and texture are important in fruit, and there's good opportunity coming up to sample tree fruit and learn more about which ones you prefer. Mark your calendar for the 1996 Fall Fruit Show, presented for home fruit growers by the Western Cascade Fruit Society. Held at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, the show runs Oct. 26 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Oct. 27 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $3.00.
Many varieties of fruit will be available at the Fall Fruit Show for sampling. There's no better way to check out a possible garden variety. Experts experienced in fruit growing will present lectures and answer questions. They'll also identify the "unknown" apples growing in a garden for people who bring in samples. (Bring 5 to 6 apples including the stem, unwashed and without blemishes if possible.)
For many gardeners, tree fruit begins and ends with apples. An old garden may contain a large, crumbling apple tree covering space of about 20 by 20 feet and leading gardeners with smaller yards to wonder if they could ever have space for an apple. Thanks to the development of dwarfing rootstocks, roots that could be grafted to produce a tree that grows small, apples are within reach of even the smallest sunny backyard. There are many different names and types of rootstocks, but a few are commonly sold. Grafted apples on one of the "dwarfing" rootstocks can be kept small enought to thrive in a half-barrel, growing to 4-6 feet tall at maturity. (Proper pruning is a necessity in keeping trees small, also.) Check with tree suppliers for specific information about rootstocks and ultimate tree height and width.
Dozens of different apple cultivars grow well in western Washington, but there are some outstanding favorites selected by researchers at WSU Mt. Vernon. Dr. Robert Norton, retired fruit specialist, suggests Akane, a crisp red early-ripening apple. Others he recommends are Chehalis, a mid-September apple, and Liberty, a juicy red that stores well. Akane, Chehalis, and Liberty also have some resistance to prevalent apple fungal diseases such as scab. He also suggests Spartan, frangrant and crisp, and Jonagold, a superb eating apple.
Check when purchasing all tree fruit to be sure the tree you buy has another tree that will polinate it properly, as many apples are not self-fruitful.
European pears, the familiar buttery-soft fruit, also require pollinizers. Some smaller gardens are suited to "combo" trees where several cultivars are grafted together, and the grower can harvest multiple types of pears from one tree. One western Washington nursery sells a combination pear with several popular varieties including Comice, Orcas, Rescue, and Highland. European pears tolerate espalier training and can be grown against walls or fences.
Home gardeners do well with Asian pears, the pear with the crisp "apple-like" texture and bite. These are handsome fruit trees with good-looking leaves in a garden setting. They do require pollinators, and some will cross-polinate with European pears. They're easy to grow, reaching 12 to 15 feet at maturity and carrying loads of fruit when well-grown. Popular cultivars here are Nijiseiki (also called Twentieth Century), Chojuro, and Ichiban.
Consider adding tree fruits to the garden landscape for nearly year-round interest! Once you've chosen the type of tree, plant in late fall or early winter.
Visit WSU's Agriculture Site on the World-Wide Web at http://www.cahe.wsu.edu.