In fruit trees, small is beautiful from several angles

Paul Stark Jr. likes to tell of the time he was knocked off a ladder while picking cherries. He was 22 feet high at the time and, as he puts it, "From that height it feels like you're falling forever." As he didn't want to repeat the experience, he decided then and there to "dedicate the rest of my life to getting rid of ladders."

When you're in the fruit-tree business, that sort of decision means only one thing: the development of dwarf trees.

Dwarf trees have several advantages: They are small enough to be picked and pruned from the ground; sprays are more readily applied; they can be planted in small gardens where larger trees would never fit; and, because the small trees can be so much more densely planted in orchards, the actual per-acre fruit production of the dwarfs can exceed that of full-size trees.

Mr. Stark also likes to point out that "you don't need to invest in a ladder."

Chemical dwarfing -- special dwarfing root stocks, interstems, or both -- is the established method of producing a small tree. More recently, however, the geneticists have been succeeding in breeding smallness into trees.

To nurserymen such as Stark, this is most satisfying news. The need to manipulate tree size mechanically is decreasing. Fruit trees now stay small because they have been genetically programmed to grow that way.

Some years ago, I bought a Northern Spy apple tree on dwarf root stock and had visions of large red fruits no more than an arm's length away. Unfortunately, I planted the tree a little too deep and it sent down roots from above the graft union. These promptly turned the tree into a standard variety, and it has been growing out of reach ever since despite my use of pruning shears.

A genetic dwarf would have no such problems, of course.

According to Stark, whose nurseries ship trees all over the United States and overseas as well, genetic dwarfs is the trend in fruit growing. Already apples, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and plums have been genetically dwarfed, and the list of varieties is increasing by the year.

"It means," Stark says, "that we can graft dwarf varieties on the most vigorous rootstocks without ever having to worry about an overlarge tree." Within about four years, dwarfing trees by rootstocks and interstems "will be ancient history," he contends.

Right now the list of genetic dwarfs available from nurseries is limited, but many more should come tumbling out of the experimental orchards and into commercial production within the next few years.

Meanwhile, in the milder climates of the South, fall is an ideal time to plant fruit trees, no matter what size tree you plan to grow. In the cool weather of fall, but while much heat is still stored in the soil, the tree roots have a fine opportunity to establish themselves. Then, after a short period of winter dormancy, they are ready to rare off in the spring.

Even in the North, preparing for the spring planting of fruit trees can begin now.

remember the old axiom and dig a "$10 hole for a $5 tree." Inflation may have made a mockery of those figures, but the message is just as valid today. Lewis Hill, a nurseryman from northern Vermont, makes the same point this way: "Start right for a lifetime of paybacks."

Starting right means digging a hole about the size of a bushel basket and filling it with enriched soil that will almost guarantee the tree's vigorous growth. First, dig out the soil from the top half of the hole and place it on one side. Now remove the subsoil and place it elsewhere. Unless the soil is very wet, fill the hole with water.

Add to the topsoil an equal volume of compost or aged manure, or a mixture of both, and return it to the hole as you set out the tree.

Finally, shape the subsoil into a rim around the newly planted tree to form a saucerlike depression that will hold water from the hose or rainwater. Water well again. Wrap tree guard (available from nurseries and garden centers) around the trunk to protect it against winter sun scald and from gnawing by rodents.

The planting hole also may be prepared now for spring plantings, too. But once the topsoil has been enriched with the compost or manure, pile it in a mound beside the hole and cover it with black plastic sheeting to prevent it from eroding away during the winter. The planting hole can be filled with leaves, straw, or even paper -- anything that can be readily removed when planting time comes around in the spring.

The mounded soil under the black plastic will heat up quickly in the spring and be ready to wrap a warm embrace around the roots of your newly planted tree.

Never add chemical fertilizer to the soil at planting time. It can all too readily burn the developing roots. Once the tree is established, however, a light application of 10-10-10 fertilizer is often recommended. On the other hand, remember Dr. Elwood Fisher of Harrisonburg, Va., who feeds his orchard -- with outstanding results, I might add -- on a once-a-year application of 12 inches of leaves.

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