LIKE GRANDCHILDREN, fruit trees are an investment in the future. Almost 30 years ago, Frank Bissett planted six fruit trees behind his new home in Northborough. The sweet cherry didn’t live long, and the sour pie cherry died three years ago. But the Bosc and Bartlett pear trees and the tart Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apple trees pump out bushels of fruit each fall to share with his 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, almost none of whom were born when the trees were planted.
Any fruit tree in bloom is a vision of beauty and cultivated with little effort, but the fruit is harder to come by. Bissett sprays his trees — all of them semi-dwarfs of about 20 feet tall — each March with dormant oil, a refined-petroleum product designed to smother pests and some diseases. He also treats them in April with a general-purpose orchard spray, using a Mantis sprayer. “I limit my spraying. I don’t try to grow perfect fruit. I grow fruit I can eat.”
But what if you don’t want to spray at all? The Liberty apple is the one fruit tree for New England that many experts agree will grow attractive fruit without spraying. Its medium-size red fruit is similar to a McIntosh, with a tart, sweet flavor. A Liberty will develop more fruit if there are one or two different varieties of apples planted nearby for cross-pollination. Mildly tart Jonafree and crisp Priscilla are good disease-resistant pollinators for Liberty. Orchardist Maurice Tougas of Tougas Family Farm in Northborough also recommends the trees that produce sweet and refreshing Honeycrisp, spicy-sweet Crimson Crisp, and fragrant, juicy Topaz, both for their fruit’s flavor and their disease resistance. You can avoid spraying them, too — simply toss any inedible apples for compost and use imperfect fruit for cooking.
Apple trees can also be pollinated by a crab apple tree. Another neat trick: Ask to clip a small branch with blooms from a neighbor’s crab apple and put it in a jar of water at the base of your tree for the bees to find.
Heirloom apple grower Joseph Ingoldsby of Dartmouth has grown the Cox’s Orange Pippin — widely considered the most delicious dessert apple, combining complex hints of pear, melon, orange, and mango — and dozens of other antique apple varieties without spraying. Instead, he plants mulberry trees and native plants like spicebush and sassafras that attract both birds and beneficial insects that eat orchard pests. The Orange Pippin and the juicy Tolman Sweet (which originated in Dorchester) were the apples chosen by chefs at Boston’s esteemed L’Espalier restaurant, says Ingoldsby. And being heirloom varieties (meaning they originated in the 17th through 19th centuries), they are more robust than today’s apple trees, he adds.
Early settlers found that most European varieties did not like our climate, so New England farmers developed their own apples from seedlings that proved vigorous and produced tasty fruit. The disease-resistant Roxbury Russet, thought to have originated in the 1640s on a farm in the Roxbury section of Boston, is considered America’s oldest apple variety and produces sweet, complex fruit. But the Rhode Island Greening, the definitive variety for apple pies, dating to around 1650, is still in commercial production. Joann Vieira, who is in charge of Tower Hill Botanic Garden’s Davenport Heirloom Collection of 119 pre-20th-century apple varieties, is a fan of both, as well as of the “sprightly” and juicy Sutton Beauty from Sutton.
Though apples are synonymous with New England (Johnny Appleseed was born in Leominster!), there are other backyard fruits worth growing. Among hardy European pears, our experts recommend buttery Harrow Sweet and the small but very sweet Seckel for top flavor and disease resistance. Crunchy Asian pears are new to New England and less cold hardy but can be grown around Boston. Shinko is among the best for flavor and disease resistance.
Cherries also fall into two groups. Cherries for cooking, known as tart or sour cherries, grow better here than sweet cherries that are eaten off the tree. North Star may be tops among sour cherries because the tree is hardy and small, which makes it easier to cover with a net to keep birds out. The best choices for sweet cherries include Black Gold and Lapins. All of these cherries are self-pollinating.
Peach trees are short-lived in New England but fun while they last. Red Haven and Canadian Harmony peach trees are hardy in most of Massachusetts, and Reliance will grow into Zone 4, says second-generation nurseryman Jim Glazier Jr. of Roaring Brook Nurseries Inc. in Wales, Maine.
The best location for fruit trees of all types is in full sun on the north side of a slope where drainage is good and they are less apt to bud prematurely during early thaws.
However, if you want to grow a fruit tree in a container that you can move into a garage for the winter, try Empress peach, says Fred Reuter of Roseland Nursery in Acushnet. Its fruit is full-size, but the bushy plant grows only 4 feet tall.
Though some fruit trees are self-pollinating, most are more productive with a partner. If you lack space for a mini-orchard, Roseland sells combinations of three different apple, cherry, plum, or pear varieties grafted into one rootstock. “Use an all-purpose fruit-tree spray every two weeks until harvest on all of them, once they’re old enough to bear,” says Reuter. “You can also save space by planting columnar trees that grow only 2 feet wide or dwarf trees that grow fewer than 10 feet tall.”
Standard apple trees can reach 40 feet. Even some semi-dwarf trees, like Frank Bissett’s Granny Smith, want to grow more than 20 feet. But he prunes his shorter so he can reach those three bushels of bright green tart apples it yields each October. He gives some away, turns others into apple jelly, or cuts them up and tosses the slices with sugar and cinnamon to freeze for pie making in the months to come. Apple trees can live a long time, as long as the memories of children picking apples with their great-grandfather. “I’m glad I planted them,” Bissett says.
Try these New England resources for trees, fruit, and expertise:
Elmore Roots Nursery, 631 Symonds Mill Road, Elmore, Vermont, 802-888-3305, elmoreroots.com; hardy fruit trees
Fedco, P.O. Box 520, Waterville, Maine, 207-426-9900, fedcoseeds.com; information, catalog, trees
Joseph Ingoldsby Landscape Mosaics, Dartmouth, ingoldsby-asla.com; heirloom apple trees
Roaring Brook Nurseries Inc., 639 Gardiner Road, Wales, Maine, 207-375-4884, roaringbrooknurseries.com ; fruit trees for cold climates
Roseland Nursery, 247 Main Street, Acushnet, 508-995-4212, roselandroses.com; containerized fruit trees sold spring through fall
Tougas Family Farm, 234 Ball Street, Northborough, 508-303-6406, tougasfarm.com; pick-your-own fruit farm
Tower Hill Botanic Garden, 11 French Drive, Boylston, 508-869-6111, towerhillbg.org; antique apple orchard, apple tastings at fall harvest celebration
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