Growing Fruit Trees

By Jan Cashman • Posted on March, 4th 2018

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Fruit trees are a beautiful addition to your ornamental and edible landscape. Growing fruit trees can also be a rewarding hobby. Hardy varieties of apple, apricot, cherry, pear, plum, and plum-cherry trees do well in Southwest Montana. We carry select varieties for our high altitude and short growing season.

Care and Planting

Select a sunny site for your fruit trees, preferably with some shelter from the prevailing winds. Do not plant fruit trees in hollows or pockets where frost would settle. Space apple trees about 25 feet apart. The smaller fruit trees: dwarf apple, apricot, cherry, pear, and plum can be planted as close together as 10-15 feet. High density planting or training methods, such as orchard culture or espalier can be accomplished through thoughtful planning and specific pruning.

Plant the graft (the bulge near the union of root and top) at soil level. Leave a depression around the tree for a watering well. Frequent watering (once or twice a week depending upon conditions) is necessary the first few years and during any dry period, thereafter, to establish a healthy tree. Cultivating around the tree and a regular fertilizing program will also encourage fruiting. Apricots, plums, and cherries can be expected to bear fruit 2-3 years after planting. Pears and apples bear in 4-5 years depending upon the variety. Proper pruning in early spring is helpful to develop a satisfactory framework for fruit production.

Pests and Diseases

Fruit trees must be protected in the winter from Voles and Mice by wrapping up to the bottom branch with screen or some material through which rodents cannot penetrate. Repellants or fences are needed in areas where Deer might be a problem. Use trunk wraps to protect from Sunscald that blisters and splits bark in the winter.

Fire blight is a bacterial disease that attacks apples, pears, and others in this family. It affects young twigs first, traveling down the shoot. The bark may look watery, dark green, or oily, and eventually splits. Leaves on affected twigs die, but persist. Fire blight is spread by insect pollinators and wind. It is seen more often after wet springs. To control, plant resistant varieties. If infected, prune out infected branches and sterilize pruners between cuts to avoid spreading the disease. Spraying does not cure Fire blight. However, trees can be sprayed with streptomycin sulfate to avoid infection. Spray first just before blossoms open and then continue every three days. Do not spray after fruit has formed.

Cedar Apple Rust is a fungal disease that needs both cedars (upright junipers) and apple trees to complete its life cycle. The fungus forms galls on cedar trees, but it does the most damage to apple trees, forming yellow spots on the leaves and fruit and causing early leaf drop. If possible, do not plant apple trees within 100’ of upright junipers. Control cedar apple rust by spraying with a fungicide such as Fung-onil or Daconil just before the blossoms open, again when the blossom petals are falling, and twice more up to the middle of June.

The Apple Maggot burrows into the fruit, streaking it brown and making it unappetizing. Control by placing traps in the tree early in the season to catch the flying stage of the maggot or spray the whole tree while the fruit is forming with any accepted fruit tree spray.

Apples

Probably the easiest fruit trees to grow in Southwestern Montana are apples and eating crabapples. Any two different varieties flowering at the same time and planted within 100 feet or so will provide pollination for each other. Ornamental flowering crabapples will also pollinate apples and eating crabapples.

Apples that ripen early in the season (mid to late August) usually keep only a short time, even in cold storage. Generally, the later an apple ripens (September to October), the longer it will keep in cold storage. Apples can be left on the tree in the fall to temperatures as low as 25 degrees without harming the fruit. In fact, freezing temperatures are known to set the sugar in apples, making a better tasting fruit.

Apples grafted onto a standard rootstock may grow to a height of 20-25′, a width of 25′ at maturity and bear after 5-7 years. Apples grafted onto a semi-dwarfing rootstock will grow to about 12-15′ tall, 14′ wide and bear after 4-5 years. Standard rootstock is hardy to zone 3 and semi-dwarf to zone 4, possibly zone 3 with >4″ of snow cover in winter. Freedom, Haralred, Haralson, Honeycrisp, Liberty, Red Prairie Spy, Sweet Sixteen, Wealthy and Zestar varieties are available as semi-dwarf trees.

Apple Variety Ripens Hardy Bloom Time Fire Blight Resistance Flavor Texture Uses
Freedom Mid Zone 4 Mid-late Very Sweet Crisp All Purpose
Frostbite Mid Zone 3 Mid-late Moderate Sweet Firm Eating, Cider
Goodland Mid Zone 3 Mid Moderate Juicy Crisp Eating Fresh
Haralred Mid Zone 3 Late Very Tart Firm Baking, Pies
Haralson Late Zone 3 Late Very Tart Firm Baking, Pies
Hazen Early Zone 3 Early Moderate Mild Soft Eating Fresh
Honeycrisp Late Zone 4 Mid Moderate Sweet Crisp Eating Fresh
Honeygold Late Zone 4 Mid-late Susceptible Sweet Crisp Eating Fresh
Liberty Early Zone 4 Mid Very Sweet-Tart Crisp All Purpose
McIntosh Mid Zone 4 Mid Resistant Tart Firm Eating Fresh
Norland Early Zone 2 Early Moderate Mild Soft All Purpose
Red Baron Mid Zone 3 Mid Resistant Sweet Crisp All Purpose
Red Duchess Early Zone 3 Early Resistant Tart Soft Pies, Sauce
Red Prairie Spy Mid Zone 4 Mid Susceptible Sweet Firm Baking
Snow Sweet Mid Zone 3 Mid Moderate Sweet-Tart Crisp All Purpose
State Fair Early Zone 3 Early Susceptible Juicy Crisp All Purpose
Sweet 16 Mid Zone 3 Mid Resistant Sweet Crisp Dessert
Wealthy Mid Zone 3 Early-mid Susceptible Tart Firm Dessert
Wolf River Mid Zone 3 Mid Moderate Juicy Tender Cooking
Yellow Transparent Early Zone 3 Early Susceptible Mild Soft Pies
Zestar Early Zone 4 Early Moderate Sweet-Tart Crisp Eating Fresh
Crabapple Variety Ripens Hardy Bloom Time Fire Blight Resistance Flavor Uses
Chestnut Late August Zone 3 Early-mid Resistant Nutty Eating Fresh
Dolgo Aug-Oct Zone 2 Early Resistant Tart Jelly
Kerr Mid Sept Zone 3 N/A Moderate Sweet Tart Cider, Jelly
Whitney Mid/Late August Zone 3 Early Susceptible Sweet Eating Fresh

Pie Cherries

Sweet cherries generally are not hardy enough for our area. However, pie cherries do grow well in our climate. Pie cherries, also called tart or sour cherries, are self-fertile and do not require another variety nearby to pollinate blossoms. Tart cherry juice has recently gained popularity for its health benefits. A single Montmorency cherry tree can yield 40-50 quarts at maturity, enough for many pies or juice. Fruits are ½-1” in diameter and are tart to slightly sweet. As the cherries ripen, the trees should be protected with netting from birds, which love the ripening fruit. Jerry usually makes his first pie with very tart fruits around August 1st.

Cherry variety Height Ripens Flavor Fruit Color Hardiness Other
Evan’s Bali 15-20′ Late August Sweeter Dark Red Zone 3 Hardy buds
Mesabi 10-14′ August Sweeter Bright Red Zone 4 Bing cross
Meteor 10-14′ August Sweeter Bright Red Zone 4 Genetic dwarf
Montmorency 12-18′ Late July Tart Dark Red Zone 4 Very productive
North Star 8-10′ Late July Tart Red Zone 4 Genetic dwarf
Sweet Cherry Pie 15′ July Tart Dark Red Zone 3 Pie cherry, early

Pears

The following pear varieties have been developed for Northern climates. Pears ripen from late August (may be tart) to October in our area. Pears will be sweeter if they ripen on the tree, but should be harvested if temperature may drop below 25 degrees. You will need two different varieties for pollination. Luscious has sterile pollen and cannot be used as a pollinator. Golden Spice is our only cultivar resistant to fire blight. Except Ure, all our pears are grafted onto semi-dwarf rootstock, yielding mature trees 12-15’ in height and width. Ure is grafted on a standard, resulting in a 20-25’ size.

Pear Variety Ripens Hardiness Flavor Texture Best Pollinator Uses
Golden Spice September Zone 3 Mild Firm Ure Canning
Luscious Mid-Sept Zone 4 Sweet Firm Parker Dessert
Parker August Zone 3 Juicy Tender Patten Eating Fresh
Patten Mid-Sept Zone 4 Juicy Tender Parker Eating Fresh
Summer Crisp Mid-Aug Zone 3 Sweet Crisp Parker Eating Fresh
Ure Late-Aug Zone 3 Juicy Firm Patten Canning

Plums and Plum-Cherries

American plum hybrids and cherry-plum hybrids need a pollinator to produce fruit. Toka and Mount Royal make the best pollinators for other plums. Wild American Plums will also work as pollinators. Mount Royal, Stanley, and other European plums are self-fertile but may produce more fruit with another variety nearby. Most plums ripen in late August except for Stanley, which ripens in early September, and Mount Royal, which ripens about Oct. 1st. For best growth, plant plums in an area protected from wind.

Plum Variety Height Fruit Size Color Stone Hardiness Uses
Alderman 10-15′ Large Dark Red Cling Zone 4 Fresh
Black Ice 6-10′ Large Black Free Zone 3 All
La Crescent 10-15′ Medium Yellow Free Zone 4 Fresh, Jam
Mount Royal 8-12′ Small Purple Free Zone 4 Dessert
Pipestone 10-15′ Large Red Cling Zone 3 Fresh
Stanley Prune 8-12′ Medium Blue Free Zone 5 Fresh, Jam
Toka 15-20′ Medium Red Cling Zone 3 Pollinator

Apricots

We offer several varieties of Apricots proven hardy to our area. Trees bloom profusely in late April to early May. Blossoms are susceptible to frost, so while trees may not set fruit reliably, they maintain high ornamental value with a beautiful spring display of creamy white, pink blushed blossoms and colorful leaves in the fall. Trees are 10-15’ tall and wide. Sungold and Moongold require separate varieties for pollination. While not required, self-fertile varieties can have improved yield through cross-pollination.

Variety Ripens Hardiness Stone Flavor Texture Pollinator Uses
Moongold Late July Zone 4 Free Sweet Juicy Sungold Fresh eating
Pioneer Chinese Mid July Zone 4 Cling Sweet Juicy Self-fertile Fresh eating
Scout August Zone 3 Free Mild Juicy Self-fertile Canning
Sungold August Zone 4 Free Sweet Firm Moongold Fresh eating
Westcot Late July Zone 3 Free Sweet Juicy Self-fertile All purpose

Peaches

Rare to our region, growing peach trees can provide backyard orchardists with a fun, challenging experiment. Like apricots, their beautiful blossoms are susceptible to frost. The long amount of time required for fruit ripening means that without special care, the trees do not go dormant early enough to survive our winter. We currently carry two varieties: Reliance and Contender.

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