How old are the fruit trees we sell in our nursery?

Katie in front of Carr's Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
Katie in front of Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery

This is a very common question from people looking to buy a fruit tree from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery, particularly at this time of year before orders close on June 30.

An apple tree seedling in the nursery
An apple tree seedling in the nursery

Unfortunately it’s a bit tricky to answer, and there’s lots of “ifs” and “buts”, but here goes – we’ll try to answer succinctly, without writing a whole essay on fruit tree production!

Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery
Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery

Different types of trees go through different processes in the nursery, which take varying periods of time, and have varying degrees of success. But essentially, the process is always the same:

  1. We collect the propagation material – either cuttings, seed, or occasionally bought rootstocks. This usually happens several months before the right time to plant it out, which means storing the material correctly over winter.
  2. We then plant out the seeds or cuttings in spring to grow a new rootstock tree. We use cuttings for figs and to grow plum rootstocks, (which are used to graft both apricot and plum trees), seed to grow apple, pear, quince, peach and citrus rootstocks, and rootstock trees layered in a stoolbed to grow cherry and dwarfing apple rootstocks.
  3. The new seedlings/rootstock trees then grow over spring and summer.
  4. In February, any that have grown strongly enough are bud grafted.
  5. The rootstocks that are too small for bud grafting are left to continue growing to be grafted the following winter.
  6. The next winter, we cut back to the buds, which then grow over the ensuing spring and summer. These trees are then available to be sold the following winter – which is 2 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
  7. In winter we harvest the rootstocks that have grown in the stoolbed. They are then planted out as individual trees, and the bigger ones are grafted (along with the rootstocks from last year that weren’t big enough for summer bud-grafting). The smaller ones are left to grow another summer to be bud-grafted next February.
  8. The grafted trees will grow over the following summer and be available for sale the following winter – which is 3 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery

Hopefully that all makes sense, and explains the basic processes most of our trees go through, all of which are explained in much more detail in our 5 short online grafting courses.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple! A couple of factors can add layers of complexity. The first one is that at each stage of the process, we don’t get 100% success (though we’re always striving to improve our techniques). So when we do the bud-grafting for example, not all the buds will take. The failures will either be late budded using a different technique, or left to grow and be grafted the following winter.

Grafted cherry trees in the nursery
Grafted cherry trees in the nursery

Likewise, not all grafts are successful, and so the failures will be cut back to the original rootstock and allowed to grow for a bit longer before being bud grafted the next summer.

Multigraft plum trees
Multigraft plum trees

Then there are rootstocks that are destined to be sold as multigrafts. These trees are headed in early summer to create the multiple branches we need, or sometimes failed buds will instead be headed to grow multi-branched rootstocks.

Any that branch and grow strongly enough are then bud-grafted with multiple varieties in February, cut back to the buds the following summer, and become ready for sale the following winter. All up, this may take up to 3 or even 4 years since the original cutting/seed was planted.

Sorry to be complicated! Basically, most trees we sell are between 2 and 4 years old from seed to finished tree.

A cherry tree that's been headed to create a multigraft tree
A cherry tree that’s been headed to create a multigraft tree

But do you know what? It doesn’t really matter!

In most cases once you’ve planted them in your garden they’ll need pruning back quite hard to establish the right number of branches in the right place for the type of tree you want to grow, whether that’s a vase-shaped tree, espalier, or something else, so the age of the tree doesn’t really matter. We call this “establishment pruning” and you can find out more about it in this short online course.

Merv and Sas planting rootstocks
Merv and Sas planting rootstocks

Hopefully that helps, and if still have any questions, either ask us in the comments below or shoot us an email.

Fruit tree leaves: bonus or problem?

Here’s a question we were asked recently: as the leaves fall off your fruit trees, is it OK to let the leaves rot on the ground, or are you potentially creating a disease problem?

Autumn apricot leaves on the ground
Autumn apricot leaves on the ground

Issues like this are often decided by comparing the costs (in time, money or effort) of taking action, against the benefit.

Plus, you’ve got to consider what you’d do with the leaves if you collected them, and factor this into the equation. If they can go into an active compost system, or be fed to animals, and therefore returned to the soil, this is a very different outcome to filling up your greenwaste bin, or – horror of horrors – putting them in landfill!

In this case we’re weighing up the benefit of the lovely organic matter and nutrient provided by the leaves returning to the soil, versus the potential risk of fungal disease from any spores that are on the leaves, which may create disease in the tree next season, like Blossom blight, for example.

Blossom blight on apricot flowers
Blossom blight on apricot flowers

So, how to decide?

The rule of thumb is that it’s beneficial to let the leaves rot under the trees as long as they break down quickly (within a couple of months, and certainly before next spring).

Fruit tree leaves starting to break down
Fruit tree leaves starting to break down

If you have reasonably healthy soil with an active soil food web and plenty of worms, there should be no problem and the leaves will break down quickly. The soil food web and the key role it plays in the health of your garden is explained in detail in this short course.

If you find they’re not breaking down fast enough you can help them along by mowing them with the mower or slasher, and either sprinkle a bit of compost on top, or spray them with compost tea or worm juice to help them along.

Providing frost shelter

We’ve written about frost and fruit trees before and noted the importance of providing shelter for some fruit trees in spring, which is the danger time when a heavy frost can damage flowers, tiny fruit, or even drop-bears.

Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning
Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning

So today we want to talk about a few different options for providing that shelter.

The first one is to build a frame over the tree. This is a great option, because you can use the same frame for bird netting, fruit fly netting, or frost cloth, depending on your need and the season.

Frost cloth is a special, fine cloth that keeps the frost from settling on the ground, protecting the trees, vegies or other crops under it. It’s not very tough and is easy to work with – and even sew with, as you can see in the photo below where an industrious Win (one of our Grow Great Fruit Home-study Program members) is sewing the cloth to fit the frame.

Win hard at work at the sewing machine
Win hard at work at the sewing machine

You can avoid the expense of frost cloth by using old sheets. A word of warning if your cover completely covers the tree to the ground – it’s best to put it on when a frost is forecast, and take it off again (or lift it up) mid-morning or when the frost has disappeared.

A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection
A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection

Another way to provide the protection your trees need is to use assets you already have in the garden. Here’s a photo illustrating how a shed and a couple of tall trees provide a wide frost shadow.

You often won’t notice these micro-climates unless you go looking for them, so next time you have a big frost, check out your garden carefully.

Look all around for the influence of buildings, sheds, fences, water tanks and other physical assets, and also notice how vegetation like trees, grass and vegie patches can determine where the frost lands, and how it flows.

Other things you can do to protect your trees from frost include putting sprinklers on your trees, using frost fans, keep your soil moist, keep the ground cover plants under your trees short and don’t mulch (because it keeps the ground too cool).

Interestingly, all the things we recommend for soil health (like increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil) can also make your plants more resistant to frost.

This is for two reasons:

  1. Plants with a high Brix level have a lower freezing point;
  2. Soil with higher organic matter levels hold more moisture, which makes them less vulnerable to freezing.

Frost is just one of the factors you need to think about when planning your home orchard (our Home Orchard Design short course has 19 different units in it, and frost only accounts for two of them!).

It can definitely make it harder to grow some fruits in a cold climate, but with understanding and planning, it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.