PEACHES are (along with figs) the primary evidence we have that Nature can design a great fruit tree, and these are the best, surely, for small gardens here.
It is said some people like apples. I see people buying them in grocery stores. Everybody goes mad for pears, but unfortunately we cannot grow the pears everybody dreams of, not in this climate. Still, if one insisted, he might attempt a fire blight-resistant form of 'Barlett,' a pear of very high quality. The fire blight resistance is iffy, but 'Improved Barlett" would be worth trying. It is offered by Bountiful Ridge Nurseries, Princess Ann, Md. 21853.
If you want apples, recommended sorts include Lodi, Jerseymac, Paulared, Summer Rambo, Grimes Golden, Golden Delicious. You may have more trouble (from mildew, blight, brown rot, etc.) From Jonathan, Delicious Winesap and Rome Beauty.
You may wonder why "dwarf apple trees" are also large. It is because the stock commonly used by good growers is Malling No. 7 or 106 or something similar. This results in a tree about two-thirds the size of a regular apple tree.
The ideal size for small gardens is Malling No. 9. It is rarely available, however, because trees grafted on it need to be staked or otherwise supported for their full lifetimes. Also there can be virus and other problems with this stock. The point to note is that the dwarf apples commonly sold by good nurseries are not very dwarf.
And of course, they never have anything on them but apples.
Peaches make much smaller trees than apples, but I know many austere peach growers sneer at "dwarf peach trees" on the grounds that the dwarfing stock does not dwarf them very much, if at all, and that even full-size peach trees are made small and manageable through correct pruning.
It's not rare for me to hear bitter complaints that the "dwarf" peaches are not in the least dwarf.
First, you should be aware there are peach trees that by nature are dwarf -- such as 'Bonanza,' which is sometimes grown in tubs and which some gardeners think does not live long or behave well.
There is also 'Compact Redhaven,' which by nature grows into an 8-foot globe.
But the "dwarf" peach trees usually are standard varieties grafted on a dwarfing stock. And, as I say, there is some argument whether the tree size is reduced very much.
And yet often a nurseyman is blamed when the gardener is at fault for not pruning his dwarf peaches right.
You order, say, a 5-foot dwarf peach tree and plant it in March. You fertilize it a trifle, keep the weeds away and are dismayed to find it well over your head in a couple of years.
When planted, the tree should have been cut back so that the main trunk is only 24 to 30 inches. Also, all those side branches should have been cut back to one or two buds, or even right back to the trunk.
There are very few gardeners, I can tell you, who receive a nicely branched 5-foot peach tree who have any intention whatever of reducing it to a straight stick only 24 inches high.
Then they complain when the tree reaches 10 feet, and mutter that the nurseryman sold them a bill of goods.
But if courage is summoned, and the young tree is butchered as directed, it will grow vigorously the first summer, sending out perhaps three feet of growth all over the place.
The following March, tree branches are chosen, nicely spaced about the trunk, not lower than 15 inches from the ground and not higher than 30 inches. These will be the tree's main framework. After this, you do not prune much for a year, except to cut out those sappy shoots that grow straight up, and any absurd branches that cross over branches and try to make a cat's cradle of the tree.
If planted in March 1981, the dwarf peach will fruit in the summer of 1983.
Nothing is accomplished by buying larger or older peach trees, and nothing whatever is accomplished by being timid about pruning.
You will get peaches just as soon, and just as many of them, by pruning the young tree down to 24 inches with no side branches, as you will if you cherish every inch.
Once the peach is in full bearing, you prune substantially every March, since fruit is produced on wood that grew the previous summer. If not pruned, the peach grows along steadily and each year the new wood is, obviously, farther from the trunk. Such trees do not bear as well as those in which the year-old wood is relatively close to the trunk.
Any plant that is pruned briskly every year is going to prove relatively short-lived. Well-grown and well-pruned peaches will only last perhaps 15 years, perhaps 20 (and perhaps less, if you grow them yourself, as distinct from reading about them).
Apples and pears are not pruned anything like so much.
You will almost certainly find that you need to spray repeatedly if you are going to get fruit as good as that of your corner grocery store.
If you don't want to spray, you may squeak by with a 5-inch mulch and a fully open site. It is conceivable (I have known it to happen) that good fruit may be had without spraying. I once knew a seedling peach that just grew like Topsy and regularly produced fruit of top dessert quality.
If some of my organic gardening friends would only present me a few peaches grown without spraying, I might change my view that their enthusiasm regularly leads to bitter disappointment in the home fruit patch.
Plums are grown and tended to much as peaches are. People often plant 'Shropshire Damson,' and an admirable plum for canning but no good for eating fresh.Why do they do this? Is garden space so lavish that the gardener can grow a tree in order to make 2,000 jars of canned plums each year? Who eats them?
The aim, I would think, would be to grow plums to eat fresh. 'Stanley is a blue plum, quite large sometimes, that most people would be enchanted to eat. It ripens in late summer. 'Methley' is an earlier Japanese plum that not only is delicious but grows well in our climate (as does 'Stanley'). Both these are available on dwarfing stocks, though you should know all plums I have ever known personally have been determined to shoot out six feet a year in all directions. They need a good bit of pruning, which makes the gardener nervous since (like cherries) plums can get die-back from bacteria in wounds.
The question arises, Which are the best peaches for small gardens? And this may be the place to say that 'Elberta,' that leading commercial peach, is vastly better when picked fully ripe at home than when bought at the store. Even so, the gardener may prefer to try some of these:
Dawne (which has such beautiful flowers, but needs to be thinned if the fruit is to be larger than golf balls); Erly-Red-Fre (white), Redhaven, Topaz, Washington, Loring, Hale Haven, Champion (white), Belle of Georgia (white), Redskin, White Hale (white) and Tyler.
Recommended by Virginia Polytechnic Institute for home gardens are Earliered, Sunhaven, Redhaven, Triogem, Washington, Glohaven, Cresthaven, Belle of Georgia, White Hale, Redskin and Tyler.
Such a good peach as 'Sunhigh' will require more than ordinary deligence in spraying, by the way.
'J. H. Hale' is one of the few peaches that requires another peach tree around, if it is to bear, since Hale is deficient in pollen. Any of the other sorts will bear well with just one tree in the garden.
The two good figs for our gardens are 'Celeste' and 'Brown Turkey.' They like a south wall, if you have one handy for them to grow against, otherwise, any place in full sun. You just plant them and leave them alone.