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Fruit tree season is upon us. Choose wisely

Unlike growing veggies, fruit trees are a long-term investment, so make sure you start out on the right foot.

In this last full week of January, when I can truthfully declare that our vacation from gardening is just about over, all around us nature is once again waking up and it is time to prepare for another gardening season. In my world, what always announces that event is the arrival of bare root fruit trees in the garden center.

Believe it or not, by the end of this month garden centers will be fully stocked with all the new and tried and true varieties of fruit trees that are well suited for our unique maritime climate. For the most part, these trees will be bare root, which simply means that the roots have no soil on them. You will take your new tree home in a plastic bag and plant it immediately, that day. With proper care and feeding, you will start harvesting the fruits of your labor the following year. Let me emphasize “proper care and feeding.”

Growing backyard fruit can be loads of fun and very gratifying. But in practical terms, it is not a “plant and forget” event. Beyond the obvious requirement of planting your tree in fertile soil with good drainage and full sun exposure, there are ongoing needs of feeding, pruning, controlling insects and diseases, and finally the realistic expectations of not necessarily producing a blemish-free fruit. What you can be sure of, however, is that you will have the freshest and tastiest fruit possible, and that alone can make it all worthwhile.

Growing fruit trees should never be an “impulse” decision, and by that, I mean that you should avoid the temptation, while at the box store purchasing your 30 rolls of toilet paper, to throw in a couple of colorfully bagged trees. Without the help of a sales associate, there are just too many things that can go wrong, which unfortunately you won’t discover until a couple of years down the road. Thankfully, garden centers excel in this area.

First off, your local garden center will have researched and purchased the absolute best varieties for our unique climate. What might thrive on the east side of our state, where it is warm and dry, is completely different from what will tolerate our cooler and damper weather here on the west side. Also, varieties that we see in the grocery store have been developed for commercial production and may not be suitable for backyard conditions. Only local garden centers have the in-depth knowledge of what varieties are best suited for our yards.

Root stocks matter. All fruit trees are grafted onto specific root stocks for specific reasons. Some root stocks are used because they have a high tolerance for wet soils. Others have been developed because they exhibit a dwarfing effect and help control the ultimate size and growth rate of the tree. Apples for example come in semi-dwarf, dwarf, and mini-dwarf root stocks. Cherries, which can become quite large trees where only the birds can reach the fruit, are available in a true dwarf root stock that will keep them in the 10 to 12-foot range. At this point, pretty much every variety of fruit tree we sell has been grafted onto some kind of dwarfing root stock.

Pollination is critical. Without the proper combination of varieties, you may never see any actual fruit. While pears only pollinate pears, and apples only pollinate apples, not all apples will pollinate all apples and the same with pears, plums, or cherries for that matter. Yeah, it gets complicated, and again, without a trained sales associate, a lot can go wrong.

Bottom line, growing backyard fruit trees can be loads of fun. Just be smart about it and arm yourself with the proper knowledge and products that you need to be successful. Unlike growing veggies, fruit trees are a long-term investment, so make sure you start out on the right foot. And remember, enjoy the journey along the way and garden center professionals are always there to help!

Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

Free classes

Sunnyside Nursery’s next free classes will be “PNW Fruit Trees,” 10 a.m. Jan. 28 and Jan. 29. For more, go to

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