Cody Craddock: Fruit production in the backyard with 4-H plant sale

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 1, 2022

By Cody Craddock
N.C. Cooperative Extension

Maybe you’ve thought about growing a few blueberries in your backyard, growing a couple fruit trees, or perhaps trying something a bit more unique like pomegranates or figs. Right now would be the perfect time to check out the plants we have for sale through our 4-H program to start growing your own backyard fruits!

First, lets discuss blueberries. There are two main types of blueberries grown in North Carolina. The two types are highbush and rabbiteye blueberries. In general, the rabbiteye varieties are easier for a homeowner to establish and care for. Rabbiteye blueberries are more tolerant of soil conditions and they’re drought and heat resistant than the highbush blueberries. No matter what blueberry plant you chose to plant be sure to properly prepare the soil which starts with a soil test. Our soils in the Piedmont tend to be acidic, but not enough for the acid-loving blueberries! You will need to amend the soil pH to be between 4.8 and 5.3 for success with blueberries. If your soils are higher than this, apply 1-2 pounds of wettable sulfur per 100 square feet to reduce the pH by 1 unit (ex: 6.0-5.0). Higher amounts of sulfur are needed for heavy clay soils and soils with high organic matter. If sulfur is needed, try to apply it at least 3-4 months before planting to give it time to react. Blueberries also need well-drained soils and full sun so consider mounding them if your native soil is poorly drained and avoid low lying areas. You will need to plant at least two varieties to ensure cross pollination

Blackberries are another easily grown fruit crop. All of the varieties available through our plant sale are self-fertile meaning only one variety is needed for fruit. A single lone plant will even bear fruit. The varieties we have are also self-supported meaning no trellis is required, but often they will do better when some support is provided. Soil pH needs to be around 5.5-6.5 for success and the soil should be well-drained. Blackberries will also benefit from high organic matter because of the water holding capacity so mixing in some compost pre-planting can be beneficial. Be advised though: some composts are high in pH which can raise the overall soil pH. A very general recommendation for fertilizing blackberries is about 3 ounces of 10-10-10 per plant waiting at least 2 months after planting for the first fertilizer application. Do not apply any fertilizer in the winter or fall.

If you’re willing to wait a little longer for fruit then you may be interested in fruit trees like apples, peaches and pears. Apples and pears will produce in the Piedmont but will require plenty of care from the homeowner. At least two varieties will be needed to ensure cross-pollination and fruiting so plan for at least two trees. Plant trees at least 25 feet apart to ensure that adequate airflow occurs in the trees’ canopies once they are full grown. Peaches on the other hand are a bit different from apples and pears. The peach varieties available are self-fruitful meaning only one variety is needed for fruit and a lone tree will bear. Peaches will also mature quicker given proper pruning practices at planting and you can see a significant crop faster than with apples and pears in most cases. Most fruit trees require soil pH of around 6.0-6.5 so be sure to amend the soil prior to planting. Another requirement for fruit trees is well-drained soils. To adequately test the drainage of the soil where you are planning on planting dig a hole about 18-24 inches deep and fill it to the top with water. If 24 hours later water still stands in the hole, find a new location to plant as the soil is poorly drained and will not be conducive to fruit tree growth. Note, there are many other fruit trees available too like plums, pomegranates, persimmons, figs and more! Many of these have similar planting requirements as outlined before.

Grapes are another popular home-grown fruit. There are two main types of grapes which are bunch grapes and muscadine grapes. For a homeowner, they have very similar requirements but in general muscadines will be easier to grow. Soil pH should be around 6.5 for best results and well-drained. Whether you’re growing bunch grapes or muscadines, having some sort of supporting structure is a must. You can trellis grapes or even make beautiful arbor. If you decide to arbor the grapevines, they become more ornamental than productive, but still may produce! Pruning grapevines is especially important and pruning muscadines is different than pruning bunch grapes. Consult your Extension office for advice and considering attending a workshop on how to prune!

Something you will need to plan to do regardless of what plants you decide to grow is pruning! When you pick up your plants from our office, we will be happy to show you how to properly prune your plants before the next growing season while the plants are dormant. The reason we dormant prune before the next growing season is for establishment and training. In the first year of growth with most plants (and maybe multiple years with other plants) we want the plant to focus on strong root establishment rather than fruiting. Pruning all fruiting structures off the plant forces the plant to use all of its resources to grow strong roots and better limbs for fruiting in subsequent seasons. If you have any more questions, please feel free to contact the Cooperative Extension office!

Cody Craddock is an agent with the Rowan County Extension.

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