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  • By Lisa Jevens

How to Grow Your Own Fruit

Do you dream of enjoying the mouthwatering sweetness of a fresh pear, the crunch of a good apple, or a juicy red strawberry simply by stepping out your back door and picking from your very own tree or plant? If so, you're not alone, says Lisa Hilgenberg, fruit and vegetable garden horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "Planting fruit trees has become something of great interest," she says. "People have taken great pride in growing fruit in their gardens, sharing with their neighbors — and kids love them."

Many also like the fact that they control what is sprayed on their produce, she adds. Fortunately, you don't need a yard the size of an orchard to grow fruit, nor do you need years of farming experience. There are fruit tree cultivars that can be grown in the average backyard, and berries that require even less space. And they can be grown without pesticides. Boyce Tankersley of Grayslake has been growing blueberries, strawberries, grapes, blackberries, dewberries, raspberries, apples, red currants, black currants and cherries in his backyard for 16 years.

"Berries are small enough to fit in a typical backyard like ours, which is about 1/4 acre," he says. You don't have to be a professional gardener to get delicious fruit. According to Tankersley, you need good mulch, good watering, and good instruction. He follows recommendations of the University of Illinois Extension on when to plant, fertilize and prune. For fruit trees, the first thing to consider is the mature size of the tree and the space it requires. Fortunately, growing backyard fruit has become easier because fruit trees now come in dwarf and semi-dwarf sizes, many of which are disease resistant. Hilgenberg recommends semi-dwarf sizes for backyard gardeners because they require less space than orchard-size trees, and don't have to be staked once they establish their root systems. Ask at the nursery whether you need two trees for pollination, or if the tree you want will self-pollinate. Also ask about its disease resistance. Apples, pears and cherries are easy to grow in heavy clay soils, such as we have in this part of the Midwest, Hilgenberg says. If you plant a fruit tree, expect to wait about three to five years before it bears fruit, because it is busy establishing its root system. Tankersley got apples seven years after planting an heirloom apple, Cox's Orange Pippin. His cherry trees took about 4 years to bear fruit. Berries require even less space and grow well in the Midwest. They also yield fruit more quickly after planting than fruit trees. Raspberries and blackberries are known in the gardening world as "brambles." Because of their trailing nature, they require supports and some pruning. As with other homegrown fruit, it is important to buy a variety that is hardy in your area and has the qualities you want. For example, both have varieties that are everbearing (producing fruit more than once a year) and lack those pesky thorns. Raspberries come in different flavors and colors, from red to gold to purple. According to the Chicago Botanic Garden, Sodus is a good purple raspberry with few thorns, and Fall Gold raspberries have extremely sweet yellow fruit. Royalty is a popular, sweet purple raspberry. Jewel is a black raspberry with large, luscious fruit, and Heritage is an everbearing red raspberry with good flavor. Two blackberries that grow well in cold climates were developed and patented by the University of Illinois. They are the Illini and the Chester. Blueberries are not hard to grow, but they require a very acidic soil. It is best to test your soil first if you want to grow blueberries, because you may have to amend it. There are dwarf varieties that can be grown in borders and even containers, where it is easier to control the soil. Strawberries do not have to be planted in raised rows, like at commercial farms. Tankersley planted strawberries as ground cover around his fruit trees and other ornamental plants. "The homeowner varieties are more flavorful than the commercially grown ones, because they are not bred for shelf life," he says. According to the Chicago Botanic Garden, there are three types of strawberries available to gardeners: June-bearing, which produce one big early summer crop; everbearing, which produce one big crop followed by a smaller, later harvest; and day-neutrals, which produce berries all season long on plants that are considered annuals. "We grow them in hanging baskets here, and they are so pretty," Hilgenberg says.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune "From House to Home" section, and on on April 22, 2015.

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