Buying organic fruit plants
There are several considerations and strategies which experienced gardeners will apply before purchasing their organic fruit plants. The first of these concerns the reputation and certification of the local growers, plant nurseries or garden centres where fruit trees and vines are sold as juvenile stock. To maintain their organic certification, plant wholesalers and retailers are obliged to comply with a strict code of technical management which applies to all areas of plant husbandry including cultivation, propagation, disease prevention, treatment, and the associated aspects of soil improvement, composting, and mulching. Evidence of an approved organic certification is one of the principal safeguards to eliminate inferior stock and that which has been developed for commercial fruit production without due consideration of ecological principles affecting safety, nutrition, and sustainability.
There are a number of organic nurseries which now have extensive catalogues accessible over the internet. These allow keen gardeners to search for scarce fruit varieties and place orders without necessarily visiting the nursery or farm. Online catalogues can also be useful for choosing a selection of varieties which enable some fruits to be harvested over an extended period. Apples, for example, can be picked for six months of the year providing the garden is suitably stocked with early, mid, and late-fruiting varieties. Selecting several varieties also reduces the likelihood of an entire crop being lost due to unpredictable patterns of weather, pestilence, or disease.
From an organic perspective, there are reasons to appreciate and favour many of the traditional and older varieties of fruit trees and vines. To begin with, most of these plants will have a track record of cultivation and management from periods dating before the extensive use of agricultural chemicals. Some gardeners like to use the year of introduction as a general guide, with an assumption that varieties with long sustained popularity must have strong and dependable attributes. While such reasoning makes good sense, there are numerous varieties with excellent characteristics which are now extremely rare, extinct, or not readily available to the average gardener. Unfortunately, most widely distributed varieties have their characteristics largely determined by commercial growers and the presentation needs of food retailers. This situation appears to have compromised important nutritional and aesthetic elements including flavour, aroma, shape, and texture. Listen to the comments of anyone who has experienced the difference between a traditional variety of peach or table grape and those which are offered in the major supermarket chains today.
Since the passing of legislation which enables the patenting of new varieties, there has been accelerated development within the scientific field of crop modification. Agricultural and biochemical research companies now invest substantial resources to develop new varieties of fruit tree and vines with specific attributes such as accelerated growth, maximum yield per plant, and the ability to bear fruit out of season. They are also interested in developing fruit with extended storage capabilities, and uniform appearance, including tough outer skins to resist bruising, mottling and other visual defects which can influence market demand and profitability.
Traditional varieties often bear fruit which is smaller, randomly shaped, and susceptible to bruising. Often perceived negatively, these inherent characteristics are balanced by a richness of flavour, aroma, and texture, particularly for fruit which is grown according to organic principles. In most cases, traditional varieties maintain the vigour of original hybrids, making them highly adaptable and suitable for the application of organic techniques.
In addition to historical pedigree, selection of fruit varieties should be based on factors like personal taste and convenience. Under equivalent growing conditions, individual varieties can exhibit significant differences in the elemental composition of their fruits and berries. The taste and flavour will be affected by multiple factors such as the overall sugar content, fluid volumes, acidity, and fibre content. Raising many types of fruit requires a significant commitment in terms of garden space and time while plants mature. For this reason alone, it is worthwhile ensuring that an informed decision is made with respect to variety selection. If it is inconvenient to visit an orchard or grower with mature specimens, there may be opportunities to purchase or taste examples of the fruit at organic produce suppliers, markets, and agricultural displays. For technical information and descriptions of specific fruit characteristics, an internet search or reference library with organic grower manuals and related publications are the best places to start.
Modestly experienced growers will find the smaller varieties of fruit tree and compact vines easier to manage and maintain. If trees are kept small it will be possible to plant a greater number and variety within a limited space. At the same time small trees can be pruned more efficiently than large specimens. Protecting ripening fruit with mesh netting and other physical barriers is also more convenient. Many of the commercially available varieties of fruit tree are grafted onto special rootstocks. In these instances, the height and size of each mature tree will be largely determined by the type of rootstock selected. A dwarfing rootstock, for example, will prevent the tree from growing as large as it would when grown on its own roots. Specialist rootstock can also be chosen to take advantage of local growing conditions. Trees planted in excessively dry and sandy soils will benefit from a resilient and deep running rootstock whereas those establishing in heavy clay soils might do better with a fungus and rot resistant rootstock. Because most vine and cane fruit are left to grow on their own roots, there is less opportunity to manoeuvre against unsuitable conditions.
Consistent with all plants purchased, fruit bearing trees should be the most vigorous specimens available, raised in healthy soils according to organic principles. Favour trees with straight, sturdy trunks and well spaced branches which radiate outwards with load bearing elevation. There must be considerable strength and soundness in the forks connecting the trunk and branches. This is an important factor for determining how much fruit a mature tree will be capable of supporting. For grafted varieties, it is important to check the integrity of the union between the fruiting section and the rootstock. The graft should be fully healed and stable in its appearance. Try to avoid plants with the graft buried beneath soil or those which are cracked and weeping sap.
Most citrus and stone fruit varieties are susceptible to various types of canker and leaf disease. These can be present with mild symptoms, often requiring specialist expertise to identify. In the absence of this, warning signals include rough and patchy areas of bark, and slightly curled foliage with a silvery sheen.