Order trees from a nursery as far in advance as possible, and research the choices before placing your order.
Nurseries become overloaded in late winter with last-minute orders. They may not be able to get your trees to you until it is too late to plant. Ordering early will also give you a better choice of cultivars and rootstocks.
Some nurseries will custom bud or graft a particular cultivar from your orchard if you give them the budwood far enough in advance. If you want a nursery to do this, contact it no later than June or July, two years in advance of the year you wish to plant. Therefore, if you wish to plant in 2014, contact the nursery in 2012.
Fruit trees are sold according to trunk caliper. In addition, the recent emphasis on large tree sizes has created a demand for trees that are well branched. As a result, some nurseries have a special category for this type of tree.
Feathered or unfeathered trees: At present, there is considerable discussion about whether a feathered tree (one with branches) is better than a nonfeathered tree or a whip. If you are establishing a high-density planting system, it would be beneficial to pay the extra expense for feathered trees because they will be larger and will come into bearing earlier if handled properly. Otherwise, unbranched whip trees may be acceptable.
Some growers prefer trees that already have branches even when they are planted at lower densities. The advantage is that you begin with larger trees that already have some scaffolds; in addition, these often have wide branch angles. The disadvantages are that the branches may not be in the right location or at the right height. Nurseries have more problems shipping trees with branches than they do shipping nonfeathered trees or whips. Branches can be broken during handling and shipping.
The ideal size for a tree that is purchased as a whip is one with a diameter of 1/2 to 5/8 inch. Such a tree is usually 4 to 6 feet tall. If you cannot order a tree of that size, then the next size smaller, which is 3/8 to 1/2 inch in diameter, is better than the next size larger, which is 5/8 to 3/4 inch in diameter. Unless (as previously noted) you will be planting a high-density system, it is better to opt for the larger tree as your second choice.
Normally, trees sold from nurseries have been growing in beds for two years. For budded trees, during the first year the rootstocks are grown in the field and then budded in late summer. In the spring of the second year, the rootstock is cut off just above the bud, and the scion is forced to grow. The tree is then dug in the fall or late winter for shipment to the grower. The exception to this procedure occurs in southern nurseries where the trees are budded in June and forced the same year for shipment the following spring.
Trees that are bench grafted usually are also grown for an additional year in nursery beds. Interstem trees, if budded, require an extra year in the nursery. Interstem trees that are bench grafted do not require the extra year because both the interstem and the scion are grafted on at the same time and grown out for one additional growing season before shipment. Since interstem trees require additional handling, they cost more to purchase.
A new type of tree recently introduced from the Netherlands is called the “sleeping eye” tree. These trees are produced by growing and budding the rootstock in the traditional manner, but the rootstock is cut off above the bud before the tree is shipped to the grower. The advantage to the nursery is that it saves on growing and shipping costs.
Robert Crassweller, Penn State University