In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
August, 2012
Regional Report

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Peach blossoms look lovely and foretell delicious fruit to come.

Xeriscape Part III: Plant Selection: Edibles: Deciduous Fruit Trees

Xeriscape design includes a set of seven principles to guide you in the creation and long-term maintenance of a colorful, earth-friendly landscape that suits your unique needs. Previous reports covered design, site analysis, whether to install turf, and varied plant selection topics. This report continues the topic of selecting edible plants, focusing on deciduous fruit trees.

Nothing beats juice from a fresh-picked peach dripping off the chin. Deciduous fruit trees such as apples, apricots, figs, peaches, and plums can be grown in the low desert. Gardeners at arid elevations from 3500 to 6000 feet can add cherries and pears to the list.

The key to successful variety selection is to understand the concept of chilling hours. Deciduous fruit trees require a dormant period of cold, known as chilling hours, before they can develop flowers and set fruit. One chilling hour is typically defined as one hour at temperatures below 45 degrees F. Some varieties need as few as 100 chilling hours; others require as many as 1,000 chilling hours. Choose varieties that fall within the range of chilling hours where you reside.

Most low desert areas average 300-400 chilling hours annually. The higher the elevation, the higher the number of chilling hours. Your County Cooperative Extension office or a full service nursery that sells fruit trees can provide the average for your specific area.

You may increase your likelihood of fruit set if you plant varieties that require fewer hours than your average minimum, say 250-275 rather than 300. On the other hand, if you choose a variety with fewer hours, the tree may have a greater chance of flowers popping open during a late winter warm spell, when they'll be highly susceptible to frost damage. No flowers, no fruit. Be prepared to protect early-blooming trees if frost is predicted.

To set fruit, pollen must be transferred from the male part of the flower to the female part. Some fruit varieties require cross-pollination with a different variety, so you must plant two trees near each other (assuming your neighbor does not have a tree). Some fruit varieties can pollinate themselves; look for self-fruitful or self-pollinating in their plant descriptions. Be sure to determine this characteristic before purchase.

Deciduous fruit trees require regular water and fertilization, as well as pruning to maximize fruit production. In addition to the joys of plucking healthy fruit from your tree (or elbowing birds aside to get it), these trees offer lovely spring blooms and colorful autumn foliage.

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