If you're wondering whether you're up to the challenge of growing fruit trees, start with two pear trees.

Longtime fruit grower Stella Otto says pears are more tolerant of growing in heavier soils and generally require less care than apples.

Starting with just one tree won't work. For a good harvest, pears require two different varieties for cross-pollination. Make those disease-resistant varieties such as Moonglow and Honeysweet, and you won't have to worry about fireblight.

Don't let lack of space stop you. The young, flexible pear shoots can be easily trained to a trellis for a specimen that is as beautiful as it is productive.

For more than 20 years, Otto's "The Back Yard Orchardist" has been my go-to reference on growing fruit trees. Now there's a second edition of the book, expanded to include fruits such as quince, medlar and fig, as well as cherry bush hybrids just beginning to be available from the ongoing breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan. There are also more environmentally friendly methods, which are more in demand than when the first edition came out in 1993.

The book has no color photos, but there are plenty of helpful charts and illustrations.

I especially like the small "Rule of Thumb" boxes scattered throughout the book. Here you'll find valuable tips such as "Prune during the summer if your main goal is to contain growth or allow sunlight into the center of the tree." That's a lesson I was slow to learn. I used to do all pruning of fruit trees in winter, then wondered why during the summer there were so many straight, weak, unproductive shoots — called watersprouts — from every cut.

Otto's descriptions and charts presenting rootstock choices for apple trees take a complicated subject and make it understandable, even to the novice. It's an important topic. "The rootstock ... will have an effect on the final size of the tree, its ability to tolerate waterlogged or excessively dry soils, its productivity, and, to a lesser extent, its susceptibility to certain diseases," Otto emphasizes.

There's a chapter on how to grow fruit trees in containers, including recommended varieties such as North Star cherry and Little Princess pear, both natural dwarfs.

Pages in a troubleshooter section — "What's Ailing Your Fruit Tree?" — are likely to get heavy use.

For those who aren't sure they're up to the task of growing fruit trees successfully, Otto offers this encouragement: "Most fruit trees are quite resilient and will allow you to make a few mistakes along the way."

Contact the writer: www.midwestgardening.com

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