Chuck Ingels is one of the main authors and technical editors of The Home Orchard, the best book available on growing deciduous fruit and nut trees for home gardeners in California, and at last week’s Master Gardener conference in Long Beach I attended a presentation Ingels gave on training and pruning fruit trees. The presentation reminded me of why I like The Home Orchard so much. The presentation was — and The Home Orchard is — detailed, supported with excellent photographs, and full of clear explanations that can get a new grower off to a great start as well as keep a seasoned orchardist engaged.

The Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees, edited by Chuck Ingels, Pamela Geisel, and Maxwell Norton is a comprehensive guide. As the book’s introduction says, “You will learn how trees grow, which species grow best in particular regions and soils, what varieties are available (and how to select the right one), and how to prepare the soil, plant the trees, water and fertilize, prune and graft, thin the fruit, diagnose problems, control pests, and harvest the fruits of your labors.”

Many of the book’s photographs were taken by Chuck Ingels himself, some of them in his own backyard. And this is one of my favorite things about Ingels: he talks (and writes) about what he knows, first hand. Ingels works for the University of California Cooperative Extension, but he doesn’t just visit commercial orchards and then report what works on those farms. Ingels continually plants and trains and prunes and experiments with peach and apple and persimmon trees in his own yard as well, and he documents it and can report it to us on whether it might work in our yards. Yards are different from farms.

While I have read other books on growing fruit trees, The Home Orchard is my favorite one in large part because it’s written from and for California. A comparative book that I own is called The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips. The Holistic Orchard is useful in many ways but is irrelevant and even misleading on some topics for me because of its author’s far-off perspective: Phillips lives in the mountainous woods of northern New Hampshire. That’s another world. Phillips may know how to save fruit trees from being killed by arctic winters, but we barely get frost in my yard; he has no idea how to guide me in irrigating through a dry Southern California summer.

Some of the chapters of The Home Orchard that I find most useful include the one on irrigation, and also the one on grafting. That chapter helped me successfully create a couple of trees in my yard that have multiple varieties on them. I have a Dapple Dandy pluot that I grafted a Burgundy plum and a Flavor Grenade pluot onto. I also have a Snow Queen nectarine that I grafted a Red Baron peach and a Frank peach onto, all with the indirect help of Ingels and The Home Orchard.

Perhaps my favorite line from the book is about fertilizing: “Although deciduous fruit trees require many nutrients for tree growth and fruit production, those grown in backyard settings in typical sandy loam to clay loam soil with proper irrigation rarely need to be fertilized.” The emphasis is mine.

One of my pet peeves is how much home gardeners feel pressured to fertilize their fruit trees. As a general practice, I don’t fertilize any of my deciduous fruit trees, and The Home Orchard agrees with this attitude, suggesting that one should only look out for symptoms of a nutrient deficiency that needs to be specifically rectified. (Maxwell Norton wrote the chapter on fertilizing.) Despite not regularly fertilizing, I’ve always had so much fruit on my trees that they need to be thinned — and this is in different locations, in different yards, in different soils. I’ve also had to prune frequently to keep them down to size. Why do some recommend fertilizing as a regular practice when trees grow like this without any fertilization?

During his conference presentation, Ingels mentioned that The Home Orchard is in the process of being revised. At the moment, the manuscript is at the peer-review stage (since it’s a University of California publication). The second edition should be available to us in a year or two. Ingels also said that one training technique that will get more coverage in the new edition is espaliering (growing trees along a two-dimensional plane). Apparently, this is the most popular way to grow apples up in Washington nowadays.

I hope that in addition to more pages on the espalier technique there are also more mentions of a couple Southern California-specific items. For example, in the last ten years or so, many growers here have found success with apple varieties that were thought to only do well in locations with colder winters like Washington. And there is no mention in The Home Orchard of pecan varieties suitable for us even though I know people who are successfully growing pecans in Southern California.

And I have a single, soft point of contention with the book’s advice about pruning newly planted bare-root trees. It is suggested to cut them off at knee height or at least cut back lateral branches by a third or half their original length. I used to do that, and often it worked out well, but sometimes trees didn’t develop branches below the cut or they flushed so many that it was difficult to keep up with removing all but a few to be used as scaffold branches. For the past few winters, I’ve simply planted new bare-root trees unmolested, untouched entirely, no pruning at all. Every one of these trees has grown out wonderfully. I now prefer beginning any pruning and training in the trees’ second year. I call this a soft point of contention though, because I’m not about to say that one way or the other is the correct one.

All in all, The Home Orchard is a reliable and broad guide to growing deciduous fruit and nut trees in California, and one that I’ve been reading and re-reading ever since I discovered it. I know of no better book on the topic . . . except maybe I will in a year or two.

You can buy The Home Orchard at the University of California’s website here

Watch Chuck Ingels teach a group of Master Gardeners about growing fruit trees here.

You might also like to read my posts:

Best books for food gardeners in Southern California

Teaming with Microbes: a book review

Reading my Grandma’s 1961 Sunset Western Garden Book (My, how things have changed)

What kind of fruit tree should you plant?

My best advice on pruning deciduous fruit trees: keep them small

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