Tree Fruits, Part 2

by Harold Schrock | Nov 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Red apples on tree
Apples. Photo © Gyuszko/Dreamstime.com.

Once we have the site picked out for our home orchard, we need to prepare for planting trees. Ideally, we should begin preparing at least the fall before we plan to plant. Take a soil test and make sure there are no major deficiencies at the site of our planned orchard. Needed lime and other soil amendments should be applied several months before planting the trees. Most fruit trees prefer a slightly acidic pH of 6.2-6.5. Trees need good available levels of calcium and phosphorus and moderate amounts of nitrogen and potassium. Micronutrients that are at very low levels in the soil should also be added.

When choosing trees to purchase, I highly recommend buying bare root trees directly from a reputable nursery. The potted or balled trees available at your local garden center or farm store are much less likely to develop into the trees you want. Also, in many cases, these potted trees are larger than ideal. You want to start with a moderately sized whip about ½ inch (12 mm) in diameter. Anything larger will be difficult to train into the shape you want.

When preparing to plant, soak the roots for about an hour. It is beneficial to add a moderate amount of sea minerals & kelp and a mycorrhizal inoculant to the soaking solution. When planting, spread out the roots uniformly and sprinkle the soil in among the roots, tamping lightly. The goal is to remove any air pockets but not pack the soil. Keep the graft union at least two inches above the soil level for apple trees. Stone fruits can have the graft union at soil level or even slightly below. It is a good idea to mound the soil up slightly and keep the tree higher than the original soil level; there will almost always be soil settling. Never add any manure or raw organic matter in the soil around a planted tree. A small amount (one shovelful) of high-quality compost can be mixed into the planting hole. When you are finished, water the tree. For the first year, each newly planted tree will need 3-4 gallons (12-15 L) of water twice a week. Of course, rainfall can be included; just don’t let the tree dry out.

If you have a nice sod smooth enough to mow and keep maintained, it is fine to dig individual holes for each planted tree. When you are digging individual holes, keep in mind an old saying that goes something like this: “Better a five-dollar plant in a ten-dollar hole than a ten-dollar plant in a five-dollar hole.” In other words, make sure you have a generous amount of loosened soil around the newly planted trees.

In many cases, I prefer to establish a home orchard the same way a commercial nursery plants their trees, by working up the whole area and planting the trees in a garden-type soil. This is especially relevant when the area in which you wish to establish an orchard is rough and cannot be easily mowed with an ordinary lawnmower. If there is a sod or other growth over the area, do the plowing or other primary tillage six months to a year before planting the trees to avoid having decomposing material in the root zone. It often works well to use the area between the newly planted trees for growing vegetables or low growing fruits such as strawberries for the first few years until the trees grow enough to provide significant shade. By using a new orchard for these other activities, we can better keep focused on observing the trees’ growth, and can more quickly see potential problems.

Avoid tilling deeply too close to the tree. Stay at least 1 foot (30 cm) beyond the outside of the branches. The outside edge of the branches straight down to the soil is known as the tree’s drip line. That area inside the drip line should be mulched for young trees. As the trees grow and the drip line increases, the soil can be tilled very shallowly and some annual shade-tolerant crops can be grown. As the trees continue to grow, it will likely be most efficient to plant grass and manage the floor of the orchard as a sod. If you manage the floor of your orchard as a sod from the beginning, you should still keep a band of mulch around the tree to keep mowers well away from the tender bark on young trees. Avoid mulching too deeply; there should be only enough mulch to prevent weeds and grass from growing up through. Never pile mulch tightly around the trunk. Keep the mulch back a few inches. You may need to do some hand weeding right around the trunk. It is a good idea to remove most of the mulch just before winter and renew it in the spring. You want to avoid providing habitat for mice and voles over the winter, as they will eat the bark and kill the tree.

Fruit trees must be trimmed at planting, both to keep the leaf-to-root ratio balanced and also to start training the tree into a desirable shape. There are three basic shapes in which to train a semi-dwarf fruit tree. The central leader shape has a single vertical trunk with branches leaving at near horizontal angles. This is typically used for apples and pears.

The open center design has a short vertical trunk topped with strong branches going out in all directions and forming a vase. This is typically used for peaches, nectarines, and apricots. The modified central leader form is somewhat of a cross between the two. It has a central trunk, but large branches leave it at steep angles and act as mini-trunks, providing much more fruiting area. This design is typically used for cherries and some plums.

When trimming at planting, cut the central leader trees down to 32 to 36 inches (80-90 cm). The open center trees should be cut off about 24 inches (60 cm) above the ground. Modified central leader trees can be left a little taller, provided we have adequate roots to support the amount of leaf area. For pruning trees beyond planting, you need a good illustrated guide at the minimum. Even better, as I suggested in Part One, seek out a professional to teach you tree training.

Most varieties of fruit trees absolutely require a lot of spraying. It is possible in most cases to use organic material for control of diseases and insects, but they often require even more trips than do conventional sprays. Good foliar feeding will also help reduce problems and will help eliminate the need for spraying toxic materials, but those also must be sprayed. In short, if you are investing in an orchard, invest in a good quality sprayer; and make it as easy as possible to keep up with a good spray schedule. Depending on the number of trees you have, a good hand pump sprayer will be all you need when the trees are small. Once you have trees over your head, some form of airblast or boom sprayer works best. Make sure you also have proper protective gear; even organic sprays should not be inhaled or allowed on bare skin.

For a pest control spray schedule, seek out an illustrated guide or a local professional to learn the timing of fungicides and possibly insecticides, as it relates to the season and growth development. Always know your pest before attempting to deal with it. It is unnecessary and dangerous to spray broad-spectrum pesticides without identifying what you’re trying to accomplish. That being said, many things are easier to prevent with a properly timed spray program rather than waiting until they are a problem and then trying to manage it. Managing an orchard requires multi-season memory and planning ability. The better job you can do maintaining a healthy tree through plant nutrition, the less pest control you should need.

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