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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

'Golden Delicious' appleWinter fantasies may lead to summer rewards
Dormant season offers an opportunity to plant fruit trees

by Carolyn Singer

Is it worth it to grow your own fruit? A fruit tree is more demanding of good care (pruning, dormant spraying, irrigation) than many ornamental trees in your landscape. However, think about the diminishing number of commercial orchards in California, plus the complexity of the marketing system, and you might feel motivated to begin your own small orchard. Just imagine yourself and your family and friends eating or preserving a tree-ripened, fresh-picked harvest!

Old orchards in the Sierra foothills are inspiring. In Gold Run, a fig planted over 100 years ago bears more fruit than visitors can eat. Antique apples from an earlier era on the San Juan Ridge continue to supply delicious fruit and scion wood for grafting. Fall brings a plentiful harvest from English walnuts grafted at a homestead near Peardale in the late 1800s. In warm microclimates in Nevada City, chestnuts are a lingering reminder of the value of home fruit production. And in Chicago Park, Bartlett pear trees are survivors from an industry once vital in the foothills.

dormant appleTake advantage of winter's dormant season. This is the only time of the year that you can plant bareroot, and local nurseries will soon offer stock. Bareroot season begins in December and usually extends through mid-March, though continuing cold storms may allow planting and pruning into April. As long as trees are dormant (without leaves or flowers), they may be handled bareroot without shock. If your planting area isn't ready yet, hold purchased trees in some compost in a cool location. Make sure that all roots are covered and moist.

Choose a tree with healthy wood, undamaged by handling. Caliper (the diameter if a cut were made across the trunk) will be larger on older trees, such as nut trees. Apples may be a very small caliper, less than half an inch. Small-caliper trees often grow more quickly.

More important than the size of your young tree is the health of the root system. The primary root or roots will most likely have been pruned when the tree was dug for delivery to the nursery. Look for secondary "absorbing" roots. The more the better, and they should not show any sign of damage.

Examine the branches: most of them will be eliminated with the initial pruning. The remaining few will become the permanent structure of the tree, and should be well-spaced around the trunk and also vertically. Bareroot trees with lots of branches challenge the budding orchardist to envision a standard tree at maturity, with only three thick scaffold branches supporting lots of fruiting wood (and even some children!).

Plan ahead for your trees' maturity! Standard rootstock of apples, pears, peaches and nectarines may be dwarfed by your pruning techniques the first few years. This allows you to plant trees closer, and to pick most of your fruit or do most of the winter pruning without a ladder. Semi-dwarf trees require less space than standards, and will usually come into fruiting sooner. With a semi-dwarf tree more branches will be left with the initial pruning.

Many fruit trees produce heavier crops when they have a pollinator of another variety growing nearby. Nurseries have information for each tree, with recommendations for pollinators. Note that different cultivars of peaches fruit early, midseason, or late. Extend your harvest with one of each! Some fruit trees are self-fruitful or self-pollinating and may be grown alone.

For the beginner, apples and pears are good choices. These two fruits can survive years of neglect and still be fruitful. Fruit is produced on short spurs that develop on older wood. Peaches and nectarines require attention to yearly pruning to develop new wood for fruiting, and they need dormant spraying. Yet a tree-ripened peach is the height of summer (perhaps even better than a swim in the river!). Figs, cherries, and nuts get better with age. Attention in the early years to the development of a structurally strong tree pays off with heavy fruiting and little demand for pruning as the tree grows older.

Prune before you leave the nursery. This is the hard part, since few gardeners want to see half their purchase disappear! Cut back the leader to a 3- to 4-foot height. Then select the best 3 branches for a standard fruit tree, eliminating all the others. Semi-dwarf trees may have 6 branches. Cut the chosen scaffold branches back to a strong bud a few inches from the trunk. Buds are directional and may be selected purposely to direct future growth. Pruning the bareroot stock may even help you fit more trees into your car.

When it comes time to plant, dig a generous hole and amend the planting soil with well-aged compost, one part compost to two parts native soil. Add 2 cups of soft rock phosphate and a cup of oyster shell to each planting hole.

Face the grafted area to the north, shielding it from the sun, and paint the entire trunk with an interior white paint. Use 'American Pride', which is a plant-based paint offered at the Alternative Building Center in Grass Valley. This is an important step as soon as you plant since the paint prevents sunscald. It will need to be renewed periodically while the tree is young. Check your pruning, and prune again if you need to! Irrigate deeply, and mulch heavily with straw to protect the soil surface.

A semi-dwarf tree planted this bareroot season may bear fruit the following year, and standard rootstock will bear fruit in just a few years. Take advantage of bareroot season, instead of losing another year. Imagine a fresh peach off your own tree, its juice dribbling down your chin as you bite into it on a warm summer day! And picture this delectable treat just before a swim in the river. Winter fantasies may become summer realities!

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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