Fruit Tree Care
Growing a fruit tree inevitably means growing a lasting relationship. Unlike many other crops, fruit trees have the capacity to accompany their caretakers throughout their lives, providing bountiful fruit over many years. Given the time it takes for fruit trees to mature and the rewards of labor well-spent, it is advisable to carefully plan before beginning to growing them. Before planting, be knowledgeable about how to select and prepare a site, as well as which varieties thrive in your area. Once a tree is planted, do not expect to see the fruits of your work for at least three to five years with dwarfing and semi-dwarf trees, and about seven to ten years with standard trees. In the modern realm of backyard fruit production, we are blessed to have so many varieties and rootstocks available. Given the proper rootstock and variety combinations, it is not uncommon for us to plant twelve to fifteen trees in an area of 500 square feet. On the central coast, this practice enables us to extend the harvest season and pick fruit throughout the year. Citrus is harvested in the winter/spring, stone fruits in the summer, and apples, pears, and persimmons in the fall. To purchase bare root fruit trees, you can order them online or by phone, buy them at your local nursery, or graft them yourself. Choosing your trees at a nursery allows you to assess the health of the tree, which is highly beneficial; robust, healthy bare root trees can grow one to two years faster than weak-rooted, thin trees. Of course, sometimes local nurseries will not have the desired variety; in this case, ordering online is the next best option. Here are a number of reputable local and online sources. Some people wonder if they can purchase a tree that is already three to five years-old. Although this is, in fact, possible, we advise against it simply because fruit trees tend to grow weakly in a potted environment, usually are not trained well by the nursery, and ultimately the disadvantages will outweigh the benefit of those extra saved years. Bare root trees have been budded or grafted, grown for a year in the ground, and then uprooted to be taken to their true homes. Given the proper care, they will easily outgrow their potted counterparts. After newly planting a backyard orchard, a client might come outside and see rows of sticks in the ground and have difficulty imagining that this will become the orchard she envisioned. However, in one year's time, the trees will begin to leaf out and grow stronger and the relationship with the trees will have begun.
As we mentioned before, fruit trees have the potential to sometimes live even longer than we do, so choosing a site that is conducive to health and growth is important. Water, sunshine, and healthy soil are the key ingredients to a fruit tree's sustenance. We have worked with many folks who have already planted trees under redwood canopies, in extremely shallow soils, and without summer water; no matter what they do, growth simply does not happen. Sunshine is what allows the trees to accumulate nutrients and carbohydrates to develop fruit buds and, ultimately, fruit; also, the more sun the tree receives, the sweeter the fruit will be. Many of us have seen or grown up around large standard trees, which reach 25-30 feet; these trees' roots are tapped into the water table and have developed a drought tolerance similar to our coastal live oaks. Most of the trees we plant today are on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks; they have smaller, less widespread root systems, which means they are water dependent. In order to have the smaller backyard orchard thrive, we must provide summertime irrigation. Drip or micro sprinkler systems help conserve water, as well as being quite simple to use. Even though the extent of our control over sunshine and water is often bound to the weather, we can effectively build soil if the soil is depleted or shallow. With the help of compost and cover crops (and the occasional jack hammer) we can turn both a thick clay soil or a sandy sieve-like soil into a nutrient-rich, friable, porous medium that fruit trees will love. Be prepared though, soil alchemy is a slow process.
Planting the Tree
In the past, the conventional wisdom was to amend the planting hole with finished compost and nutrients, creating a vital zone for the tree roots. By amending the native soil in a limited area (i.e. the planting hole), the tree is able to grow easily while its roots are in that zone; however, we have learned that when the roots move outside that zone, as they inevitably do, they hit the harsh reality of non-amended soil. The roots can turn back on themselves, eventually creating a rootbound effect, which results in poor growth and a shorter lifespan. When planting, do not amend the planting hole. Simply dig your hole, aerate the soil, and plant the tree. Use top dressing and cover crops to build soil over time. The first couple/few years in the ground are foundational years in the tree's life. The tree needs to achieve a robust size, so that by the time it fruits (year 3-5), the limbs and trunk have become sturdy enough to hold heavy loads. Check out our first year care page for tips on how to aid your trees' growth.
Pruning the Tree
Pruning fruit trees successfully requires skill, knowledge, and artistry. We have included a step-by-step gallery of photos that demonstrate how to prune at the tree's planting. After the first year, we recommend attending a pruning workshop, studying helpful books, or calling us in order to understand how fruit develops on the tree. Without a confident sense of where on the branch fruit will develop and on what age of wood, one could prune away all of the year's fruit wood in the name of aesthetics, faulty intuition, or by accident. Pruning involves applying a systematic checklist of understanding while moving throughout the tree. When one first undertakes pruning, especially on larger, mature trees, one can easily get overwhelmed with where exactly to start and how the tree should look when it's finished. Sometimes novice pruners give up, or hack limbs indiscrimiately. Trees are alive and will regrow; but, improper pruning, usually in the realm of too-much, can have a lasting effect on the tree. Over-pruning can lead to an abundance of regrowth, which can trigger a pattern of too much growth at the expense of fruit production for years to come. The goal of pruning is to provide a strong framework of branches that will allow light to penetrate all parts of the tree, as well as to renew fruit wood.
Soil Fertility Needs
Although one may become a highly skilled pruner, without proper annual soil care and development, one's expertly pruned tree will be malnoursihed. Before planting trees, till in compost at the rate of 10 tons per acre, test the soil, and till in the appropriate organic nutrients. Once the trees are in the ground, top dressing, and cover cropping are essential practices. On a yearly basis, grow cover crops, which are crops grown for the soil. Legumes, which include bell beans, vetch, and clovers 'fix' atmospheric nitrogen and store it in their roots. Growing in the wild, the plant uses this nitrogen to make seed; in our setting, we cut the crop down at peak nitrogen fixation so the nitrogen leeches into the soil, feeding our trees and plants, providing a free form of plant-available nitrogen. A mix of bell beans (or fava) and oats sown in the fall will provide an entire year's need for nitrogen during the mature/bearing years of the tree's life. In addition to cover cropping, for young trees (1-3 years old), apply organic fruit tree fertilizer in early spring to encourage healthy and vigorous growth, which is the framework for the tree's future. One can sow the cover crop in early October and irrigate it until the rains come, or wait for the rains, sow the seed into moist soil, and rely on rain-watering from then on. In the springtime, once the crop is 50-70% in bloom, cut it down at its base, leaving the roots in the soil to break down, and lay the plant material under the drip zone of the tree as a top dressing. An annual application of compost will also foster optimum biology of the soil. Compost used as a top dressing may be bulky and not fully broken down. Compost used as an amendment that you incorporate into the soil before planting should look very similar to soil.
Pest & Disease
Growing fruit trees wthout pest and disease can be achieved with organic practices. It is important to be attuned and consistent in observing your trees and to take proper action as soon as you become aware of an imbalance. Throughout the season, keep an eye out for oddities; for example, curled-up leaves, holes in the fruit, and/or discolored leaves. Catching these early will increase the likelihood of protecting that year's crop and/or the health of the tree. Conscientious approaches to cleanliness, such as removing pests and diseases from the system, will help alleviate future infections.
Throughout the year, fruit trees do not need intensive and frequent care, but rather pulses of work and nurturance. These pulses are seasonal: pruning and planting in the winter, top dressing and irrigation set-up in early spring, fruit thinning in the mid-spring, harvesting in the summer, and soil care and disease prevention mainly in the fall. By attuning to the trees and growing a relationship with their needs, we are giving fruit an excellent chance of thriving. The rest is up to nature.