Every time you shop at the market for fresh fruit do you find yourself wishing you had your own fruit trees? You could pick tree-ripened peaches instead of those California baseballs that pass for fruit. You could make your own jams and jellies, freeze some of the production for the years when a late freeze damages the blooms….in short-you could be sort of a mini-prepper. All you need to do is buy the best adapted varieties, plant and prune them correctly in the beginning, prune every year thereafter, fertilize and spray a little (OK, maybe spray a little more than that), dissuade the critters that would help you with the harvest and you’re home free!
Picking the right varieties begins with the chill hour factor. In oversimplified terms, this is the number of dormant hours (after leaf drop) below 45 degrees F needed to result in a break in dormancy with full flowering and rapid leaf development. High-chill varieties (in our case let’s call it above 700 hours) are slow to reach full bloom and the leaves may be slow to develop, too. Varieties that are extremely low-chill (250 chill hours and below) often break dormancy too early and the flowers/small fruit are damaged or destroyed by a late freeze. Chill hours late in the winter (after January) seem to be more effective at breaking dormancy than the ones counted in November—that’s why chill hours are more complicated than it would seem. It’s good insurance to have a few low-chill varieties for those warm winters, include some in the mid-range (400-600 hrs.) and a few in the 600-700 hr. range. If you only have room for one tree, pick from the 350-500 chill hour varieties. Peaches get the most consideration regarding chill hours but apples and pears are often listed with a chill hour requirement. Pears seem more adaptable so you may see them referred to simply as low-chill or high-chill. Bartlett is an example of a high-chill pear that doesn’t do well in South Central Texas. Low-chill apples are somewhat limited with Anna and Dorsett Golden being the most dependable.
Planting time involves some tough decisions especially with peaches and nectarines. The main trunk of a typical one year old peach tree needs to be cut back to 24 inches and all the small branches below the cut should be removed. As the tree begins to grow in the spring the objective is to develop an upside down umbrella with 3-4 main scaffold limbs. If it’s a two year old nursery tree with high branching, it is still best to cut it back to 24 inches. Older trees in large containers that have already been trained to a low-branching umbrella just need a bit of clean up training and tip pruning. Most of the other fruit trees—plums and pears, for example—that will be trained to a modified leader system are pruned back about 1/3 and any weak limbs are pruned out. In many cases these fruit trees—plums, apples, pears, etc.—will already have potential scaffolds developed. Tie some flagging tape on the ones that seem to be spaced 6-8 inches vertically and radiating around the main trunk. You may change your mind about which ones to keep after the first growth year but at least you’re thinking about it.
The actual process of planting the tree in the ground involves a few more decisions. If it’s a bare-root tree or even one that was potted up from bare-root stock to keep it healthy and salable during the spring fruit tree frenzy, dig a hole only deep enough to set the tree at the original soil level or even a couple of inches higher. You can usually tell where the soil line was due a change from a dark to lighter color bark. If you dig the hole much deeper—even if you put the loose soil back in—the tree may settle and end up setting too low where it may be stunted. Organic matter is a great soil additive, but filling the bottom of the hole with compost or manure can ensure failure. The organic matter often stays too wet and begins to break down in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic decomposition) causing the roots to die or be stunted. Make sure the hole is wide enough to allow the roots to spread naturally with an extra 6-8 inches, if possible. Sometimes the roots have been crammed into a five gallon pot and it may take some effort to spread them naturally. Make a clean cut on any roots that appear broken or torn with ragged edges.
Next water the roots in thoroughly to remove any air pockets and cut the trunk off at 24 inches—also removing any small shoots below the cut. Finally cover the root zone with mulch to conserve moisture and reduce weed growth. If rabbits or mice have been a problem (they like green bark) you can wrap the trunk with aluminum foil, plastic or paper tree wrap available at the nursery. Peaches and plums are planted 16-24 feet apart commercially. In the home landscape they can be maintained 12 feet apart or even closer with genetic dwarf peach varieties.
By the end of the first years’ growth you will need to have your pruning tools ready to go. Dormant pruning should be finished by mid-January in most years and can start as early as late November. If you apply a copper fungicide in November it will knock the leaves off anyway (never use copper on peaches, nectarines or apricots during the growing season) and at the same time the copper will reduce Bacterial Canker infection. To prevent transfer of bacterial canker mix up a bucket of household chlorine solution 1:10 and dip your pruning tools in this for at least 10 seconds before you move on to another tree. You don’t need to do this after each cut, just when you are moving to a new tree. A tree that shows extensive cankering should be removed. It’s not something you can cure although a tree will usually produce for a few years after the first canker globules appear. For tip pruning, be sure you have pruners with some reach like a pole pruner or an expandable pruner.
If you’re still deciding on which of the shoots to select as scaffolds, flagging tape is your friend. Tie some on the ones you select to be scaffolds. This can be an especially helpful way to keep track of either the ones to save or the ones to remove if you’re pruning a fruit tree that has been left to grow for several years without any pruning. This circumstance happens way too often and it may require several years of corrective pruning to change these often tangled specimens into manageable trees.
Begin pruning your fruit trees with the big cuts first—the ones that need a pruning saw or ratchet pruners. There’s no point in tip pruning and then deciding to cut out a large limb you’ve already made a bunch of cuts on. At the end of one year your tree should look something like the tree in this photo. After pruning it will look thus and it will bloom out like this in the spring. Note three equally spaced scaffold limbs branching close to the ground. Also remove any broken branches, limbs that cross and rub or limbs that appear diseased. Next thin out some of the branches to let light into the tree canopy which will make it easier to spray and reduce disease because of better air circulation. Also the fruit color will be enhanced with good light penetration. If your pruners can’t make a close cut because of adjacent branches, go back with a small saw or hand pruners and cut out the stubs to encourage rapid healing. Try to open up the tree each year with the intent of removing 1/3 to ½ of the fruiting wood (flowering buds are in clusters of three along the stems). The next year your tree should look something like this.
An already established tree that has never been pruned will likely be a tangled mess. Unfortunately it will require several years to prune into a manageable shape and it will typically remain a larger tree, since you can’t go back and prune the trunk to 24 inches. There’s no simple formula for correcting a tree in this condition. Try to pick out 3-4 main scaffolds and ID them with flagging tape. Cut out twisted, crossing or unhealthy branches first and back off to have a look. Ask yourself if the tree can now be developed into an attractive and productive tree. Thin out some of the interior branches plus any that are too low and then do your tip pruning—cutting last year’s growth back a third to a half. This first year of pruning a neglected tree may leave you with 5 or more large limbs 2 or more inches in diameter. That’s OK, you can’t develop these overgrown trees in one year and it is likely that you will have a tree that is more of a modified leader shape (as for plums, apples, etc.) than the open umbrella shape of a commercial peach tree. In the landscape it may actually look more natural.
Before you know it, you will need to make your first spray application—use a dormant oil in mid-February followed by a cover spray with a fungicide/insecticide at pink bud (most blooms will be showing color, but not open) and then spray again at petal fall (2/3 of blooms have fallen). To produce quality fruit free of insect and disease damage continue spraying every week to ten days until harvest time. Actually you will need to anticipate harvest by observing when the fruit begins to color. Be sure you allow the minimum days to harvest from your final spray application based on the pesticide label requirements. It is very difficult to grow stone fruits like peaches and plums without some pest control. An isolated tree may produce a decent crop for a few years but the pests will find it eventually. Figs, citrus and jujubes are fruits that require a minimum of pest control.
One additional chore you will need to take on is fruit thinning. Peaches are best when thinned 6-8 inches apart while they are thumb-size or smaller. On a single tree you can do most of this by hand but if you have several trees try rolled up newspaper to swap some off. Neglect thinning and you’ll end up with small, poor quality fruit. We don’t usually thin figs or jujubes, and citrus trees are somewhat self-thinning but most other fruits will benefit from thinning.
If you’re contemplating your first fruit trees in the landscape you will most likely have a few questions. If possible, plan to attend the Arbor Gate FRUIT CULTURE DAY January 31, 2015. The classes start at 10:00 am and they will run through mid-afternoon. Be sure to contact Arbor Gate to register at www.arborgate.com or call 281-351-8851.