We have a fluctuating number (somewhere around 45) of fruit trees on our property and this spring, like every spring is my chance to add more and make changes. Boy did I! From assessing frost damage, pruning, planting, grafting, mulching, dodging gopher holes and changing irrigation I have been busy!
It started with a friendly neighborhood post from respected friend and arborist Sue Hullsman. She reached out to her neighbors and asked me if I’d like her to come over and look at my trees. Her visit brought to light several things I needed to improve. While my pruning wasn’t too far off the mark, I tend to prune my branches to grow up rather than to the sides. While her visit brought about a new confidence in my pruning and much needed knowledge, it was more about tree care in general that I needed to address.
I have always been told to put manure around the base of the trees and since I planted trees in 2010 I hadn’t done so. Mainly because I wanted to be able to ensure that all our inputs were certified organic. Prior to Sue coming I decided to take advantage of an offer from my next door neighbor Jennie to help myself to her old horse manure pile. It was well aged. Pete and I shovelled 4 cubic yards of manure into our truck, into wheel barrels and then again all over our property to each tree. When Sue came she explained that while manure is good for the trees, you don’t want to cover the few inches around the base of the tree trunk. This meant walking to each tree and cleaning away the dumped manure from around the trunks.
Disease and fungus has always been a concern but until last year I hadn’t had any reason to be concerned. I have never sprayed anything on our trees. That will change this year. I noticed fire blight in one of my pear trees (the Asian Pear) and fungus on the leaves of some my peach and nectarine trees. I cut the fire blight out. I hope NOT to see it this year. You have to spray copper fungicide when your trees are dormant so now is the time. Copper fungicide is one of those inputs that people who are organic don’t want to use. I am one of those people. It should be done with discretion and with strict accordance. Because I am a farmer, I have to document any time I spray. Even Neem Oil has to be documented an sent to the Agricultural Commission. Also to be by the book I have to make notice to apiaries within the area. I currently have a hive here myself. Furthermore it is not wise to spray Copper Fungicide on Apple or Pear. When all is said and done, it’s an ordeal and it may or may not take care of our trees.
I have been told before by one of my friends (Bren Randolph) that my irrigation for my trees wasn’t effective. When Sue pointed out that my central line with single water drip right at the tree was bad, I knew it was time to change. I bought 5 rolls of 1/4 soaker hose and more drip fittings then set to work making circles around the base of the tree the same circumference as the width of the crown of the branches. I had to use staples that we use for the drip tape to hold the circle down and in place. Between foraging chickens and routine week wacking the 1/4 drip line take a beating and it’s a pain in the but to walk around the property assessing leaks. I will do anything to avoid exacerbating my irrigation maintenance patrols! I have a carrying case, like a fishing tackle box, with handles busting at the seems, FULL of drip parts and pieces. It’s like my work briefcase or purse for the office! I spent a week walking to and fro around the property tweaking things, adding things, cutting things out, and talking to myself.
When you prune there are several things you must be thinking before you even get started. The decision to prune before or after spraying with fungicide was considered and I chose to wait and spray after the prune because of the weather. I wanted to spray at sunset and without wind and the were few windows for me. Meanwhile some of my trees had already started to come out of dormancy. The next thing you must consider when you prune is what healthy trees you want to graft from or take scionwood from. In my case, with 40 some trees, I did have scionwood to take and either exchange or graft. Also ideally when you prune you should cover or seal the tip where you cut to help the tree recover. To do so means you have to have the paint or sealant ready. I had done neither….ever prior to my schooling from Sue. My new process of taking an arsenal of different cutting devices, files, a ladder, bleach containers, markers and bags made me out to look like a professional landscaper or painter. Analysing my blades and adding an edge while standing next to one of my trees, then making the perfect cut gave me a sense of contentment. Each tree cut meant the scionwood was analysed, cut according to size, bundled, labeled and placed into a Zip Lock bag. Then the tools would go into the bleach solution and the alternate tools waiting in their bleach solution would be used. Very methodical!
And last but not least the return of white exterior latex paint returned to the trunks all of our trees. My daughter Varah and I took to the painting the trunks of each tree. Some barely showed the remnants of paint from several years ago while others no bigger than an inch were virgin to the white paint to bark. No small endeavor but a good chance for the two of us to spend a little Mom and daughter time. I laughed to myself when putting paint on some of them bought from Bay Laurel Nursery whose Bareroot Planting Guide (receipt stapled to it) clearly states that trees without white paint on the trunk returned will not be refunded. In my head I cringe thinking the white paint is the least of the reasons why I would lose a new tree.
As a matter of a fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever returned a dead tree to anyone….and I’ve lost my fare share of trees. Planting a tree around here feels like leading a baby lamb to slaughter. I have taken to buying the 15 gallon galvanized chicken wire baskets as a general rule of thumb because gophers and squirrels routinely gore the bottom around the baskets and chew on every available root. If it can just get beyond 4 years it seems to be left alone but the young ones get attacked within months of going in ground. Furthermore placement of the tree and the basket are both crucial. The basket has to have all sides sticking out of the soil at least 4 inches so the gophers can’t crawl over. I’ve made that mistake and learned my lesson. The tree when planted needs a little bit of soil underneath it. Do not put the roots in the bottom of the basket. They are simply too close to where the gophers and get to them from underneath. They need a good buffer and time to grow bigger before the gophers can start chewing on them. Aside from gophers we also deal with winds, hard freezes and extremely hot summers. Winds will make a tree turn or lean unusually so staking young saplings is a must here. Hard freezes affect different trees in different ways. Citrus, Avocado and tropical are no goes unless they are potted and get moved indoors during the winter. I have lost more fig trees to frost and gopher! Some people swear by Christmas lights around them and from the few growers here in the neighborhood it is evident that lights work. For me, running electric out to the orchard makes me cringe. It’s hot here in the summer! The last two summers have had weeks of triple digits and single digit relative humidities. It’s like being in an oven. The trees react with sunburn. I hope that the paint will help with that.
For the first time this year I am attempting to graft. While my mother has attempted grafting before and I have shared scionwood, I have never endeavored to graft onto my own trees. I decided after committing to going to the Central Coast Chapter of California Rare Fruit Growers scion exchange at Cal Poly, that I would take my scionwood and bring some back. I walked into the exchange, working my way through a crowd of eager shoppers to get inside before everyone else to offer up my massive insulated Trader Joe’s bag filled to the brim with scionwood. I walked out with Arkansas Black Apple, Bellflower Apple, European Seckel Pear, European Hood Pear, Hosui Asian Pear, Sierra Asian Plum, Golden Nectar Plum, and Satsuma Asian Plum. I also bought two potted pear rootstock (OHxF) and two bare root plum rootstock (MYRO). I got to see many of my neighbors and friends there that day so it was an enlightening venture. I came home and grafted. I put the Seckel on one root stock and the Hosui pear on the other. I grafted in the same manner with the Satsuma Asian Plum and the Sierra Plum to their rootstocks. Then I grafted both the Sierra and the Golden Nectar to my Santa Rosa Plum tree. I grafted my Arkansas Black Apple to my Red Delicious and my Bellflower to my Gala. I still have few scionwood left and want to graft the Hood to my Comice and do a little more grafting with the plums. I will do another post this summer to see if the grafts take. The majority of all the grafts were cleft.
After grafting I started to think about tree placement and fellow pollinators. Many people buy trees and plant them thinking they are self fertile. Even if they are you will get more fruit if you add other pollinating trees that are compatible. In the case of my pear trees I have an Asian Pear (Shinsui I think) and a European Comice. It occured to me that when I brought the Hood home I would need a specific tree like the Flordahome to get fruit. The same is true for the Seckel. This prompted the search and purchase of more bare root trees. This is where I insert the emoji of an exaggerated smile to my husband’s dismay. I bought a Shinko Pear, a Rainier Cherry, a Red Fuji Apple from Dave Wilson Nursery (they are the best). I got an Arkansas Black Apple, and a Moonglow Pear from Stark Brothers. I still need to get a Flordahome but I think it will have to wait until next year and I still don’t know if the Hood grafts will take. All the same I have learned a lot about grafting this year and I can’t wait to learn more.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned is bugs and that is because until Sue brought it to my attention I had no idea that bugs were present. Now I still claim a degree of ignorance because I have only noticed signs of a borer on two of my trees because of sap. In both cases I removed the sap and stuck a pin inside the browned hole where I thought something might be. I finished by sealing the area with paint. I found evidence on a neighbor’s tree of codling moth so now I know what to look for.
The notion that a tree can produce fruit if left to its own devices is a far fetched notion to me now. Between learning to mulch routinely, fertilize, prune, guard, spray, and water correctly I feel like there is a huge amount of responsibility that needs to be performed if you expect to get good production from your trees. I am hoping for the best! Picking fruit with the kids has always been something I’ve very much enjoyed.