Garden Guide

Producing tree fruit for home use
Jan. 30, 2013 @ 04:58 AM

Following careful planning, you are ready to plant and care for your fruit trees. Controlling weeds, diseases and insect pests is important, as is supplying the necessary nutrients, thinning the fruit, and training and pruning the trees. This article describes how to carry out those cultural practices.   

The best planting time in North Carolina is late fall or early winter. The roots will then be able to grow through the winter, resulting in greater tree growth during the first season, which ultimately leads to larger trees. Young fruit trees are commonly shipped “bare root” with the exposed roots wrapped in moist sawdust. Plant the trees as soon as possible after purchase.

To plant a tree, dig a hole twice the size of the root system. Cut off damaged roots at the point of injury. Shorten roots that are especially long and will not fit in the hole. Roots that are not shortened will wrap around the tree hole and eventually girdle the root system, reducing tree growth in later years. When planting a grafted tree, be sure that the graft union is 2 inches above the soil.   

After the tree is in place, fill the hole with native soil, not potting soil. Adding organic matter or mulch to the soil can promote growth if these materials are mixed well with the soil. Never add fertilizer to the planting hole. Fertilizers are very caustic and can burn and kill the roots of young trees. After you have filled the hole, be sure to water the area well.

During shipping, handling and planting, roots are damaged. After planting young trees, prune the top of each tree. Pruning the tree top balances the root system and promotes vigorous growth in the spring. When working with unbranched trees, cut the tree off approximately 32 inches above the ground. For larger trees, remove 1/3 of the top of the tree.   

Weeds or grass growing between or under fruit trees compete for soil nutrients and moisture, reducing tree growth. Keep all vegetation under the trees controlled up to the drip line (the circle formed by the outermost branches of the tree). Avoid using mechanical cultivation to eliminate weeds because tree roots near the surface will be destroyed in the process.

Herbicides are an effective alternative, but be careful to follow the label directions and keep the herbicides off the tree. Another alternative is to mulch around the tree. A layer of mulch 4 to 6 inches deep will control weeds and conserve soil moisture. Note, however, that mulch can provide cover for voles or mice. These rodents burrow under the mulch and frequently gnaw tree trunks or roots, girdling the tree and killing it or impeding its growth. When using mulch, check for rodent pests. Prevent problems by placing guards around the base of the trees or use traps to control these pests. It may also be beneficial to pull the mulch back 1 foot around the tree trunk in the early fall.

Unless properly managed, insects and diseases can seriously damage fruit trees and their crops. Pests can be controlled with commercial pesticides, and moderate control may be achieved using organic controls. Garden centers offer many materials, including multipurpose insect and disease control products. Treatment must be started before problems become severe, causing serious damage or crop loss. It is important to identify pests and diseases accurately so an effective treatment can be selected. Pest problems can also be reduced through proper sanitation. Remove and burn or bury dead, diseased and damaged wood and fruit as soon as possible. Also, remove the leaves after they have fallen in autumn. Do not use the leaves as mulch. The infected leaves, wood and fruit can provide a habitat in which insects and disease-causing organisms can overwinter. By taking time to maintain orchard sanitation, you can reduce insect and disease problems significantly. Contact us at Cooperative Extension for assistance in identifying pests and for recommended control measures.

Tree fertility requires attention throughout the life of the tree, not just at planting time. However, applying fertilizer routinely without knowing whether it is needed can result in poor fruit quality and excessive tree growth. It can also waste money and contribute to environmental pollution. Annual soil analyses can keep you informed about the nutrients in the soil and the soil acidity. In addition to soil analyses, simple observation of the amount of vegetative growth can help in managing soil fertility. Trees with less than 10 inches of current season’s growth on lateral branches may need fertilizer. On the other hand, trees with greater than 18 inches of growth may not need fertilizer for several years. Excessive tree growth can promote some pest problems.

If you must fertilize without benefit of a soil test or other information, a useful rule of thumb is to apply 3/4 to 1 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year of tree age. When fertilizer is used, it is usually applied in late winter. Fertilizer should be broadcast on the soil surface both inside and outside the drip line of the tree. Keep fertilizer at least 6 inches away from the trunks of young trees.

Apples, nectarines, peaches, pears and Asian pears must be thinned early in the season to prevent overproduction, which can result in smaller fruit, increased tree breakage, and increased insect and disease problems. A heavy crop also reduces the chances for an adequate crop the following year. Fruit should be thinned when they are about the size of a nickel. Remove enough fruit so that the remaining ones are spaced about 4 to 6 inches apart along the branch. Even though it may look like very few fruit remain, the increased fruit size at harvest plus reduced risk of tree breakage and improved prospects for next year’s crop will more than compensate for the reduced number of fruit.

To ensure abundant harvests, you will need to train and prune your fruit trees regularly. For additional information on cultural practices, see Cooperative Extension Service publication AG-29, Training and Pruning Fruit Trees in North Carolina, available from our Extension office.

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