I am seeing fruit and nut trees for sale now in the Southeast where I live so I wanted to share some thoughts on how I approach tree cultivation. I usually try to plant trees earlier in the winter in order for the roots to get a good start but retail outlets know that people start getting restless towards the end of winter and want to get their gardens and orchards going and they are only too happy to accommodate them. I am an arborist by trade and I’ve provided some guidelines I follow in raising trees. It is not all-inclusive, it is just a quick read for folks who are trying to start or tend to their trees and don’t have much experience. You could spend a lifetime growing and studying trees and still not learn all there is to know but you have to start somewhere so don’t be worried that you won’t get it right- if the location you chose doesn’t turn out to be ideal, move it. You can spend a small fortune on having a contractor put in a tree or if you have the time and the strength, you can do a little research and get a smaller, less expensive tree and do it yourself. And trees are very forgiving!
Trees are long-lived enough to have phases of productivity that include adolescence, adulthood and advanced maturity. The important thing to realize with trees (and most living things) is that their goal in life is to pass on their genetic material by producing and germinating seed. This is their sole purpose in life. How they look, what their flowers and fruit smells like- all these things contribute to the perpetuation of their species. If a tree can produce a luscious fruit, it will entice an animal (man included) to eat the fruit and spread the seed. When a once-healthy tree is nearing the natural end of its life, you will often see a one last grand effort, a flush of buds as they give up all their reserves for one final fruit/seed set, then die in the dormant season. You could call it a selfless act, if trees had a conscious, because they could otherwise limp on for a few more rather unproductive seasons. And even after death, trees provide compost and mulch. So, with that in mind, here are my few basic guidelines for growing trees to their full potential and productivity:
1. Buy healthy plants- don’t start off at a deficit. Price is not always an indicator of health so look closely at the pot- if it is in a container, is it root-bound? You probably won’t be able to pop off the pot and check (which will also show whether the root has wound its way around the pot, also bad) but you can try to wiggle your finger into the potting soil. Can you? If you cannot even penetrate more than an inch or so, pass it by. Also check the graft site (fruit and nut trees are grafted onto root stock trees) at the base of the tree for fungus or poor grafts- you don’t want that either. Some of the best pear trees I’ve ever planted came from a Big Lots store. I tend toward the older varieties because they are tried and true and I don’t have the time to experiment. The other consideration is whether to buy dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard size trees. Dwarf and semi-dwarf will produce sooner but will die sooner, too. But if you cannot manage heights, go with dwarf. A standard size tree will live a long time and produce great quantities, in general, but it takes longer for standard trees to begin producing. Your best bet is to plant a combination of dwarf, semi-dwarf and one or two standard trees.
2. Location, location, location. To plant, that is. Do a little research on your species and variety- if it needs full sun, give it full sun or it will likely not reach full potential. Be wary of planting on high spots in general- think of how water flows and wind blows. Hilltops can catch the wind and are the first areas that water flows from- if nothing else, plan for the ‘military crest’ of the hill, just below the hilltop. Giving your trees a bit of protection from the wind in their early years will give them time to grow deep roots for both stability and water uptake. Planting trees in a slightly lower area allows for the possibility of water availability longer after a rain but make sure the site drains- very few trees can tolerate wet feet! The other consideration is air flow –while protecting your trees from the wind, you also want to make sure there is adequate air flow to help combat bacterial infections such as fire blight by allowing the site to dry out after rains. Make sure there is enough spacing between trees (check the spread for your variety on the tag) to allow for good air flow- this small act of prevention can keep many diseases at bay just by naturally regulating surface moisture levels.
A quick word on pesticides- I try to avoid them whenever possible. I may lose some trees but too often, pesticides are used to make up for poor siting or bad stock. I am not able to fence in my current orchard so I spray a deer spray (which is mostly concentrated urine) to keep the deer and rabbits out and it works pretty well for me. It has a very strong urine smell so be aware of the wind direction when spraying or it will keep your ‘dears’ away from you, too!
3. Nutrition. There are three main nutrients plants need: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) - commercial fertilizer is labeled with the parts of each (N-P-K), for example, 10-10-10. Just like your children need calcium for strong bones as they are growing, so your trees need phosphorus to develop a strong root system. I’m old school and prefer to feed my trees real food instead of chemicals- there’s debate enough about that for another forum- so for phosphorus I give them bone meal. I will sometimes toss an old sun dried bone in the planting hole if I have one. For nitrogen I have access to a Starbucks that gives me all the old coffee grounds I could want and the worms love it, too. For potassium I use wood ash and throw a few small chunks of charred wood in the there, too, for biochar. I find that the chemical nutrients release too quickly and you get peaks and valleys of fertilization whereas the bone meal and coffee grounds slowly decompose at an even rate.
4. Water. They need it, and will die without it. If you don’t get at least an inch of rain per week during the growing season, give them water. Better to use a soaker hose or apply it to the ground directly rather than spraying the leaves for a number of reasons but mainly because the roots uptake the majority of water. But remember, the leading cause of death of plants in general are water-related, either too little or too much. And that brings me to the final point…
5. Mulch. Mulch will hold in moisture around the root ball, it will help protect the roots from frost damage in the winter and dryness in the summer and hold back weed growth while slowly decomposing and providing nutrition. Use composted mulch – green chipped wood requires nitrogen to decompose and will rob your tree of it. But, do not pile up mulch against the trunk, making the ‘volcano’ look! This actually harms the tree by promoting fungus growth around the trunk and can actually smother the roots, inhibiting respiration. So visualize a ‘crater’ instead of a volcano- always make sure the flare of tree trunk is exposed and start your mulch ring about an inch from the trunk, building a crater outward about two feet, with the edge being about 4”-6” thick. Now you have formed a bowl for water to be held in for a slow absorption. You can take the mulch ring all the way out to the tips of the limbs (called the dripline of a tree) if you wanted and reduce further the grass under the tree, which will also rob your tree of nutrients in order to feed themselves. Do be careful to change out the mulch and fallen leaves in the late fall or early winter- disease spores can over winter in the mulch!
So if you have room for a tree, make this year the year you start your orchard. You don’t need any specialized equipment or knowledge beyond what I’ve covered in order to get started. A little time investment every month or so during the growing season to keep the weeds and grass back and keep it watered will pay dividends for many years to come.