Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

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What to know about fruit trees

January 28, 2017
Martha Proctor

When we moved from a small cottage garden in England to a two-acre overgrown hillside garden in coastal Inverness, we assessed our new garden’s microclimates, soil and exposure before making major changes to it. Hours and hours of weeding and pruning revealed four old apple trees and assorted ornamentals.

To be able to grow some of our own food, we put in terraces, raised beds and poured through the “Sunset Western Garden Book” and other books on gardening in the Bay Area, including “Golden Gate Gardening” by Pam Peirce and “Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates” by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

Some of the basic information we learned about growing fruit trees in a home orchard includes:

• Select a site that receives full sun for at least six hours a day for fruit trees require plenty of sun to produce a healthy crop.

• Fruit trees need a certain number of hours with temperatures below 45 degrees in winter if they are to bloom normally and grow well in spring. Choose species and varieties whose winter chilling hour requirements enable the tree to produce healthy fruit in your geographic area. Most of Marin gets more than 400 chill hours a year. If a fruit tree doesn’t receive enough chilling hours, it may produce little or no fruit that year or the fruit may be deformed or smaller than normal.

• Select fruit trees that are disease-resistant and hardy enough to grow well in your Sunset hardiness zone. What to grow will depend on where you live and how much available space you have in which to plant.

• Trees perform well when irrigated every five to 10 days and sometimes less frequently. Ideally, wet the soil to 12 to 24 inches, the depth of the majority of roots of trees and shrubs, each time irrigation occurs. Water at the dripline of the tree canopy. Adding a 2- to 4-inch thick layer of mulch reduces water loss and weed problems. Keep the mulch away from the root flare at the trunk. During the first year after planting, ensure that the soil around the tree doesn’t dry out completely.

• As trees have root systems several feet deep, they perform best in deep, well-drained soils. Mulching, adding compost or manure and growing cover crops (legumes, for example) can improve the structure, biologic activity and water penetration of soil.

• Most fruit trees come in varieties that are dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard (more than 20 feet tall). Dwarf trees stay 8- to 10-feet tall and are perfect for small gardens. Semi-dwarf trees grow 10 to 15-feet tall and are more productive than dwarfs. Plant dwarf trees 12 feet apart; allow 18 feet between rows. Spacing is critical for pollination, sunlight and ventilation of trees. Ann Ralph’s book “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” provides useful guidelines on simple pruning techniques for small-space, easily harvested fruit trees.

• Visit a reputable nursery when choosing fruit trees. Carefully inspect the trees for damage, discoloration of the bark or leaves and encircling roots before purchase.

• Pruning stimulates new growth, controls tree size, and improves the size and quality of the fruit. For established trees, always remove dead, diseased, broken, and competing branches back to the trunk or a main branch. For a neglected tree, avoid pruning more than 25 percent of the tree in any given year. Thinning improves the size and quality of fruit.

Even a small stand of four to five trees can produce a significant amount of fruit. We now treasure the bounty from our small orchard of apple, pear, persimmon and plum trees.

Learn about the specifics of tending your own orchard at an informative presentation by three UC Marin Master Gardeners on Feb. 1. Connie Pelissero will discuss the hows and whys of espaliering fruit trees, Jeanne Ballestero will focus on small-tree planting and pruning strategies, and Sherrie Vigeron will offer pruning and training basics to grow and maintain healthy, productive fruit trees in small spaces.

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