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Planning for moisture, gardeners plant fruit

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 23, 2013, at 7:29 a.m.

Planting fruit trees

Fruit trees and small fruit plants are often sold bareroot, and the roots must never dry out before planting, Ward Upham of K-State says. When you have them home, check the bundles immediately; if the roots are not moist, soak them in water for six to 12 hours. Packages with moist roots can be repacked and placed in a cool, sheltered area for a day or two, Upham says.

If wet soil prevents planting for several days, heel the plants in by digging a trench in a sheltered, well-drained area out of the sun, such as on the north side of a building, he says. Lay the roots in the trench and cover them with soil. Firm the soil and add water if the soil isn’t already quite moist, Upham says. Don’t leave plants heeled in for more than three weeks.

Plants can be placed in a bucket of water as planting holes are prepared. Make the planting hole wide enough to accommodate roots without twirling them inside the hole. If there is an especially long root, cut it to fit. Add organic matter to an area 8 feet across around the planting hole. In heavy soil, this prevents water from collecting in a small area around the plant and drowning it.

Make sure the graft union is 2 to 3 inches above the soil surface after the tree is fully in place. Water plants in immediately to eliminate air pockets and ensure there is plenty of water for root uptake. Do not fertilize.

Pruning fruit trees

“If you haven’t pruned your fruit trees, now is the time,” Upham says. Follow these steps in order, but stop if you reach removal of 30 percent of the tree.

• Take out broken, damaged or diseased branches.

• If two branches form a narrow angle, prune one out.

• Take out all suckers, branches that grow straight up, either from the trunk or from major branches.

• If two branches cross and rub against one another, take one out.

• Cut back or remove branches that are so low they interfere with harvest or pruning. Always cut back to another branch or a bud. Do not leave a stub.

• Cut back branches to reduce the total size of the tree if necessary.

• Thin branches on the interior of the tree.

There are more specific instructions for some types of fruit, Upham says:

Peach and nectarine: Peach requires more pruning than any other fruit tree because it bears fruit on growth from the previous year. Not pruning results in fruit being borne farther and farther from the center of the tree, causing a heavy fruit crop to break branches. Prune long branches back to a shorter side branch.

Apple: Apples tend to become overgrown if not pruned regularly. Wind storms and ice storms are then more likely to cause damage. Also, they tend to bear a huge crop one year and none the next. Biennial bearing is caused by too much fruit on the tree. Though pruning helps, fruit often needs to be thinned as well. The goal is an apple about every 4 inches.

Cherry, pear, plum: Light pruning is usually all that is needed.

Pruning young fruit trees

Young fruit trees should be pruned to begin developing a strong structure of the main or scaffold limbs to carry a heavy fruit load, Upham says. Apple, apricot, cherry, plum and pear trees generally are trained so that a center branch is dominant, growing straight up.

Peach and nectarine trees are normally pruned to a vase-like pattern with no central leader.

Either way, Upham says, the three to four scaffold branches should:

Be no lower than 18 inches from the ground, making it easier to prune and harvest.

• Form wide angles (about 60 to 80 degrees) with the trunk. Wide angles are much stronger than narrow angles.

• Be distributed on different sides of the tree for good balance.

• Be spaced about 6 to 10 inches apart on the trunk with no branch directly opposite or below another.

It’s been lovely to watch more new growth come out this first week of spring – more daffodils blooming and tulips popping up, quince and forsythia starting to show some color – albeit with snow in the forecast.

But far from dimming the anticipation of spring, the chance of moisture holds out hope that we’ll have a break in the drought, and a shot at being able to garden normally this year.

It’s with such a hope that people are planting gardens now. Extension agent Rebecca McMahon reminds us that even though we’ve had some cold days, it is indeed the season for planting the cool-season garden. When the soil is sufficiently dry, a whole host of fruits and vegetables can start their amazing journey in our yards: rhubarb, strawberries, potatoes, onions, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, radishes, onions, spinach, turnips, beets.

But it’s not only the more common edibles that can go in now. When a friend mentioned that she wanted to put in red currants and a plum tree this year, I was a little taken aback. Those are not plants you see listed on the garden calendar. Have I been blind to pints of the semi-translucent red orbs and purple plums at the farmers markets?

I also was a little put out. Why hadn’t I thought of planting red currants and a plum tree? That sounds as charming as a gingham apron. Which, come to think of it, I haven’t been wearing lately.

Rebecca said that both types of fruits indeed can grow here. But they do have some requirements.

Red currants do better in climates that don’t get as hot as Wichita does, and for that reason, they need a bit of light afternoon shade to cut out some of the scorching sun, along with a well-drained location.

“We’ve had them in the demo garden, and they’ve been very productive,” she said. (I guess I missed that part of the tour.) “In the right spot, if they’re well cared for – they like a good amount of water, though not with their roots sitting in it – they should do fine. Plant them now.”

I guess I should pick up some red currant jelly, because I don’t even know what red currants taste like. From what I could find online, they taste like a sour raspberry, but with the sensation of biting into a blueberry.

Plums are a stone fruit, so if you’ve had problems growing cherries or peaches, you probably will have problems with plums too, Rebecca said. They also need a well-drained location, which could be atop a berm.

There are two main types. We’re more familiar with red Japanese plums for eating, she said, but those tend to have the same problems as apricots do in our climate: They often bloom early and then get zapped by a frost, preventing fruiting. Most Japanese plums also need a pollinator, meaning you need room for two trees, and you take on a second early-freeze risk. “That’s often strike three” against planting them, Rebecca said.

The other type, the European blue-purple plum, is more reliable and usually self-pollinating, she said. So if you plan to plant a plum, plan to plumb its pollinating pitfalls – and check out its tolerance to spring frost before deciding on a variety.

No matter what type of fruit tree you plant, be aware that it will require water to get established, the same as any other tree. But to produce good fruit, it will need even more water than a typical non-fruiting plant, Rebecca said. That makes sense. Fortunately for my friend, she has gone beyond the charm of red currant fruit to siphon her children’s bathwater to the plants.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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