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A bit of earth Spring rain brought different problems for Wichita trees — fireblight

  • Published Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

While bare branches on some trees around town are signs of last year’s drought, browned and blackened leaves on other trees are signs of this spring’s rainfall.

No, we can’t win.

fireblight has descended on susceptible varieties of crabapple, apple and pear trees, because the weather was very rainy when the susceptible trees were blooming, extension agent Bob Neier said. In 30 years, he said he’s seen fireblight four to five times in Wichita; there was a 15-year stretch in which Wichita didn’t see any.

“We usually don’t have the weather,” he said.

Unfortunately, this year brought the ideal conditions. Seven trees in David and Gwynne Bonifield’s yard in west Wichita have the blight — two varieties of crabapple, two apple trees and a pear tree. The Bonifields are considering taking all of them out and replacing them with trees that aren’t susceptible. But tree removal is expensive, and the shade garden under their crabapple trees would then become sunny. The other alternative is to prune out all the affected branches, disinfecting the pruners between each cut —and that’s a lot of work.

“I make pear jam, and look, it’s almost gone. It makes me want to cry,” Gwynne said, looking at her blight-ugly pear tree.

Neier said that fireblight had hit ornamental pears particularly hard a few years ago. In neighborhoods that are planted heavily with the affected trees, the toll can be heavy. Unfortunately, by the time the disease shows up, nothing can stem it for this season. People who were applying a preventative still ended up with fireblight on their trees, but not as badly as if they hadn’t treated, Neier said. If you’re seeing fireblight now, follow these steps for the affected plants:

• When the weather is dry, prune out branches that are damaged, cutting them 10 to 12 inches below where you see the damage, Ward Upham of K-State said in the Horticulture 2013 newsletter. Disinfect pruning tools between each cut with a 10 percent bleach solution, rubbing alcohol or other disinfectant, he said. If you use bleach, clean and oil the equipment afterward because bleach is corrosive.

“Some people prefer the ugly stub method and snap the branch off below the blighted area,” Upham said in the newsletter. “This helps someone see at a glance where fireblight occurred in the tree,” and people can then do follow-up pruning in the winter.

• Try to prevent it next year by using a copper-based bactericide (or the less-desirable fireblight preventatives that contain the antibiotic streptomycin). The product should be applied during bloom and a couple of weeks later, Neier said. He said that garden centers don’t typically carry these products, so order ahead of time, or schedule an arborist to do the treatment.

Remove any tree that is heavily damaged to protect others around it, Neier said, and look at it as an opportunity to try something new.

In the arboretum on the Extension Center’s grounds, “I’ll bet we have 15 varieties (of crabapple), and if we get a bad disease in one, I cure it with a chainsaw,” Neier said. “It’s cut down. If it gets rust bad, or fireblight, it’s cut down. The ones we have are holding up without treatment.”

In the future:

• Don’t fertilize heavily or prune heavily in the dormant season, Neier said. Both of these practices push on quick growth that is susceptible to fireblight.

• Anytime a disease or weather pattern hurts a particular plant, it’s a good reminder to plant a diversity of trees, especially staying away from anything that’s already heavily planted in a neighborhood.

Plant varieties of crabapple, pear and apple that are resistant to fireblight. You may have to do some research to find a tree that has all the qualities that you want, and then you will have to check around to see if a garden center has it or will get it for you.

Nobody wants to hope against rain, but we can hope that the bloom time for these trees stays dry enough next year to avoid fireblight.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

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