How to Choose and Plant Fruit/Nut Trees

San Antonio Express News
Gardening, Etc.
Sunday, January 2, 2004

Just imagine walking out into your yard and picking fresh fruit from your own tree. There is something exciting and invigorating about growing your own fruit, and the challenge appeals to many people. If you are one of those people, its time to start thinking about what type of fruit trees you want and checking out the varieties that grow best in our area. Nurseries will soon have shipments in stock. Remember that the early bird gets the worm, or in this case, the early shopper gets the best variety choices.

The best fruit trees that a homeowner can buy are ones that are two years old and three to five feet in height. Not only do they survive transplanting better, but they become established faster. The largest tree is not necessarily the best selection. Smaller trees with fewer branches are often preferred because they (1) cost less, (2) are inherently more vigorous, (3) start new growth sooner, (4) are easier to plant, and most importantly (5) can be trained properly to look shapely and bear heavy crops. Very small trees were runts in the nursery and should be avoided.

Probably the most difficult thing for the gardener to grasp is the fact that half of the top growth should be removed from bare-root or balled-and-burlapped trees before planting. Many nurseries provide this service to customers. When a tree is dug at the nursery, about half of its root system is lost. An equal amount of top growth must be removed to bring top and bottom into balance again (the root-shoot ratio) and to trigger growth in the main branches, in the right places. If this balance is not maintained, the tree will grow feebly, if at all, and branches may dieback anyway.

Pruning does not mean “whack off the top half.” Initial pruning removes branches that total about half of the top growth starting with weak and poorly placed ones. The result should be a tree with three to five strong, well-distributed scaffold branches from which new growth will soon come. If you choose good branches now, you can avoid broken branches and poorly shaped trees later.

Probably the biggest initial mistake made by most homeowners trying to grow fruit and nut trees is in planting. The mistake is often made of placing a $10 tree in a 50 cent hole. Most fruit trees require a well-drained area. Where poor drainage is unavoidable, trees should be planted on elevated rows or ridges. These ridges should be at least 10-12 inches in height to insure the drainage of excess moisture.

When you are ready to plant, dig an ugly, ragged hole. A perfectly round hole will cause the roots to continue to grow in a circular pattern instead of branching out. Dig the hole deep enough so that the plant’s soil level will be at the same depth as it grew in the nursery. Setting the plant higher or lower in the soil will eventually harm it. Dig the hole twice as wide as the circumference of the root ball to accommodate the roots. After situating the tree, begin filling the hole with the same soil you removed. Shake the tree gently to filter the soil among the roots. When the hole is about three fourths full, add water. This will aid in packing the soil around the roots and lessen shock to the root system. After the water has completely soaked in, finish filling the hole with soil and firm.

If a tree cannot be planted immediately, it may be “heeled-in” (roots covered with loose soil) in a well-drained area. Make sure that the roots never become dry. It is a good idea to soak the tree’s root ball in a bucket of water 24 hours prior to planting. This insures good uptake of moisture.

Do not add fertilizer at the time of planting. A light application of nitrogen, however, may be necessary in the spring following planting. It is very essential that the tree be well-watered. Keep the area of ground beneath the tree be free of all vegetation. Weeds or other plants will compete for the nutrients in the soil that the young tree requires. A heavy layer of mulch does an excellent job of weed control.

Now is the proper time to plant pecan trees as well as fruit trees. The following suggestions will help to ensure your success:

*Survival is usually better with smaller sized trees.

*Never allow the roots of the trees to dry out prior to planting. “Heel-in” and keep the roots moist.

*Prune badly damaged and dead roots from the trees before planting. Start pruning the young trees to train them immediately. Do not allow forks with weak crotches to develop. Wrap the young trees for protection during the first two years. Wrapping will prevent sunscald and trunk damage by insects.

*Apply water to young trees during periods of dry weather. This is especially important during the first and second years after planting. Take care not to overdo it though, especially in heavy, poorly-drained soils.

*Cultivate the soil around young trees to keep down competing vegetation.

*Use a mulch of your choice to conserve moisture and hold down weeds.

This article was written by Lynn Rawe, County Horticulture Agent with Texas Cooperative Extension in Bexar County.

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