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As summer fruit begins to ripen, or should I say rot, the calls start coming in. Home orchardists in Kentuckiana are at wits end as they watch their apples, peaches and pears do little more than fall from the tree in a spotted, bruised or petrified state.
Managing orchard trees isn’t for the hands off gardener; it takes effort to have healthy productive trees and that effort starts now. Fruit trees need pruning, fertilization and some protection from a myriad of insect and disease problems that can cause leaf spotting, poor fruit set, mal-formed fruit or rotten fruit when it is all said and done.
February is all about pruning and fertilization. Get the trees fed and in shape before they break dormancy.
Pruning styles evolved out of the need to keep trees a manageable size while maximizing the harvest.
Today most commercially produced fruit trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock so the job of pruning is not as overwhelming. Dwarf is a relative term, of course, but dwarf rootstock is advantageous if with the goal is a quality harvest-they are easier to work with. Other pruning techniques address the issue of pest control: better air circulation and light penetrations helps to reduce many insect, fungal and bacterial problems common in the orchard.
Peach trees take on a vase shape with the center pruned out; apples take on a whorled, scaffolding of three to four main branches. Pears are similar to apples but you allow 6 to 8 main branches. Pears and apples can have their main leader headed-off (cut back to the next lateral branch) when the trees reach about 10 feet.
To fine-tune the pruning of apples and pears you must thin the spurs. The spurs are the little stubs on main branches that grow about one-fourth of an inch each year. Foliage and flower emerge from these spurs, in alternating years. Thin these spurs and you get better spacing and larger fruit.
We have a mostly organic philosophy for the food we grow to eat so that means we have transitioned from fertilizing the orchard with the standard ammonium nitrate to using something that packs a little less of a punch but will still continue to provide nutrients to the trees. Instead of using one-eighth (pears), one-sixth (tart cherries), or one-fourth (apples) of a pound of ammonium nitrate per year of growth (not to exceeds 3 pounds) we are using cottonseed meal (it delivers nitrogen quickly) and fish meal (it delivers trace nutrients and nitrogen slowly).
Fertilize your fruit trees now for the added energy needed to break dormancy, push leaves and bloom.
Also before your trees break dormancy an application of dormant oil will go far in controlling certain insect pests. The time is ripe in late February or early March. We need to watch the progress of the trees, the outside temperature and chances of rain when planning an application: trees must be dormant if you are using “dormant” oil, temperatures must remain above 40 degrees, with no rain in sight for at least 48 hours.
The spray regime gets more complicated as the season progresses because fungal, bacterial and insects pests show up as the leaves unfurl and the fruit begins to form. Contact your County Extension service and request more detailed information about caring for your home orchard (and selecting compatible varieties). The timing, type, and application of pesticides is quite exacting for it to work properly and safely.
Another important consideration when selecting varieties is disease resistance and length of the growing season. Most fruiting trees require a minimum of days considered “frost-free” and a minimum of days where temperatures are between 45 and 32 degrees. The chilling period allows for required dormant period and thus affects bud set; the minimum frost free day requirement relates to the length of time needed to reach maturity.
These variables are why you should purchase fruit trees from people who know what they are talking about. For example, apple varieties that are recommended by the University of Kentucky because they show good disease resistance and are suitable to our climate include Pristine, Redfree, Dayton, Liberty, Spartan, Jonafree, Pixie Crunch, Priscilla, SirPrize, Enterprise, GoldRush and Sundance. Cross pollination is necessary so get two different varieties (SirPrize is not a pollinator, good fruit but sterile pollen).
The easiest of all the fruit to grow and to enjoy remain, in my experience, the Asian pear including the varieties Hosui, Shinseiki and Chojuro. One dormant oil application is all these trees get and the fruit is typically clean as a whistle.
The bottom line with fruit trees is this: get disease resistant varieties, use dormant oil if nothing else and harvest fruit with a paring knife nearby. One blemish does not make fruit inedible: cut it out or eat around it.
Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.