Gardening: Choosing and caring for fruit trees
by Mary Robson, WSU Cooperative Extension
Harvesting ripe apples, pears, or plums from the garden revives wonderful memories for many people. Raising fruit can result in eating fresh off the tree, or preserving jams, jellies, and tasty frozen fruit for winter pies.
During January, bare-root fruit trees appear in local nurseries and in catalogs, and now through late March are ideal months to select and plant new fruit trees for the home garden.
Many people who don't know anything about Washington State associate the state with fruit production, apples above all. It's no accident that the major fruit production areas are east of the mountains where summers offer lots of fruit-ripening heat.
To get good production here, choose fruit cultivars adapted to the mild-winter, cool-summer maritime Northwest. Ask at nurseries or check locally-produced catalogs such as the Raintree Nursery catalog from Morton, Washington.
Be sure to specify what your local conditions are, since higher elevations or waterside areas have distinctly different weather patterns.
Some specific apple cultivars that have done well growing in the lower elevations of western Washington include "Liberty," "Akane," and "Chehalis." Northwest favorites in European pears include "Bennett," "Rescue," and "Orcas."
A gardener on Orcas Island discovered the "Orcas" pear, which has proved to be a vigorous grower in wester Washington. In crisp Asian pears, good ratings go to "Nijiseiki," "Ichiban," and "Chojuro," among others. In plums, try self-fruitful (needs no pollinator) "Italian Prune."
Unlike "Italian Prune" plums, peaches, Montmorency cherries, and some pears, most fruit trees need cross pollination from another similar tree to produce good fruit. With sweet cherries, apples and Japanese pears it's essential to have a pollinator. Check when purchasing fruit trees to be sure that the trees have their pollination requirements met.
Some nurseries sell combination trees with branches from several cultivars grafted on to one rootstock; these combination trees contain cultivars that pollinize each other.
Planting bare-root fruit trees, or any bare-root tree, isn't difficult. Bare-root plants have been dug and shipped without any surrounding soil around the root mass. The key to success with these plants is to keep the roots protected and moist before planting. Don't unwrap the packing materials until you are ready to plant.
If it's necessary to wait for a long period of time before doing the permanent planting, "heel" the plant into the ground. Remove the packing and temporarily plant it up to the same depth it previously was in the ground, using damp sawdust, bark, or soil and watering the plant in well.
Before planting a bare-root tree, prune off any damaged or jagged roots, making a clean cut with properly sharpened pruners. Cut off any "girdling" roots that might be circling the tree.
Soak the tree in water for 1 or 2 but no more than six hours. It's not advisable to add any "vitamin" or nutrient solutions to the water. Plain water works best. Don't forget the plant as it's soaking; being held in water too long will kill the roots. Plant all fruit trees in sunny, well-drained sites.
If a home orchard is already planted, late January and February are good months to prune established fruit trees. Fruit trees must be pruned to encourage good bearing and train the tree structure. Prune young trees very lightly unless they are misshapen or have been broken off (for instance, by deer damage). Prune the top of the tree to open the center of the tree to light, which will help with fruit ripening. Older neglected trees will need much heavier pruning than young ones.
Prune when danger of extreme cold is over, but before fruit trees begin to open bloom. Some growers postpone pruning sweet cherry trees in early spring, waiting until after bearing to avoid problems with bacterial infection.
For more information about fruit tree pruning, contact your local WSU Cooperative Extension office to ask for the bulletin PNW 400, "Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard." This bulletin has excellent line drawings that illustrate the principles of pruning. Prune on days when the temperature is above freezing.
If your garden includes peach trees, early January is time to watch for bud swelling and get fungicide on as protection against peach leaf curl, a common fungal problem on peach, apricot and almond trees in western Washington. The affected leaves are distorted and curled, reddish in color. They may fall off the tree and consistent infections will definitely reduce crops and weaken the tree.
Worrying about leaf curl when there aren't any leaves on the tree may seem like an oddly-timed practice. However, the disease spores land on the buds, get in between the scales as the bud begins to expand, and infects the leaf tissue before the leaf begins to expand. Washington State University plant disease specialists recommend one fungicide spray in early January, and two more timed three to four weeks apart.
Several materials available to homeowners are registered for control of peach leaf curl, including lime sulfur, bordeaux mix, and Daconil 2787. Follow instructions on the label exactly and do not spray when temperatures are below 40 degrees F.
Trees resistant to peach leaf curl are available. "Frost" peaches become infected during the first two or three years of life but then develop resistance to cur. One catalog lists another leaf curl resistant cultivar, "Mary Jane." Check with nurseries to look for resistant cultivars.
Bulletins on growing fruit in home landscapes are available through Washington State University Cooperative Extension offices. Learn about other cultivars in EB0937, "Tree Fruit Varieties for Western Washington," ($2.00 plus postage and handling.) EB1505, "Planting Landscape Plants," deals with the specifics of planting ($1.00 plus postage and handling). Home orchard spray schedules, EB0846, apples and pears, and EB0918, stone fruit ($1.00 each plus postage and handling), are also available. To reach WSU Cooperative Extension in King County, call 296-3900; in Snohomish County, 338-2400.