Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part II

Easter_Buerre_pearGrowing fruit in your garden or home orchard may be even more important in the future than ever before. The lack of rainfall last year and this winter will probably raise the price of fruit at the market. If the water farmers rely on is rationed during this years growing season, fruit production will also suffer. You can start growing your own fruit by planting a bare root tree now and this is how to do it. It only takes a few years for a young tree to start producing. By using lots of mulch and perhaps installing a laundry to landscape gray water system, trees require a fraction of the water as other landscaping.  Just imagine eating fruit off your own trees.

One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally in the ground. They are dug while dormant. When the trees are handled well the root system is left intact and the tree has a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted.   Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and the garden soil.  Bare root trees are also less expensive to ship because they have no soil on the roots making them much lighter and easier to handle.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant.  Once leaves emerge Janice_Seedless_Kadota_figor flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing their new, permanent roots in their permanent home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock.  Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy.  Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.

What is the proper way to plant a bare root tree? Select a spot with at least 6 hours or more of summer sun. To test for drainage if you have heavy soil, dig a hole about a foot deep. Keep the organic top soil from the top of the hole separate from the soil you dig out from the bottom of the hole. Fill the hole with water. If the water drains within 3-4 hours, fill the hole again. If it takes longer than 3-4 hours to drain on either filling you will either have to find another spot,  build a raised bed or berm or plant in containers.

If you are happy with your location, dig the planting hole 24″ wide x 24″ deep again keeping the organic matter separate from the sub soil. Ultimately, trees must grow in the surrounding soil. Don’t amend your soil unless it is very sandy. If you amend the slow draining native soil around the tree the hole will just fill with water killing the tree. Adding organic amendment to extremely sandy soils, however, can help retain moisture in the root zone.

Place your tree in the hole and start filling in around the roots with the sub soil first, then the organic top soil. Wiggle your tree as you fill in around it to settle the soil. Tamp down the soil lightly with your foot when the hole is half filled and then top off the hole with the organic top soil.  Stake the tree low and loose for the first couple of years. You want to keep the root zone stable in the wind while it is becoming established but allow the top of the trunk and branches to move with the wind. They will grow much thicker faster. Water in well and again the next day. You should not need to water again until the tree there is new growth of several inches.

Prune the central leader and branches of your new tree 1/3 to 1/2 to a plump bud facing the direction you would like the new growth to grow. Mulching is especially important to bring back the beneficial organisms in the soil. Bioactivity reduces fertilizer requirements. Mulching keeps the ground cooler in the summer and retains moisture. After your tree is established you can fertilize with an organic fertilizer. Keeping the nitrogen low but the phosphorus and potassium higher will help control the size of the tree making it easier to harvest that delicious fruit.

This year I have my eye on an heirloom French butter pear called Easter Beurre that ripens in December with tender, sweet, melting flesh. Also I want to try the Janice Seedless Kadota fig with it’s incredibly sweet flavor. It’s said to have better flavor than Black Mission. I think they should have named this fairly new fig after me spelling it Janis but it’s too late now.

Don’t miss the opportunity to add a fruit tree to your garden this winter.

Bare Root Fruit Trees – Part 1

bare_root_fruit_treesIt’s bare root season again. There’s something magical about a small leafless tree with bare roots that will produce mouth-watering fruit when it grows up. Even ornamental shade trees, flowering shrubs like lilacs and vines like wisteria start out looking like twigs. Buying a new addition for your garden or home orchard in bare root form is economical. They establish quickly and are easy to plant. Every year there are more types available including delicious time honored heirloom varieties as well as modern favorites. It’ll be hard for me to decide which ones I’ll recommend for edible gardens I design this year.

A visit to Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond has me inspired. They specialize in edible plants and trees as well as all things related to harvesting and preserving them.  Renee was eager to share with me her favorite fruit tree varieties.  Many of these delicious heirlooms are locally grown here in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Tierra Madre Farms who use organic farming practices to keep the trees and the soil healthy. I like the idea that this small farm is dedicated to promoting and preserving our world’s crop diversity.

When May rolls around I’ll be anxiously awaiting the first cherries, apricots and peaches. Then the early nectarines arrive, sweet and juicy followed by the plums that ripen next. Later in the summer apples, figs and pears make their debut as well as late ripening plums and peaches. With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year.

I’d never heard of some of the bare root heirloom varieties I saw buried in tubs of sawdust so I did a little research to find out what all the fuss was about. Why had they passed the test of time and then disappeared off our store shelves? By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness.

Who doesn’t look forward to the first cherries of the season? Plant an Early Purple Guigne cherry and you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. This heirloom has been grown in this country since the early 1800’s and figured in a court case in San Jose in 1884. Seems a Mr. Bassford  bought 300 of these bare root trees in December of 1897. When they fruited several years later he found that the cherries were quite different from the variety which he had paid for. Court records show that he claimed the cherries were inferior in size and appearance to the Early Purple Guigne that he had wanted and were nearly valueless to him on the market. He sued but lost his case after testimony revealed and Judge Spencer ruled that the name Early Purple Guigne applied to different types of cherries in different localities and the original bare root trees were not fraudulently sold.

Another early ripening cherry to try is the classic Governor Wood which produces beautiful sweet and juicy, golden-yellow fruit with a red blush. Introduced in 1842 this cherry is still prized for its abundant crop of delicious fruit. How about a sour cherry like Montmorency? This heirloom dates back to 300 B.C. but it was the French colonist who first planted cherry pits along the Saint Lawrence River in the 1600’s. Michigan produces over 90,000 tons of this bright red cherry with yellow flesh and clear juice.

Here’s a win-win growing tip for cherry trees.  Birds love cherries as much as we do but if you prune your tree when young so it branches low on the trunk, you can harvest the lower cherries for yourself and let the birds take the fruit from the upper branches.

Apricots also ripen early and heirloom varieties that I recommend are the classic Blenheim and one Oldmixon_Free_peachcalled Hemskirk which is considered one of the very best apricot varieties with bright orange, rich and juicy flesh. An excellent heirloom peach to consider is the Oldmixon Free. in 1807 cuttings of this peach were sent to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. It’s stunningly beautiful while in bloom and the juice of Oldmixon Free peach is candy sweet.

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter.  What does that mean?  Well, many fruit trees, lilacs, and peonies need a  certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less.  You can give the plant more cold in the winter and it’ll like that just fine but not less.  Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious.  We can grow both.

Next week I’ll tell you about more luscious tasting plum, apple, fig and pear varieties you’ll want to grow. I’ll also give you tips on how and where to plant your new tree.

Beni Kawa Japanese Maple

Last fall my sister lost her favorite tree in a windstorm. She lives on Fox Island in the southern part of Puget Sound. I remember hearing about the extraordinary Pacific storm on the national news shattering records in the Northwest. Gusts up to 76 mph closed bridges, falling trees hurt 2 people and thousands lost power. Her Silk Tree didn’t stand a chance.

Won_Yang_JanWhile visiting over the Christmas holiday I thought it would be a nice present to replace her dearly departed tree. Several nice ornamental trees made the short list including the Katsura tree with leaves that smell like vanilla in the fall and Forest Pansy redbud with magenta spring flowers, burgundy heart-shaped summer leaves and reddish-orange fall color. We also considered the native Pacific dogwood but she already had one in the yard. Driving around we started to notice the beautiful color of the Coral Bark Japanese maples in many landscapes and the decision was made.

I knew we would have no trouble finding a good specimen in the Pacific Northwest and I was right. Close Won_Yang_graftsby in Gig Harbor we found Yang’s Nursery and I walked into the realm of a Japanese maple expert. Owner Won Yang opened the nursery to give us a tour of the grounds.  We walked between rows of hundreds of maples and marveled at the huge bonsai specimens of Weeping Katsura tree, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, several different conifers and a very impressive, beautifully pruned Oshio Beni Japanese maple all over 20 years old.

Won showed us his greenhouses where he propagates the maples himself. He has been in the business for 30 years so he knows his stuff. Starting with a small green maple seedling with a half inch stem that is cut off 6″ above the ground,  he carefully grafts a tiny tip of new growth from the desired specimen onto the larger stem. It will take at least 3 years before the new tree will be big enough to sell. Won’s pride in his work was apparent as he smiled at the rows of newly grafted maples.

Acer_palmatum_Beni_KawaBack out among the maples, I had my eye on the rows of coral barked Sangu Kaku maples when I saw them. Lined up alongside were several trees with bark so bright I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What are these”, I asked? Won just smiled and told me they were called Beni Kawa Japanese maples and were a cultivar originally developed in 1987. They are prized for their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple. I was hooked. How could I not plant this gorgeous tree in my sister’s yard?

I learned that the bark of this tree can be polished to keep the bright color. Lichen often grows on older trees hiding the salmon red bark of the new branches. I’ll have to try using a soft cloth on my coral bark maple and see how it turns out. The Beni Kawa is a fast growing Japanese maple that will eventually reach 10-15 ft tall and 5-12 ft wide. It is hardy to 15 degrees.

Won grows his trees in a 50/50 mixture of top soil blend and fine crushed bark. He fertilizes with a balanced granular fertilizer and prunes in the winter. The 6 ft tree I bought my sister will not need to be pruned for a couple of years allowing it to establish a strong root system.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the new tree evolves as it grows especially since I know where this Beni Kawa Japanese maple was born.

Winter Houseplant Care

sansevieriaI miss the Christmas tree and decorations that bring color to the house over the holidays.  After they’re packed away for another year and the tree recycled it looks a bit bare around here. The houseplants get their favorite places back now near the windows. This an important month for them when the garden is asleep. I want them to look great but Mother Nature delivers darker skies and less daylight hours. Even though they are still green they are taking a break and don’t grow much over the dark days of winter. Don’t become a clueless houseplant killer. Remember houseplants clean the air. We need them.

Light and water are the two main factors that cause a houseplant to go south.  A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light until it grows big enough to reach up into the canopy for brighter light.  They’re used to lots of warm rain but perfect drainage, tooWe put them into pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with.  Most houseplants would like bright filtered morning sun by an east window but many will tolerate darker locations if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

pathosWater just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry. Poke your finger into the soil. As a rule of thumb, if your plant is in a 4-6″ pot let the soil dry half an inch down between waterings then water thoroughly with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer with water for over an hour or the roots will rot. If your plant is in an 8-12″ pot let the soil dry to 1-2″ down before watering and if you have a bigger specimen the soil should be dry  2-3″ down before watering.  Don’t panic if this takes 2-3 wks before the soil has dried sufficiently for a plant in a big pot.  A moisture meter is very helpful for your larger plants.

I’m like the cobbler who has holes in his shoes when it comes to plants.  I love to have lots of them around cymbidiumbut they have to be tough and easy to care for. If you have have medium to low light conditions like me in your house some of my favorite upright plants are split-leaf  philodendron or philodendron selloum,  spathiphylum ( peace lily), Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola and parlor palm.  The low-light hanging plants that I love are the heart-shaped philodendron, pathos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle.
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Houseplants don’t like to be transplanted during their dormant period in the winter.  They are slow to grow new roots at this time.  You can transfer a plant to a new pot that is about the same size or a just a little bit bigger if you need to but it’s better to put off any major potting projects until spring.  Remember to choose a pot only  2″ bigger than the old pot each time you transplant.  The soil can dry between waterings this way allowing oxygen to move into the root zone.

Fertilize less often.  Some houseplant growers skip fertilizing in December and January, starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February.  Think of your houseplants as essentially dormant in winter.  They need fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Avoid cold drafts.  Most houseplants can handle slightly cooler temperatures at night but detest blasts of chilly air.  Avoid placing most plants near drafty, high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway.  Ficus trees are famous for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Plants get dusty decreasing the amount of light they can use to photosynthesize.  Insects such as spider mites actually thrive in dusty conditions.  Take your plants to the kitchen sink or tub every few months and wash them off with luke warm water or use a moist cloth or paper towel to wipe the dust off the leaves.  In the summer when it’s warm you can wash them off outside with the hose in the shade but it’s too cold now for this.  How would you like to have a cold hose turned on you these days?

If you do find insects on your plants,  a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later.  Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering the insects and its eggs.  If you have little black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently.  They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Many common houseplants  help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis and I’ll tell you which ones are the most effective in an upcoming column.

2014 Gardener’s New Year Resolutions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI plan to turn over a new leaf in 2014. I’m talking about gardening. The rest of my New Year’s resolutions are too numerous to list here!  I wish I could tell you that I’ll never put in another plant that might freeze during the winter. I wish I could tell you that I’ll really start that compost pile this year and duke it out with the raccoons. I wish I could tell you I’ll make more garden journal entries and not rely on sketchy memories. But the reality is gardening shouldn’t be so much about regrets. It’s about the delight we get from coaxing plants from the earth. A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree or a seed or a garden? I have viola_Etaingrown wiser as the years go by and although a few things froze this month, most will grow back come spring. Some might require a little more patience than others but by April or May most will be looking great. If there are some new transplants, for instance, that suffered because they didn’t have time to establish a strong root system before the deep freeze, I’ll look at it at an opportunity to fill that space with something even better.

I was able to visit some very unique gardens this year and see beneficial insects and beneficial plants at work. When I design a garden I now include even more pollen producing flowering plants to attract beneficials.  This way I keep the good guys around longer to deal with the bad bugs and aid in pollination. Knowing what the good insects look like is important in helping me identify a problem that may be getting out of control.

I’ve kept a garden journal since 1994. In the spirit of full disclosure, some years I do pretty good with it. I add photos and seed packets and lots of info about the weather and how everything did. Other years I’m more hit and miss with my entries. But without the journal most of what happened would be forgotten if not for these scribbled notes. Reading them over returns me to the quiet pleasures of mornings in the garden, of first bloom and the wonder of a hummingbird hovering at eye level.

This year record what does well in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden this year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.

Make notes about how productive the tomatoes and other veggies did this year. Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared last year – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water.

I wish I could tell you that I would die happy if I could grow a dry farmed Early Girl tomato next year that tastes like summer. That’s my fondest wish for 2014. Doesn’t sound impossible, does it? Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree with an ice tea next July. Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will be there tomorrow.

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.