This is the first post from Nutty Buddy Nurseries about fruit and nut tree care. As we grow, we aim to increase and improve both our nursery offerings and our support to fellow growers of fruits and nuts – including blog posts and other online resources.
The flowers have bloomed, the fruit has set, the roots and shoots have had sent out their big flushes of early growth. You’ve got your new trees in the ground, seedbeds planted, mulch spread, established trees fertilized. Perhaps you’re feeling like it’s time to string your hammock between some trees and kick back til the fruit rolls in.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t nap. I believe in naps for all. But don’t hang out in that proverbial orchardist’s hammock quite yet. There’s still critical work to be done that can really make or break a year’s crop and also affect future seasons. The good news is that these are not difficult things to do. Below is an introduction to 3 basic tasks for spring and summer fruit tree care:
- Thinning – That’s right. Believe it or not, you’ve got to bring yourself to pluck baby fruits off your tree. So full of hope and possibility, their bright little bodies swelling a bit more each day with anticipation of the juicy grandeur they were born to send dripping down your chin…DASHED! by the slice of the pruner blades or the twist of a wrist. Sadly, the majority of the fruitlets on the many fruit trees are best removed. Culling out fruits until there is a space of roughly 8″ between each one will allow light to strike all sides of the fruit, which helps with ripening and reduces habitat for disease and insects who find protection in the delicious enclosure created by fruits that are touching one another. Another good reason is pacing: some species, and some varieties in particular, can get overzealous about fruiting and will cash in on their reserves to set as many fruits as they can muster. Next year, the tree will have to spend its energy recovering and will not set a crop. This two-year boom and bust is known as biennial bearing. You can help your tree pace itself by thinning a heavy fruit set with an equally heavy hand. It’s actually best to do this a bit earlier in the season when the fruitlets are smaller, but June is still not too late. In some cases, like with apricots and peaches, you can get way out ahead of the tree and use a brush or stick to remove large swaths of flowers before or shortly after they’re pollinated. Be careful not to twist off the fruit spur while removing fruitlets. Sometimes this task can be done by hand with the assistance of a stout thumb nail, sometimes hand pruners are the tool for the job. Thin apples, pears, quince, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums.
- Pinch pruning – This is the fine art of nipping an issue in the bud. You can stop your trees from spending energy unnecessarily by cutting out new growth where you’d prune it out later anyway. Sprouts along the truck between scaffolds, sprouts that are growing inward or otherwise cluttering the tree, those vertical shoots of very vigorous green growth called watersprouts – all this undesirable growth can be halted in its tracks by pinching it off. You ideally will be getting to this growth while it’s still young so you can knock off the spouts with your fingers or with the assistance of a stout thumbnail. If you don’t get a clean break, use your pruners. Pinch pruning can also be used to ‘devigorate’ a tree, to help it relax a bit from all that rampant green growing and encourage it to put its energy into forming lateral, fruiting branches by pinching back the terminal buds of the outside branches. This taming should only be done to trees of fruiting age.
- Fighting fire blight, battling borers, and other fun
There are all kinds of bugs, bacteria, and not-so-fun fungi that love to feast on the delicious flesh of fruit trees. There are hundreds of pests and diseases of fruit trees, each one with its own unique, creative way to destroy your hopes and dreams of abundance. I recommend the sleek and very informative, if not very succinctly titled Tree Fruit Field Guide to Insect, Mite, and Disease Pests and Natural Enemies of Eastern North America if you want to go deep on learning about these ‘enemies of the plate’. I’m just going to discuss two of the standouts here. First, fire blight: this is a bacterial disease that enters the apple, pear, and quince via the flowering tips and fresh shoots. Infected tissue wilts and remains on the tree, allowing the bacteria to continue to move down the branch. If left untreated, the infection can reach the trunk and eventually kill the tree. A tell tale mark of fire blight is the ‘shepherd’s crook’ appearance of the wilting tips. Prune out any infected limbs at least one foot below the symptoms as soon as they are detected, but wait for dry weather. Spread of the disease via pruning cuts is more likely when there is more moisture in the air. Disinfecting your tools between cuts is a good idea, especially if they come into direct contact with infected wood, but this isn’t really all that practical if you’re pruning several trees with blight – your best bet is to make your pruning cuts well below (12″ or more) the symptoms. Remove prunings from the area around the trees and burn them or place where they’ll bake in sun, like on a driveway.A second pest to be on the lookout for is the borer. Actually, there are several genera and species of borers that attack the cambium of fruit trees throughout the growing season. Look closely at the trunk and limbs for evidence of boring. If you see little clusters of moist, sawdust-like frass (bug poo) or other unusual marks around the base of the tree, you might have borers. Get down there and feel around for where the bark isn’t holding tight to the tree and peel it back to reveal the borers or their tunnels into the cambium. If you see ’em, squish ’em. If you don’t, get a coat hanger or some skinny, flexible metal, find the boring tunnels, and cram the wire in there. It might seem brutal treatment for the tree, but leaving the borers to their feeding frenzy is much worse. They can eventually girdle and kill a tree.
Alright – now don’t forget to string up that hammock and enjoy some fistfuls of serviceberries and mulberries while you watch the peaches swell and the early apples and pears begin to blush.
Drop us a line if you’ve got a question or need help in your home orchard: firstname.lastname@example.org