Home orchards will benefit from spring maintenance

By Urban Harvest
Spring will soon be here! We have much to look forward to wildflowers along the roadsides, flowers in our gardens, and fruit in our orchards. Spring and early summer are important for our home orchards. Good practices now will benefit the trees all year.

Citrus is really on our minds right now. When the danger of a major freeze has passed, it will finally be safe to prune them back to live wood. If you are not sure where to make your pruning cuts, wait until they leaf out.

Your trees may look worse than they really are. We have seen some trees that will require cutting back to just above the graft. If the rootball was protected, these trees should put on five to six feet of growth by the end of the year.

Fertilize citrus every four to six weeks through August with a balanced organic fertilizer such as Microlife. Specialty citrus fertilizers are available such as Nelson's Citrus-Avocado fertilizer if you prefer. Always apply fertilizers in accordance with the package directions. Too much fertilizer can do more harm than none at all.

Leaf miners will lay their eggs on citrus leaves when they are about the size of a mouse's ear. Leaf miner damage is mostly cosmetic, but if it bothers you it can be treated naturally by spraying spinosad or neem oil during the active growing season. Spray every two week, alternate the products, and be sure to follow all package directions for mixing, application and disposal of any unused mix.

If you see any signs of scale, treat with an insecticidal soap mixed at one teaspoon per gallon of water. You have to catch them in their crawling stage, so apply the spray at 7 to 10 days intervals for several treatments.

Traditional fruit trees such as peaches, plums, pears and apples should have had their major pruning done already. The next task will be to thin the fruit. Thinning should be done when the fruits are about the size of a small marble. Use the width of your hand across the knuckles as a guide. Remove all but one fruit in each cluster and thin until there is a hand's width between the fruits down each limb. Thinning reduces the number of fruits, but increases the size and quality of individual fruits. Thinning is difficult for gardeners that are new to fruit culture, but the results will convince you that it is beneficial.

All citrus and fruits should be mulched with a good quality organic mulch. Mulch moderates soil temperature and preserves moisture as well as reducing competition from turf and weeds. You can add one to two inches of compost before you mulch, then top the compost with the mulch. Mulch all the way past the drip line of the trees, but do not apply more than three to four inches total thickness of compost and mulch.

As the temperatures begin to warm up, we will need to increase watering. Fruit trees do not like to be drought stressed, especially when maturing a load of fruit. They will drop their fruit to protect themselves and will generally not perform well. A deep soaking once a week is more beneficial than frequent shallow watering. During the hottest part of the summer you may need to soak them more than once. If you are in doubt, use an inexpensive moisture meter available at your local nursery or garden center.

Fertilizing fruits depends on the family or group. A complete calendar for fertilizing and maintaining fruits and citrus can be printed for free from the virtual fruit gardening classroom found at www.thegardenacademy.com. Some fruits should never be fertilized, such as figs. Figs do well with compost and mulch only. They do not compete well with turf and should be mulched for their entire dripline.

After the harvest, you will need to be diligent about cleaning up any fallen fruit at the base of the tree. This fruit can harbor pests and removing it will help break or reduce the cycle. You can move the fruit to a bird feeder elsewhere in the garden. Many species of butterflies and beneficial insects will enjoy feeding on the rotting fruits.

Home orchard culture can become a very gratifying hobby. Putting in a little time each spring will result in better production this summer and healthier trees for years to come.

If you still would like to add to your fruit tree orchard, Urban Harvest has fruit trees for sale at their Eastside Farmers Market on March 23. More details of the varieties offered will be posted on their website www.urbanharvest.org.

This column is produced by Urban Harvest. Learn about gardening classes, community gardens and orchards, farmers' markets, and more at www.urbanharvest.org. The article was written by Angela Chandler, who is a freelance garden writer and speaker and Heidi Sheesley who is the owner of TreeSearch Farms Inc., which is a wholesale grower of perennials, natives and unique plants. You may contact her at HeidiInTheGarden@urbanharvest.org.