Getting Stoned

Tree-ripe peach
Nothing tastes quite like a home-grown peach that was ripened on the tree.

No, I am not going to write about growing marijuana! I want to talk about the kind of fruit that gets me “high” about growing my own: stone fruits, apples, and pears. I relish that juicy experience as I bite into the first ripe peach of the season or hear satisfying crunch of the first apple.

This month is the best time to plant potted stone fruit trees: peaches, plums, nectarines, etc. It’s also time to plant pears and apples. Really, any tree that is going into dormancy should be planted now if it is in a pot.

TREE SELECTION
We can grow many any kinds of fruit here if you pay attention to chill hours. We average about 400 chill hours, figured by the number of hours when our temperatures fall from 32-45 degrees in a year. If you select fruit trees that fall sufficiently below the 400-chill-hour level, you should be successful. Many other factors control your success like water, fertilization, and location, but your first step once you know what you want to plant is to see which member(s) of its family need less than 400 chill hours.

Many are self-pollinating but they all benefit from another species from same fruit family. For example, an Ein Shemer apple is a great companion to a Dorsett or Anna apple. If you pair similar trees, you will encourage more fruit production on each tree. The linked chart lists the best fruit trees for the low desert.

PLANTING
These trees are high maintenance compared to fruiting trees like pomegranates that are more desert-adapted.

Stone fruit trees like 5.5-6.5 pH so our high pH is a challenge. Since we average 7-7.5, you will need to lower the pH a bit through compost mixed with the native soil as you plant or laid on top so the nutrients flow down. Some experts want just native soil to surround the tree. I make a decision based upon the type of tree and what is natural for it to grow. If you prefer native soil only, then simply dress the top of the soil with compost before you place your mulch.

Fruit trees also don’t tolerate wet roots, so you will have to provide good drainage. Gypsum in the soil will help to break up the clay. Sprinkle a layer of it in the bottom of the hole before you place the tree in it. Slow watering also helps. If you have quite a bit of hardpan or caliche, you may have to drill drainage holes at least 18-24 inches a out 24 inches around the tree. You can also use rebar to punch holes into the ground.

Tree planting
Dig a hole as deep and 2-3 times as wide as your root ball.

Dig a hole as deep as the root ball in the container (soil level) and 2-3 times the width. In our clay soil, I dig it three times the width to loosen the soil the work the sides with a soil fork. As you dig, make the hole a rectangle. A circle combined with our clay soil will encourage the new roots to encircle the tree, becoming root bound, because this is the way it grew in the container. A rectangle shape will encourage the roots to reach out into the soil instead. A video from National Gardening walks you through the steps.

Build a strong berm around the tree to hold in water and mulch the surface with a quality compost then wood chips, mulched leaves, or straw. Never put rocks in as your mulch because you will need to fertilize the tree once or twice a year after the first year and it is difficult to pull back the rock to do so once the tree is mature. Also, rock heats up the soil in the summer and that’s the last thing surface-level tender roots need.

The young trees appreciate a little shade in the summer but love full sun in the winter. Shade the tree from the afternoon sun for the first year. You can simply use shade cloth to do this. Pound tall poles into the ground (the ones you would use to brace the tree work) and attach the shade cloth so that the cloth doesn’t break branches during our summer monsoon winds. If you have other trees surrounding it, you might be able to bypass the shade cloth without much sun damage.

You can plant fruit trees closer than recommended in a backyard orchard (16-minute video) if you are willing to prune the tree to keep it smaller than it would naturally grow. This is how some gardeners pack more trees into their small backyards than you would see in a commercial orchard. Don’t crowd them, though. For example, if guidelines tell you to plant them 10 feet apart, you could fudge a bit and plant 7-8 feet apart. Keep them pruned as they mature so that branches from other trees aren’t touching one another. You want enough space so you can walk between them to harvest.

WATER
It is important to water trees deeply. For the first week, water every other day, then twice a week for a month until the tree is established. In general, you can begin to water weekly after that as long as you water deeply. The best way to know if you are watering adequately or too much is to test the soil. When the top two inches of soil are dry, it’s time to water. Adjust your watering schedule accordingly. Everyone’s soil is different so the best way to water correctly is to check your soil.

FERTILIZE

Don’t fertilize the tree until it begins to grow new leaves. Then give it a good balanced fertilizer, for example 10-10-10. The amount of fertilizer is based upon the age of the tree. A 15-gallon transplant is 2-3 years old, so add it to the maturity chart on the back of the fertilizer bag as you figure out your fertilizer needs. Some bags figure the amounts by the width of the tree.

If you want to grow organically, you should fertilize when buds begin to form because organic fertilizers take longer to break down. Use a good organic fertilizer that emphasizes nitrogen. Download the chart to choose the best fertilizer for your trees or watch this video. Use only organic fertilizers that have the Organic Materials Review Institute’s (OMRI) stamp of approval.

If you try to correct a problem by adding nutrients or chemicals without knowing what is wrong, you can hurt your tree. Use this chart to figure out what is wrong.

Monitor your tree carefully as it grows so you know when specific nutrients are needed. See the chart to the left that shows you how to check leaves for nutrient deficiencies.

Don’t get lazy in the care of your fruit trees. They may still grow and produce fruit, but you may not get that juicy, ripe, flavorful piece of fruit that you dreamed of. As with anything in life, if you nurture something, you will get the best results.

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Jknapp

I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.