How to care and feed fruit trees

Natural Care of Fruit Trees

by Don Trotter

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Caring for your fruit tree is mostly a matter of understanding what the plants require and at what time of year they need a special attention. In most parts of the country, when the topic of fruit tree care is discussed, it means deciduous trees that lose their leaves during the wintertime and produce fruit during the late spring, summer and fall. However there are a lot of gardeners who grow evergreen fruit trees in climates where winters are milder and some of us are lucky enough to be able to grow exotic tropical fruit varieties along with the more common varieties. So we will be discussing care techniques for each basic group of fruit named here. As usual let's start with the soil.

Fruit trees are not all that particular about soil. Most trees can be grown in any number of mineral soils as long as water application and irrigation match the ability of the soil to percolate. With a good layer of mulch around the base of the tree and out to the dripline to assist in moisture conservation, soil conditions from a standpoint of whether the soil is a clay or a sand makes little difference.

Fruit trees find ways to cope with even the most adverse soil conditions as long as you feed them properly and keep organic matter around their roots in the form of mulch. As the mulch decomposes and the soil conditions improve, you will begin to see increased yields and fewer problems with pests and diseases. I truly think that a four to six inch thick layer of mulch around the tree and directly above the feeder roots can counteract any bad soil conditions that can be thrown at a gardener wishing to grow fruit. One key is to make sure that each year the mulch layer is supplemented with additional mulch that accommodates the trees increased size as well. The most important dimension of the mulch ring around a fruit tree is that the mulch goes out about a foot further than the dripline of the tree. In many cases I like to see the mulch ring two or three feet out past the dripline of the tree. For those of you that are not familiar with the term "dripline" I have a very easy way for you to find out where the dripline of any tree is.

If you were to place yourself directly above any tree of any size and draw a circle on the ground that mimicked the outside edge of the tree that would be the dripline. For instance, if your apricot trees furthest leaves were eight feet from the trunk of the tree and you were to tie a string to the trunk of the tree and give yourself eight feet of string you should be at the outside edge of the tree. Directly above you would be the furthest reaching branches and under your feet would be where your tree takes in most of its food and moisture. If you were to draw a line in the soil at the eight-foot mark and follow that string all the way around the tree making a sixteen-foot diameter circle you would have a line where the dripline of your tree is. The trunk is the center point of your circle and the line you drew in the soil is where you should feed your tree when it comes time for feeding and where you should water your tree when it is time to irrigate. This is also where you should have mulch under the tree. Remember that where there is organic matter there is life in the soil. Doesn't it make sense that you would put the greatest amount of nutrient availability and biological activity exactly where the tree can use it most?

I have seen many occasions where fruit trees were fed right up next to the trunk of the tree. There are few if any feeder roots that close to the trunk. So it would seem like the fertilizer is wasted, it is. The very best way to ensure that your fruit trees are super happy and healthy is to put their food supply close to where they can use it.

A system of placing your feedings where the trees can use them best is now easily done with the invention of the new types of drop spreaders on the market. Gone are those old metal things that rusted after one use. Today you can find very good plastic drop spreaders for around twenty-five dollars at most home centers. Fill this rascal up with your minerals and plant foods then just make a couple of circles under the tree every six months or once a year. It is a lot more precise than hand broadcasting the materials to feed your trees and only takes about a minute or so to feed a fully mature fruit tree this way. Then put your yearly layer of mulch on top of your feeding and you're done for the year. Taking care of the soil under fruit trees probably takes no more than one hour per year in a natural garden.

The biggest benefit to keeping that mulch layer continuously replenished is what it will do to gradually improve your soil. The second best thing a thick layer of mulch does is preventing many weeds from getting a foothold in your fruit orchard. My favorite time of year to mulch the fruit trees is in the late fall after the trees have dropped all of their foliage if they are deciduous trees, in early spring on evergreens, and whenever I think it's getting too thin around tropical fruits. I also like the fact that the mulch layer makes for some great planting areas for annul flower arrangement and companion plantings to add color and insect control to the fruit orchard. Few things are prettier in the garden than a tree full of fruit with a profusion of colorful flowers blooming under it. The mulch layer makes it all possible and sustainable while it build the quality of the soil your trees are living and feeding from.

By beginning this process of soil building as soon as your plant your new trees you will have improved the soil around your trees significantly by the time they begin to produce fruit. This system will improve the soil in an expanding circle as your tree grows. As the tree reaches maturity, you will have built soil conditions perfect for optimum fruit production, no matter what kind of soil you started out with.

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Check out Donald Trotter's books Natural Gardening A-Z, The Complete Natural Gardener and Rose Gardening A-Z at

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