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For pit's sake, plant a deciduous fruit tree
When planting a fruit tree, select a sunny location with well-draining soil. Test your soil for drainage by digging a small hole as deep as you wish to plant the tree and filling it with water. If the hole takes more than one hour to drain, that spot is not suitable.
Once a good location is found, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the tree’s root system. When planting, the graft union remains above ground level. For bare-root trees, create a low mound of dirt in the bottom of the hole and place the root ball on top of the mound and spread the roots out. Mix good-quality compost with the soil and backfill the hole. Once planted, water well to settle the soil, adding more soil if necessary. Create a water basin around the base of the tree about a foot away from the trunk. The basin retains water, allowing deep watering of the tree’s roots. Expand the size of the water basin each year so that it is just inside the tips of the tree’s outer branches. If you flood irrigate, a basin is unnecessary. Space trees 15-20 feet apart.
Newly planted peach and plum trees should have their main leader cut back to three feet in height just above a bud. Prune off all but 3-4 of the strongest outward-facing branches. Prune these branches back to two buds. Newly planted apricots do not need this type of pruning. Wrap the tree’s trunk with burlap or cardboard to prevent sunscald, which can kill the tree. Once a canopy forms, the trunk does not need to be protected. Stake the tree loosely, if desired.
It's the pits if you aren't growing at least one or two deciduous fruit trees in your yard.
Besides summer shade, nothing beats going outside and picking fruit right off your own tree. Once mature, a fruit tree will not only give enough fruit for eating, but also for jams, jellies and dehydrating. You can even puree the fruit and oven-dry it to make fruit leather.
Stone fruit such as plums, apricots and peaches grow well in Yuma if you plant a variety that requires low chill hours to produce fruit. "Chill hours" are the number of hours with temperatures between 32 degrees and 45 degrees F. between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15. Chill hours are necessary for a fruit tree to flower and set fruit the following spring and are cumulative hours that do not have to be continuous. Low-chill fruit trees require 400 chill hours or less. Trees with 250 chill hours do best in Yuma and can be planted in January and February.
Apricots belong to the rose family (Rosaceae) and are native to China. Some varieties that grow in Yuma are Gold Kist (300 chill hrs.), Katy (400 chill hrs.), Castlebrite (450 chill hrs.) and Patterson (500 chill hrs.). Because Katy, Castlebrite and Patterson require more chill hours, they will not produce if winter weather stays too warm. Gold Kist and Katy produce in late May to early June, Castlebrite produces in May and Patterson produces in June. All varieties are self-pollinating and do not require a second tree.
Peaches are also native to China. Freestone varieties for Yuma include August Pride (300 chill hrs.), Babcock (250-300 chill hrs.), Bonanza Miniature (250 chill hrs. or less) and Eva’s Pride (100-200 chill hrs.). Semi-freestone varieties are Earligrande (275 chill hrs.), Flordagrande (100 chill hrs. or less) and Flordaprince (150 chill hrs.). Clingstone varieties are Desert Red (200-300 chill hrs.) and Desert Gold (250 chill hrs.). All varieties are self-pollinating. Desert Red, Flordaking and Flordaprince produce late April to mid-May. Earligrande and Eva’s Pride produce in May, while Babcock produces in June. By planting several varieties, you can have a continuous supply of peaches all summer, if the birds don’t beat you to them.
Japanese plum trees include Gulf Gold, Gulf Ruby, Santa Rosa and Satsuma. All are self-pollinating, require 250-300 chill hours and produce fruit from mid-June through July.
Sandy Silvas is a local fruit grower and owner of Silvas Farm, 3392 W. County 16½.
When asked her secret for growing healthy fruit trees, Silvas said, "I use UN32, a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer, in my irrigation water three times a year: Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day. If you don’t flood irrigate, you can use ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Once a year, I use a fertilizer that provides other micronutrients."
"I recommend removing all fruit from newly-planted trees the first year they produce. This helps strengthen the root system because nutrients are not taken away from the roots to grow fruit," Silvas said.
After a tree’s first year, pruning can be done any time during its dormant period. Pruning helps the tree produce good-sized fruit and prevents branches from splitting or breaking under the weight of too many fruit per branch. Unpruned trees bear mostly on branch tips, causing great strain on the branches. When pruning, make your cut just above a bud facing outward and make the cut at a downward slant away from the bud. This will prevent rainwater from pooling at the bud and causing problems.
"Peaches produce on one-year-old growth. I prune out all the old growth in February and prune remaining branches back by one-half. My apple trees are pruned as needed during February to maintain their shape," Silvas said.
Plums produce on branches for 2-4 years and don’t require the same type of pruning as peaches. Low-chill plum varieties are called Japanese plums and were developed by the University of Florida. These varieties need more pruning than European plums. Remove 1/3 of the new wood each year. The first four years, cut back the main trunk about 18 inches, just above a bud, to restrict the height of the mature tree.
Apricots produce on the previous season’s shoots and on spurs of older wood. To stimulate new growth for next year’s crop, prune new branches by ½ and remove the oldest fruiting wood. Branches will produce for 2-4 years and then should be removed.
Once your tree is planted, you can expect delicious fruit in 3-4 years.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.