Spring Planting Has Arrived!

It is sometimes difficult to find something positive to write about with the world being in a tailspin, so I decided to write about positive growth. Spring is a time of rejuvenation and new beginnings. While you may not be able to stop shootings or control the stock market, you can do something beneficial right where you live.

Now is the time to begin perennial spring planting. If you have been considering a new perennial, shrub, or tree, you cannot beat this time period to plant it. Yes, many of us are still not past the threat of nighttime frost; however, dormant trees planted now are not affected by it. In-fact, it works very well because it allows the plant to wake up slowly from dormancy.

I always encourage people to plant a couple of fruit trees or berry bushes as opposed to ornamentals because there is more of a reward. If you are going to go through the trouble of caring for a tree, you might as well get something in return other than looking at it.

When purchasing fruit trees, be sure to check to see if it requires a pollinator. Many websites have created tables and charts for you to use and are very helpful. Some nursery websites that sell trees will suggest pollinators for specific trees. There are two things to keep in mind when looking for fruit trees that can pollenate each other:

1.     Get a second “variety” that it can cross pollenate with, even if it is stated that it is self-pollinating. Most fruit trees are direct clones of just one tree. Therefore, if you plant two trees of the same variety, they simply cannot pollenate each other. It would be like having a tree with two limbs on the same tree. With that being said, some varieties cannot be used for pollination at all. In-effect, they are sterile because of their genetics. They can be pollenated by another tree to created fruit, but they cannot pollenate another tree. If you get several different varieties, then you might not need to worry. However, many people would not know what to do with the fruit from 8 apple trees.

2.     The varieties selected to cross pollinate each other must also bloom at a similar time period. If you have an early blossoming variety and a late blossoming variety, the blooms might now overlap enough to pollenate each other. Again, some website will help you with this by showing graphs of pollination dates.

If you get #1 and #2 above correct, you may also need to pay attention to the distance the trees are to each other. The closer, the better for pollination. We are losing bees at an alarming rate, so you may need to rely on the wind for pollination. Some trees, like plums, need to be close enough to almost touch each other when fully mature. Keep this in mind with the size of the tree you purchase.

And on that note, I will cover the issue with size.

You can purchase dwarf, semi-dwarf, semi-standard, and standard size fruit trees. Which one is for you?

If you have a VERY small yard, then dwarfs are your ticket. With that being said, I rarely advise people to plant dwarfs. Their root systems are inferior. The reason is that, by design, the root stock used to make the dwarf was selected so they allow limited growth by limiting their own root growth. That leaves the gardener (you) with a tree that tends to fall over because there are not enough roots to anchor the tree. Another negative about dwarfs is that they do not grow tall. If you have deer, then forget about dwarfs, period. That is, unless you are willing to stake the tree up and fence it in permanently. Also keep in mind that dwarfs stop growing within a few years. That will limit how many fruits you get. If you are looking to make wine, you will be disappointed. If you only want to make one pie, then you may be content. Another strike against dwarfs is that they do not do well in heavy soil. The roots simply are not made for it.

Unfortunately, most trees sold at local outlets are dwarfs. Check the label. With that being said, many will not tell you what they are.

If you have a quarter acre or so, then semi-dwarfs might work for you. Sometimes they get big enough to provide for canning and pies. Their root system is better, but some still may tend to tilt or fall over.

Semi-standards are becoming more popular from some internet nurseries. These work really well and can even be kept pruned to the size of a semi-dwarf.

Standards are best if you know that you will keep the tree pruned to a manageable size. Furthermore, they have strong root systems and work well even in heavy soil. Some might even be self-rooted. That means that they are not grafted. Be cautious of these, however, because self-rooted might be “grown from seed”. Most fruit trees do not produce seedlings like the parent. Standard trees grow large. Keep that in mind if you do not plan to keep it pruned to a manageable size.

One way around the problem if all you can get is dwarfs is to bury the graft union when you plant the tree. Most fruit trees are grafted onto a root stock. The union is generally very easy to see. Plant the tree so the graft union is three inches below the soil level. In three to four years the roots will grow from the union and the tree will supersede the dwarfing roots with standard roots that are native to the top. Note that the normal way to plant a grafted tree is to be sure that the graft union is three inches above the soil line. If planted that way, then the tree will remain a dwarf. Another benefit for planting the union below the soil line is that the tree will be hardier for colder climates. If you live in zone 3 or 4 I recommend this planting method. I also recommend smaller caliper trees when doing this because they tend to do better grown this way than a larger caliper tree.

You do not have to plant fruit trees. Now is also a good time to plant your favorite perennial or bush. Be careful, however, that the plant is not leafing out when you plant it at this time of the year. (Still having frosts or days below freezing) If it is leafing out when planted, then the frost will set it back. Some do not rebound after that because they already used their reserve to leaf out the first time. I just saw some apple trees at Tractor Supply that were already leafed out. Do not buy those if you are still experiencing frost or freezing temperatures. With that being said, last year around this time, I purchased a small (as big around as a sharpie marker) AU Rosa plum tree from Tractor Supply. It had “green tips” at the end of its buds, but they had not opened up yet. That tree tripled its size last year. Based on how it is growing, I may get fruit during its third year growing here. (Note: NEVER let a fruit tree bear fruit during its first and second year of growth in your yard. Just don’t do it! Their system is not ready for the demand placed upon it and it could severely stunt your tree, or worse, kill it during the winter afterwards.)

And that leads us to the topic; how big should the tree be that you buy? It should be small, but not scrawny. Nurseries go by “caliper” size to grade trees. Unfortunately, places like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowes, (and many local nurseries) do not grade the trees, but you can see the size for yourself. To make this easy, I will suggest using coins to size your trees.

Any tree that is bigger around than a fifty-cent coin is not a good bet unless you are going to put in an irrigation system around it or are willing to water the tree thoroughly every-other day. Unless dug out of the ground with its native root ball by a local nursery “grower”, the root system will simply be too small for the amount of tree above the ground.

Do not be misled by a tree having a root ball at a store like Home Depot (and many seasonal nurseries). They ARE NOT root balls! They are bare root trees in wet sawdust bags. That is why they tell you not to open the root ball; they do not want you to see that there is no native soil with the roots. If you still insist on purchasing this tree, then OPEN UP THE BALL! (In a garage, basement, or shaded area.) Now you can check the health of the roots. If you find that the sawdust and roots are dry when you open it up, then take the tree back and get your money back. If you see broken roots hanging lose, then cut them off just before the break. Now soak the roots in water for a half hour before planting. DO NOT TAKE THE TREE OUT OF THE WATER BEFORE PLANTING AND DO NOT EXPOSE THE ROOTS TO SUNLIGHT. Air and sunlight kill roots quickly. The tree should go from the bucket of water and into the ground. NEVER let roots dry out and never let them soak in water more than 12 hours. Dry roots die and old water runs out of oxygen and suffocates the roots. Roots need oxygen from the water, but will die if left out in the air drying out. One way around this is to put an aquarium aerator stone into the bucket of water, that is connected to an aquarium air pump. It will keep oxygen in the water if you need to keep the tree in the water for an extended amount of time.

You can apply this same principle of keeping the roots wet to planting flowers that have been growing in packs. Drench them by soaking them in 1 inch of water for 15 minutes before planting and DO NOT lay them out on the ground to see how you will arrange them. Use pieces of paper or stones to map it out. The plant should be removed from the pack and planted directly in its hole.

Back to caliper size for trees…

A tree that is as big around as a quarter is “okay” just so long as you prune the top to remove some of the stems. Again, this caliper is rather large for the root system that it has. Remember; the root systems are only 10 to 25% of what it had before being dug up when the caliper size is this large. You will need to water this tree at least every third day unless you get a lot of rain.

A tree that is as big around as a nickel is a good size. It will have sufficient roots relative to the top. You will need to water this tree about once a week. You may also wish to reduce (prune) some of the branches to even-out the demand to the roots.

A tree that is as big as a penny is also a good size. It is very close to the size of a nickel and you should water it once a week.

A tree that is as big around as a dime is a really good size. It will have most of its roots and when it comes out of dormancy, it will grow well. It should be watered every 10 days if it does not rain.

A tree that is as big around as a pencil (or smaller) is marginal. Some grow great, and others do not. The reason is that the roots and the stem is thin and can dry our easily when the nursery stores them. Larger caliper trees have more girth that holds reserve energy and moisture.

With the above being said, the medium caliper trees (nickel, penny, and dime size trunks) will do best over the long haul once they become established. They will outgrow a fifty-cent coin caliper tree by year three. Irrigation systems can overcome that affect with the larger trees.

When I suggest how many times to water, I am talking about its first year. That time period is crucial for the success of the tree. During year two, you can reduce the waterings by half. By year three, they will be established and should be able to get what they need unless you hit a dry spell. If it is bone dry for two weeks in year-three, then you should give the tree water and water it deep.

Another important point to make at planting time is to mulch the tree! Just do it! It will more than pay for itself. Do not mulch with grass or straw; use the mulch you can buy in bags at the hardware stores. They always have sales. If you are lucky to get mulch from a sawmill, then that will work well too. Mulch out to three feet from the trunk. Do not mulch right up to the trunk or it could cause it to rot. Keep the mulch about three inches away. DO NOT lay mulching fabric or newspaper under the mulch. Mulching fabric can eventually girdle your tree and newspaper will make the water run away from the tree. We want the water to easily run through the mulch and to the roots.

Another very important step to take is to put hardware cloth around the trunk of the tree. Voles and rabbits can kill a small tree in minutes when they eat the bark. Be sure to leave a 3 inch gap between the trunk and the hardware cloth. This REALLY is worth the effort.

If you have deer, then fence the tree in! Just do it! You will need to leave the fence up for a minimum of three years. I use four 6-foot heavy stakes with 2x3” welded wire fencing. The corner stakes are put 3 feet away from the tree trunk. The fencing is attached to the stakes so the fence bottom is about 14 inches from the ground. That gap allows you to weed wack around the fence if necessary. The best method to control weeds around the tree is to mulch heavily out past the fence. Now you don’t even need to weed wack. Furthermore, by not having grass grow up into the fence, you eliminate the tufts of dead grass that voles love to live it. Voles are your enemy. Trap them or poison them, but get rid of them. Good outdoor cats help as well.

Other plants you can plant now are bleeding hearts, Spring bulbs, onions, grape vines, asparagus, horse radish, very hardy roses that are dormant, hop rhizomes, sweet cicely, rhubarb, dormant blueberry bushes, and chives, to name a few. The clue is that these are perennials that are still seen as dormant at this time of the year, are beginning to grow during this cool period in the spring, or are dormant trees. The rule is to not plant bushes or trees that are full of blooms or leaves until the time period is past the last spring frost. That also goes for annuals.

Unless you like to keep replanting the same plant every year, do not plant perennials that are not rated for your planting zone. You can find your growing zone easily on the internet using your zip code. Higher numbers are for warmer loving plants, and smaller numbers are for cold hardier plants. Generally, plants are listed as growing in a range of zones, like 5 through 7 for example. If you are in a zone 5, then plants rated for 6 or above are not suitable for you. One way to “push the proverbial envelope” is to plant a shrub that might be rated one growing zone higher by planting it on the south side of a house. This does not always work. I tried it with figs and the tree always died back to the crown and had to regrow from the crown every year. That did not give the fruit long enough to ripen. The tree “lived” per se, but was essentially useless as a fruiting tree.

Happy spring growing!

RJ Seney