Don’t get bent out of shape. Fruit tree maintenance requires minimal effort, but it is very important. While planting a tree is the first step toward fruit production for wildlife, it’s not the last step. Pruning branches, spraying for diseases and pests, adjusting pH, feeding your trees and reducing weed competition all fall under the category of maintenance.
During late winter and early spring, we’re concerned with pruning, feeding and soil pH.
We planted 150 fruit and nut trees in the fall of 2015. We ordered our trees from Chestnut Hill Nursery out of Alachua, Florida. Chestnut Hill is famous for its Dunstan Chestnut variety. In the 1950s Dr. Robert T. Dunstan began hybridizing American Chestnut trees resistant to blight, a fungal disease that wiped out chestnut trees native to the Eastern U.S. The Dunstan Chestnut, however, is resistant to blight and grows a large, mast-producing tree.
Chestnuts are one of the most-preferred foods of whitetails and they are superior in nutrition to oaks. Chestnuts contain both carbs and protein. We also planted Chestnut Hill grafted persimmons, apples and pears. All of these trees are entering their second year of growth at Borrowed Acres and they are growing beautifully. Because they are still young, our apple and pear trees don’t require any pruning this season. That leaves us to focus on the other maintenance needs.
Most fruit trees thrive in the 5.0 to 7.0-pH range. Always conduct a soil sample before planting or, at the very least, after planting; and follow the results. In the pine forests of the South, you typically encounter acidic soils. Fertilizer, rain and decomposing nutrients all work to make soil more acidic. If your soil test indicates an acidic soil, then follow the soil analysis for lime. Crushed lime stone, a.k.a lime, consists of calcium carbonate, which neutralizes. Calcium is the second most-prevalent element found in plant matter, which means strong cell walls and healthy plants. To raise the pH, simply hand spread or mechanically spread ag lime or pelletized lime around your tree for several feet on each side. That’s it.
Quick Tip: The amount of lime recommended on a soil analysis applies to both pelletized and crushed lime.
Lime enters the soil at the molecular level and neutralizes the acid. This “frees up” valuable nutrients in the soil for uptake by the root system. The more acidic your soil, the more these nutrients are restricted from your plant. In general terms, that means you apply fertilizer at the rate specified in your soil analysis and your plants only use 50 or even 30 percent of what you spread. The leaves 50 to 70 percent to leach from the soil as runoff. The Co-op charged you for the full amount of fertilizer, but your plants only use the “freed” nutrients. You’re wasting time and money when your pH is out of whack. Check pH every couple of years and adjust as needed.
Feeding Your Trees
With pH adequate, it’s time to feed your fruit trees. These trees expend a lot of energy producing new vegetative growth and setting and developing fruit. In late winter or early spring, just as the first signs of spring start showing up — daffodils popping and red buds blooming — apply a dose of all-purpose 13-13-13 fertilizer. You only need about a cup of fertilizer per year of growth, per tree. So a two-year-old tree could take two cups of triple 13 fertilizer. As a tree reaches 4 to 5 years old and older, you can apply five to six or more pounds of fertilizer, per tree. Follow this same regiment again in late June to early July and you’ll be at or near max production for the grow season.
When you alter the soil, and create a thriving environment for plants, you will battle weeds. Weeds steal fertilizer nutrients and water from your fruit trees. While a tree is in its first 5 to 7 years, I would highly recommend controlling weed and grass infestations around your production trees. The easiest way to combat this is during your first fertilizer treatment in late winter, simply mix a 2 to 3 percent glyphosate mixture in a back-pack or hand-pump sprayer and apply inside a circle area measuring 3-feet in diameter, from the base of the tree. When mixed correctly, it only takes a fine mist sprayed over the weeds to get a near-complete kill.
There are glyphosate-resistant weeds that will require other herbicide methods to incorporate into your maintenance program. Spray weeds around your trees again during the June/July fertilizer treatment and you’re finished. You can also stake black-fabric mats around your tree to keep weeds from growing.
This annual, but vital chore will ensure that your fruit trees are growing at the best production rate possible. If you start treating your fruit trees like a food plot, you’ll start producing deer-attracting orchards that will make your neighbors envious!