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Fruit Tree Neglect in a Small Kitchen Garden

While this completely neglected apple looks scrumptious in the tree, there is a near 100% certainty that it’s home to a grub or a worm or a burrowing insect.

I’ve explained in past posts (about fruit trees) that growing fruit trees as a part of your small kitchen garden strategy adds a boatload of work to an otherwise potentially low-impact activity. Especially with apples, if you don’t follow a regular maintenance schedule, your fruit trees won’t reward you well.

Even as I’ve embarked on the simple mission of planting a new pear tree in my own home kitchen garden this year, I’m ruing the near total neglect I gave my fruit trees through the growing season.

Tree Things I Didn’t Do

Dormant Oil—This is a bigger confession than I care to make: I have never completed all the annual fruit tree maintenance jobs recommended by expert agriculturalists. One that has always eluded me is supposed to happen in mid-to-late winter: spraying the tree with dormant oil. Dormant oil kills several types of bugs that can weaken a fruit tree—and that may attach themselves and hold on through the winter.

As in every year I’ve had fruit trees, I didn’t apply dormant oil this year.

Pruning—In very late winter, it’s important to prune a fruit tree. You remove dead wood, take out branches that cross each other (to reduce rubbing that may damage the bark), open up the tree’s crown so sunlight can make it to the tree’s lower branches, do some shaping to make the fruit-bearing branches more accessible, and cut back limbs to promote new growth.

Traditionally, I’ve pruned my trees properly, and I’ve even done a lot of grafting. I didn’t do any pruning or grafting this year.

Mulch & Fertilizer—It’s helpful to mulch around a tree that grows out of your lawn. Mulching retains moisture, guards the soil from insects and burrowing animals, and keeps your lawnmower away from the tree’s trunk. Mulch helps retain moisture, cuts down on plants that compete for the moisture, and provides shallow roots with some insulation against rapid freezing and sudden extreme swings in temperature. Fertilizer is a quick pick-me up, providing nourishment at crucial developmental points during the year.

I’ve never been good about mulching, though my wife sometimes does the job. I do usually fertilize… but I neither mulched nor fertilized my fruit trees this year.

Culling—Especially with peach trees, and with apple trees to a lesser extent, a tree’s tendency to be prolific can result in production of small fruits. Peach tree branches may be lined with blossoms, and if every one of them grows into a peach, they’ll be small peaches indeed. So, shortly after the petals drop off and you can clearly identify baby peaches, it’s a good idea to pick off and discard a lot of the babies. Usually a two-step process, you first pick off fruits from clusters leaving just a single fruit where there was a cluster. A week or two later, you pick off the smaller fruits, leaving one every eight or nine inches along each branch.

This is typical of an apple that has had no help in fending off insect marauders. I’d have no desire to bite into this one, and paring it for use in pie or apple sauce would be only slightly less appetizing.

Certain insecticides cull fruits when the fruits are small. For example, applying Sevin brand insecticide to an apple tree right after the petals fall will usually cause some fruits to fall… and using a higher concentration of Sevin culls a greater number of fruits.

I didn’t do any culling this season.

Pest-prevention—Pears, peaches, and plums grow surprisingly “clean” in central Pennsylvania even if you do nothing to fight off insects. Apples are another story. If I don’t treat my apple trees with some type of bug spray repeatedly, nearly every apple I harvest will hold hidden biological treasures. Chemical insecticides require application immediately after petals fall, and again every ten to fourteen days until harvest. Admittedly, I’ve not tried organic treatments to protect my apples… if you’ve had success with any, please leave a comment that tells about frequency of application and efficacy of the product.

This season, I applied insecticide right after petal-fall, and, perhaps, two weeks later. After that, my apples became insect incubators.

Woodchucks, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, and, perhaps, smaller rodents, suplement their diets with my rotting apples. There is also a healthy bee and wasp population eating the sweet fruit. The alcohol fumes coming off the apples might draw attention from prohibitionists.

Harvest—Of course, if you grow fruit but never harvest it, you don’t actually have fruit. Peaches provide a window of as long as a month during which you can pick some, let them ripen indoors, pick some more, and so on (picking a peach speeds it to ripen—but it should already look ripe before you pick it). Then, all at once, the ones still on the trees soften, shrivel, and drop off. Pears seem to hold on for several months, but you should harvest pears the moment any full-sized one drops off on its own account. You can start picking apples when they first look ripe, and continue picking right up until leaves are falling. The apples will start to jump out of the trees on their own, so it can become a daily chore to pick up fallen apples before rodents chew on them, and then to pick apples off the trees so you get some that aren’t bruised by the fall.

Yes, I’ve harvested apples this year, but my motivation is very low. Most of my apples are fermenting in my lawn while providing nutrition to insects and rodents. The ones I’ve gotten to before the predators all have been colonized by boring insects—even apples I’ve picked from the trees.

There’s Always Next Year

When the season started, I had been excited about mild weather and a bumper crop of apple blossoms. A few awkwardly-timed rain storms (which interfere with insecticide treatments), and heavy focus on non-gardening-related activities made me miss insecticide application for about six weeks. At that point, it was pointless to jump back in and hope for good results; I could see most fruits were already badly formed.

It sometimes takes a year like this to get me motivated for the next five years: With last year’s bumper crop of well-cared-for apples, I canned some nine gallons of apple sauce. I enjoyed canning two gallons of it, and canning the rest felt like a forced march.

When it comes time to prune and graft in March, I’ll remember the overwhelming smell of fermentation and the sticky gushiness under the apple trees during my autumn lawn mowing. It’ll be enough to get me out to work on my fruit trees.

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4 Responses to “Fruit Tree Neglect in a Small Kitchen Garden”

  • Riya:

    A kitchen garden is a garden dedicated to growing things you can eat. A lot of gardeners create kitchen gardens to grow produce they can freeze, can, give away, or even sell at “growers’ markets.” Of course, they eat a lot of what they grow fresh, because every kitchen gardener quickly appreciates how much better-tasting home-grown produce is than store-bought produce.
    —————
    Riya

    Search Engine Optimization

  • I noticed many of the apple trees looking this way while at an orchard recently. We had a ton of rain and hail this year, so there’s been a surge of bugs and insects.

  • Kate:

    I saw mention of apple, pear, peach, and plum trees. Is this all in central PA? Should I be able to grow them in southeastern PA? And does anyone know what other fruits grow well in PA?

  • admin:

    Trees: apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, and mulberries grow very well in PA. Also: crabapples, and nectarines.

    Perennials: strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, boysenberries, dewberries, blackberries, grapes.

    Annuals: melons, tomatoes.

    I probably missed several, but all of these should do nicely where you live.

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