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New Pear Trees in my Small Kitchen Garden

A mailing tube leaning next to my front door signaled it was finally time to plant fruit trees.

It seems a whole season has passed in my small kitchen garden since I started encouraging people to plant fruit trees in autumn. Then, I reported on the impending demise of my pear tree and my decision to add a new tree this fall. Autumn arrived very slowly, so the frost that sends trees into dormancy came late—the nursery didn’t ship my trees until early November.

The good news is: they arrived at the end of last week, and they look fine. What’s more, I planted them during the weekend, and documented the experience as-promised. Of course, autumn made itself known during the weekend, so tree-planting was less pleasant than I’d have liked: I don’t believe the temperature rose above 40F degrees, and a dusting of snow fell as I was packing my gear back to the garden shed.

According to instructions on Summerstone Nursery’s web site, I unwrapped the young trees and watered them from root to tip.

Kudos to Summerstone Nursery

A young bare root sapling may have very few roots branching off the main stem. This is the sour cherry tree’s root section lying against the back of a shovel. It’s easy to understand why someone might feel they received “sticks.” Young trees are sticks that haven’t yet grown into logs.

In one of my posts about the fruit tree saga, I explained that I first ordered trees, and then looked for customer reviews of the vendor from whom I ordered. Most reviews were negative, and I was a tad concerned. Later, I reported that I had ordered three trees via the vendor’s web site, then emailed a change request to add two more trees. When I received a shipping notice, it listed only the original three trees along with the charge for just those three.

Surprise, surprise: when I opened the package, I found five trees inside. All were clearly labeled, and all were apparently in good or better health. Assuming they are actually the varieties of trees I ordered, I have only a tiny complaint about the vendor, Summerstone Nursery: I wish they’d managed the change request accurately. Now I need to review my credit card bill and mail a check to Summerstone if they didn’t charge for the additional trees I’d requested. Still, based on this one experience with Summerstone Nursery, I’d buy from them again, and I’d recommend them to other gardeners.

To plant trees in a lawn, first remove the sod where you’re going to dig a hole. I’m planting two pear trees in the same hole. This simplifies a lot compared to spacing the trees out: Pruning two trees so close together is like pruning one tree. Watering and treating for insects is easier with the trees close together, and bees will work both trees as one, with luck, resulting in a high pollination rate. I dug a rectangular hole because I used this patch of lawn for illustrations in another blog post about cutting a garden bed into a lawn (including detailed instructions for how to cut sod). Eventually, I’ll mulch the area into an oval shape. For a single bare root tree of this size, you could dig a hole about the width of a shovel, and a foot deep… but I encourage you to dig broader and deeper so you loosen the soil where roots will grow a year or two down the road.

Bare Roots for a Small Kitchen Garden

With the sod removed, dig. You need to dig several inches deeper than the root section of the tree. Pile the sod and soil on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow; you’ll need it later (don’t bury the sod under the soil as you’ll need the sod first). Planting instructions from most nurseries tell you to set the tree so that the graft is above the soil line. In many cases, a layperson can’t identify a graft, so this information is useless. If there’s an abrupt bend or a bulge in the twig just above the root line, that’s probably the graft. If the twig seems continuous, embed the tree so that all roots projecting from the main twig are underground… but all tree branches or leaf buds are above ground. If you’re just not sure, planting shallow is safer than planting deep—the root stock will hold up better in contact with the soil, but anything above the root stock may suffer if it’s underground.

One recurring criticism of on-line nurseries is that the trees they ship are no more than sticks. For the uninitiated, I understand this concern: young trees are pretty much just sticks. Were you to buy a tree of this age already potted, you wouldn’t think twice about it; what few roots it had would be concealed by soil.

However, the trees I purchased were delivered “bare root.” This means they were removed from the soil in which they were growing at the nursery and wrapped in moist packaging for shipping. The leaders of my bare root trees (the leader is the top-most vertical branch with a terminal bud on its tip) looked like perfectly healthy branches on any of my mature fruit trees: thin, supple, and lined and tipped with healthy leaf buds. The bare root end of my trees had only a few thin roots—but certainly adequate roots to support trees of this size.

When the hole is six or so inches deeper than the root section of your tree, line the bottom of the hole with the sod you removed at the outset… but with the grass side down. You don’t need to do this, but why waste the great nutrition in that sod? Buried, the sod will break down over the winter, and make your tree happy when its roots grow down in the next growing season. (Don’t plant the tree with its roots in contact with the sod.)

Planting such young trees creates a few challenges:

1. When grass and weeds are under a blanket of snow, tender tree bark becomes particularly appealing to rodents. If you don’t take precautions, your young trees will be perfectly healthy one evening, then barkless and dying the next morning.

2. If prevailing winds perpetually blow on your young trees through the winter, the trees may dry out. Sometimes you’ll lose a leaf bud or two and the tree will remain viable, but if all the buds go, there’s little hope for the tree. Ideally, you protect the stick-like baby with a windbreak… and if you’re clever that windbreak can double as a rodent-excluder.

Some years ago, the industry invented tree tubes. These are rigid or semi-rigid cylinders that can surround your saplings, protecting them from rodents and deer until the trees are tall enough and woody enough to withstand furry pests. If you’ve driven through tree-planting country, you might have seen forests of these tubes springing up in fields.

Spread soil on the sod until the hole is the correct depth to accommodate the tree. Then hold the tree in place and gently fill with soil around it. Continue adding soil to cover the roots of the tree; stop when the entire hole is about an inch below the surrounding soil.

A tree tube might extend four feet above the ground, completely hiding a seedling whose crown is only two feet up. That seedling concentrates on growing up the tube to reach sunlight. Using a tree tube increases your tree’s chances of surviving its first years in your small kitchen garden.

I can’t tell you yet how easy these tubes are to find. I phoned a local garden store in search of tree tubes, and they suggested I consult a local forestry authority. I’m hoping a home improvement store might carry them, but if that doesn’t pay off, I’ll be back to ordering on-line. There are plenty of companies selling tree tubes, or tree shelters, or tree guards, or grow tubes on-line.

I wish I’d thought to track these down before my trees arrived. Now I have to fight off rodents hand-to-hand until I can acquire some tree tubes.

Add water. Don’t add a little water. Your job now is to flood the hole. Do so gently without washing away soil. Rather, let water trickle into the hole so it soaks in and eventually saturates the soil you dug out and added back; this may take ten or fifteen minutes (for a single tree in a much smaller hole it might take two or three minutes). When there are puddles around your tree, shut off the water and lightly press down the soaking soil with your foot. As you do this, gently adjust the tree so it points straight up (or at the angle you desire); the soil will be so loose and sloppy that the tree will move around easily, shifting often as you tamp down the contents of the hole. Add more soil on top to soak up excess water.

Erect some type of anti-rodent protection… and a wind block if the tree isn’t well sheltered. I fashioned a three-sided fence using sections from my planting bed; I won’t need them around the vegetable patch until spring. However, if I find tree tubes, I’ll remove the fence… What ho! I just got an idea for fashioning makeshift tubes from junk. I’ll experiment and let you know how it works.

Here are some other articles about planting fruit trees:

  • Peach Tree Guild | The Lazy Gardener – Luckily for me now is a good time to plant fruit trees: when they are dormant. The cultivar is Elberta, which seems to be a pretty reliable peach according to what I have read. With some of the species I already posses I threw together …

  • Vegetables Gardening Fruit Trees – Well the first thing that I want to talk about would be that fact that it is a great time to plant fruit trees in Winter this time is best because all the sap in the stems and leaves of the tree has fallen back down into the roots to …

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5 Responses to “New Pear Trees in my Small Kitchen Garden”

  • Fascinating. I wonder if I could grow apples or pears in my backyard?

  • I wish I had read the terrible reviews about summerstone nusery before I ordered 109.78 worth of dead plants!!
    I am on a tight garden budget and I usually order from Michigan Bulb with absolutely No Complaints. Their plants are beautiful and guarenteed FOR LIFE.
    Summerstone sends dead plants.. you pay to send them back…and they won’t reimburse you because the plants were dead when they received them. DA-AH
    Stay away from Summerstone …PLEEEEZE.

  • admin:

    Susan: I’m sorry you had a bad experience with Summerstone. I can’t defend how they handle problems that arise with shipped live plants… and I can’t think of a policy that would keep everyone happy when things go wrong.

    I’m pleased with the trees I received, but maybe I got lucky. In any case,
    I’ll continue to encourage the home kitchen gardener: BUY LOCALLY unless that’s not an option.

  • Eric:

    I recently ordered numerous trees from Summerstone. $140.00 worth. After ordering i did a yahoo search for Summerstone and garden watchdog popped up with a whole bunch of negative rep. and reviews for this place. I have to say that I’m more than a little nervous about my order. My wife and i work hard for our money and cant afford to be taken by a bogus mail order nursery. I wish i would have seen all the neg. reviews before i ordered. I guess all i can do is wait and hope for the best. It’s very sad that you have to watch your back ordering trees. The only thing that keeps me hopeful is that people seldom take the time to write positive reviews, and I’m sure that Summerstone does a lot of business offering the prices that they do. I will be sure to post my experience after my order arrives, and let everyone know how things went so that there is a recent review.
    Hopefully waiting,
    Eric

  • [...] pear trees I planted back in 2008 continue to look strong. They’ve thrown a lot of delicate pink blossoms against [...]

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