90130Some of us who enjoy gardening may not like to admit how useful the internet can be. There is a lot of bad information out there. There is also some degree of good information. It is impossible to fit much information about apples into just a few brief paragraphs. Therefore, the internet is likely the best source of information about the countless cultivars and specie within the genus of Malus.

The most popular apple trees produce the familiar crisp and sweet fruit that ripens anytime between late summer and late autumn, depending on cultivar. The fruit is quite variable. Some cultivars are best for eating fresh. Others are best for cooking or juicing. Some are very sweet, while other are quite tart. Each fruit is about the size of a baseball, but can be much bigger or much smaller. Crabapples are very small. Flowering crabapples make only tiny fruits that are eaten by birds.

The trees are quite variable too. Semi-dwarf trees can be pruned to stay low enough so that all of the fruit is within reach from the ground. Standard trees that grow in orchards can get as big as shade trees. All fruiting apple trees need specialized pruning each winter so that they do not become overgrown and disfigured, and to control disease. All apples bloom sometime in early spring.


Winter Pruning Of Fruit Trees

90130thumbThe vast orchards of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys might make the impression that production of fruit is easy. The trees naturally bloom in spring, and develop fruit over summer, as if they do most of the work prior to harvest. In reality, those trees have been so extensively bred to maximize production that they need, among other maintenance, very specialized pruning in winter.

Without pruning, deciduous fruit trees produce more fruit than they can support. The weight of the fruit breaks and disfigures limbs. Excessive fruit production exhausts resources so that, although more fruit is produced, it is of inferior quality. Diseases and insects proliferate in crowded stem growth that lacks vigor. Unharvested fruit that is beyond reach in upper growth may attract rodents.

Well pruned deciduous fruit tree produce fruit of much better quality, and are able to support it on well structured limbs that are reasonably within reach. They are less susceptible to diseases and insects. Such pruning seems severe to those who are unfamiliar with it, but it is necessary, and the trees appreciate it. Because it is so severe, it is done while trees are dormant through winter.

Different types of fruit trees need distinct types of pruning. Furthermore, different cultivars of each type may need different degrees of the same type of pruning. All should get the ‘four Ds’, which are ‘dead, dying, damaged and diseased’ growth, pruned out of them. Because figs produce early and late crops, they can be pruned less for more early figs, or more severely for more late figs.

Most of the deciduous fruit trees are either stone fruits or pomme fruits. The stone fruits include apricot, plum, prune, nectarine, peach and cherry, which are all of the genus of Prunus. Pomme fruits are apple, pear and quince. Because the winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees is so specialized and so intensive, it is worth studying, preferably before planting the fruit trees that require it.


70726thumbJust like roses and camellias, the innocent peach, Prunus persica, has been developed into too many distinct cultivars to write about in just a few brief paragraphs. It had been in cultivation for thousands of years before arriving in North America. Peach is a classic summer fruit, but trees should be planted while dormant, preferably as bare root stock, about now, in the middle of winter.

Peaches certainly do not grow everywhere in North America. They need just enough chill to be reminded that it is winter; but too much chill too late in the season will ruin bloom. Too much late rain will rot developing fruit. Peaches are therefore right at home in chaparral climates of California, where freestone cultivars are grown for fresh fruit, and clingstone cultivars are grown for canning.

Healthy peach trees can get up to second story eaves, but if properly pruned, should be only half as tall. They should not get too wide either, since the weight of fruit can break limbs. Aggressive winter pruning keeps trees vigorous and resistant to disease. Orchard trees last less than twenty years, although home garden trees are often kept longer. Nectarines are just fuzzless peaches.

Bare Root Season Is Now

80124thumbAutumn really is the season for planting. That is the general rule. One generalization about general rules is that they generally do not apply to all of the specifics. In other words, there are likely certain exceptions. In this case, there are some types of plants that should not be planted in autumn. The next best season for planting is probably winter, which happens to be ‘bare root season’.

Just before the last of the Christmas trees were being sold, and relinquishing their space in nurseries, bare root stock started moving in. Some bare root stock is prepackaged with its otherwise bare roots in bags of moist sawdust. Nurseries that provide large volumes are likely to heel in unpackaged bare root stock into bins of moist sand, from which it gets pulled and wrapped as sold.

As the term ‘bare root’ implies, bare root stock was dug as early as the onset of dormancy in late autumn, and deprived of the soil that it grew in. Because it is dormant, and the weather is cool and damp, it does not mind much, if it even knows at all. As it emerges from dormancy next spring, it resumes growth, and disperses roots into the new soil that it got planted into while dormant.

Bare root stock is significantly less expensive than canned (potted) stock because it lightweight and does not take up much space in the nursery. It is also more efficient, since it only stops briefly in retail nurseries, on its way from growers to its final home destinations. New plants start dispersing roots right away, instead taking time and effort to recover from earlier confinement of roots.

Deciduous fruit trees and roses are the most familiar of bare root stock. The bare root fruit trees include the stone fruits of the genus Prunus, such as apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine and almond, as well as pomme fruits, such as apple, pear and quince. Figs, pomegranates, persimmons, walnuts, mulberries, grapevines, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, cane berries, strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and a miscellany of deciduous blooming but fruitless plants are also available.

Prune Now For Fruit Later

70726thumbModern fruit trees have been so extensively bred to produce abundant and unnaturally large fruit, that most types are unable to support the weight of the fruit that they can produce each season. Without specialized dormant (winter) pruning to limit production, the weight of excessive fruit breaks and disfigures the limbs of the trees that produce it. Fruit becomes too much of a good thing.

Pruning not only limits the weight of the fruit; but it also improves the structural integrity of the limbs that must support it, and ideally, keeps fruit more reachable. Concentrating resources produces fewer but better fruits, instead of wasting resources on excessive fruits of inferior quality. Fewer stems that grow in spring are more vigorous and resistant to disease than more stems would be.

‘Stone’ fruits (of the genus Prunus) generally get similar pruning. However, peaches and nectarines produce such heavy fruit that they get pruned more severely than apricots, plums and prunes. Cherries and almonds are so lightweight that they may not need to be pruned at all. Cherries may be pruned for height. Since almonds get shaken from their trees, height is not so important.

Stems that grew last summer should produce fruit next summer. They should therefore be pruned short enough to support the weight of the fruit that they can produce (or what stems produced in previous years). For peaches, stems may need to be pruned to only a few inches long, even if the new stems are several feet long. Upper stems that get too high can be pruned out completely.

Apples and pears benefit from the same sort of pruning, but can be cut back even more aggressively, since their new stems tend to be more productive at the base. Crowded clusters of vigorous new stems can be thinned to eliminate the largest and most dominant stems. Stunted ‘spur’ stems that do not elongate more than two inches or so each year many not need to be pruned at all.

The ‘four Ds’, which are ‘Dead, Dying, Diseased and Damaged’ stems, are the first to get pruned out, even if they happen to be in the right places. There is just too much potential for problems later. Young trees that do not need much pruning now should be pruned for structure. Dormant fruit tree pruning is so important and specialized, that it is worth studying in more thorough detail.

Winter Is Bare Root Season

80124thumbWhile dormant for winter, some types of plants get dug from the soil and sent to nurseries as ‘bare root’ stock. Some get packaged with their otherwise bare roots contained in bags of damp sawdust. Most just get heeled into damp sand in the retail nurseries where they get sold. These simply get pulled from the sand when sold.

At their new home gardens, bare root plants simply get planted where they will sleep through the rest of winter. In spring, they wake up and start to grow as if nothing ever happened. How sneaky! They do not need big holes for their bare roots. Their graft unions (the ‘kinks’ at the bases of the trunks of grafted plants) must stand above grade. Roots only need to be spread out laterally.

Soil amendment should be minimal. Too much soil amendment promotes root growth around the trunk, which can inhibit root dispersion elsewhere. Too much excavation and amendment below the roots may eventually settle, so that graft unions sag below grade, and get buried. A light dose of fertilizer a bit later promotes early root growth, even while the branches are still bare.

Bare root plants are much more portable than canned (potted) plants. Several can be wrapped and sent home in a small car, or even through the mail; which is why so many bare root plants can be purchased online. (Climate zones should be considered when purchasing online.) Because they occupy less space than canned plants, many more varieties are available in nurseries.

Because they are so easy to handle and process, bare root plants cost about a third of what canned plants cost. Mail order plants from growers often cost even less than those that must be sent to retail nurseries first. Bare root plants are at least as reliable as canned stock, disperse roots more efficiently, and are less likely to be infected with disease when they arrive.

The most popular bare root plants are roses, cane berries, grapevines and fruit trees, like apricot, peach, nectarine, cherry, plum, prune, almond, apple, pear and persimmon. Flowering crabapple, flowering cherry, poplar, lilac, forsythia, wisteria, rhubarb, strawberry and asparagus are also available.

My Private Heritage Tree

P81020+++++I really believed that I had something special here. A few fruit trees that are either remnants or descendants of remnants of fruit trees of the old Zayante Rancho have survived on a vacant parcel east of town.
There are two pear trees, a prune tree and an apple tree. The pear and prune trees are too overgrown to make much fruit. Almost all of the fruit that they manage to produce is too high to reach, and of inferior quality. They could be renovated, but the process would require severe winter pruning for several years.
However, the apple tree is still somewhat compact and quite productive. Much of the fruit is within reach for the ground. Much of the rest can be shaken from the tree without damaging it too much. Although abandoned for decades, someone actually put the effort into pruning the apple tree a few years ago. It still needs some major pruning, but would be easier to renovate and restore than the other trees.
I can not identify the cultivar of the apple, or even the type. The fruit looked and tasted like some sort of Pippin apple earlier in the season, but is now slightly more blushed than other familiar Pippin apples in the region. It could of course be another cultivar of Pippin. It is not very juicy, but is quite richly flavored. Winter pruning to concentrate resources would probably improve the quality of the fruit.
Until recently, anyone who wanted to forage for a bit of fruit from these few fruit trees had open access to them. Both prunes and pears needed to be knocked out of their trees, and collected from the ground. Timing was critical for the prunes. They would be unripe if a few days early, or squishy and on the ground if a few days late. Apples were the most popular because they were more abundant and easiest to collect from the tree.
Unfortunately, the vacant parcel needed to be fenced. Only those who are involved with maintenance of the parcel have access to the trees now.
Well, I happen to occasionally work for one of those privileged few, which indirectly gives me access to the distinguished trees.
Of course, I could not resist bragging to my Pa about my privileged access to these now private heritage trees, especially the apple tree. As I said earlier, I really believed that I had something special here.
To my surprise, and perhaps disappointment, my Pa is very familiar with my special apple tree! I had nothing to brag about that he could not also claim! He actually picked apples from it with his mother when he was a little tyke living on Ashley Street in town!

Not Enough Blue

P80929KThere were barely enough blue elderberries left this late in the season for the blue elderberry jelly that should have won the blue ribbon at the Harvest Festival. It’s a long story.
After the main supplier of blue elderberries was removed to widen the driveway that it was next to many years ago, I started collecting blue elderberries from other wild shrubs on roadsides about town. At the time, the berries were very abundant. No one else was collecting them, and the doves did not come down to eat them until later in the season.
A friend eventually asked me why I was collecting the berries. I informed him that they could be used just like the black elderberries that grow wild in Eastern North American and Europe. He decided to make wine and booze with them, and payed others for whatever they could harvest. The berries were much more scarce the following season, not because they had been any less prolific, but because others were collecting them as quickly as they ripened. They became comparably scarce elsewhere as well, seemingly since the blue elderberry jelly started winning second place annually at the Harvest Festival.
This year, the elderberries were collected faster than I could get them. Even the berries at work that were out of reach of those collecting berries closer to town were taken by the doves who arrived early, and could not get enough to eat around town. Some of my friends insisted that they could find berries for me, but by the time I asked one of the them to do so, it was just too late in the season. She found barely enough for the two half pints of jelly needed to enter into the competition at the Harvest Festival. I was pleased with that much. It would have been all that I needed for my blue ribbon. However . . .
The Jelly and Jam Competition at the Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest Festival was canceled for this year!
That too is a long story. There are not enough entries to make it worth the bother. A few years ago, there were only seven entries, and five were mine (which makes my ‘temporary’ lack of a blue ribbon even more embarrassing)! The competition will resume next year, and it will get more publicity. The Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest Festival is happening right now (until 6:30 this evening), but without the Jelly and Jam Competition.
For now, I made only one pint of elderberry syrup.

Enjoy The Fruits Of Summer

70726thumbIs a prune really just a dried plum? No! A plum is really a prune. In fact, all ‘stone fruit’ are of the same prune genus known as Prunus. This means that apricot, cherry, peach, nectarine, prune, plum and even almond are all related. So are all their weird and trendy hybrids, such as aprium, pluots, plumcots and so on. (Almonds are the pits or ‘stones’ of dry leathery fruits that fall away as hulls.)

The main difference between prunes and plums is that prunes contain enough sugar to inhibit mold while they dry, . . . if they dry efficiently enough. Plums are juicier and contain less sugar, so are more likely to mold before they dry. If dried in a dehydrator, plums get squishy, and are likely to develop an odd flavor. Most prunes are European. Most popular plums are of Japanese descent.

The wrinkly and leathery fruit that most of us know as prunes are actually ‘dried’ prunes. Fresh prunes can be eaten just like plums, but are firmer, and have milder flavor. They are better for juicing, canning (whole, while firm) and cooking, although plums make better jam. Plums have richer flavor for eating fresh. Because they are so soft, they do not juice as well, but make nice plum nectar.

Apricots are not quite as easy to dry as prunes are. They must either be dried quickly in a dehydrator of some sort, or sulfured; and sulfuring is probably too much work for most of us. Most of the apriums, pluots, plumcots and other weird apricot hybrids that have become so trendy in the past many years are too soft for drying or canning. Like plums, peaches and nectarines, fresh is best.

Fruit that ripens evenly throughout the tree is best for canning, freezing, drying or any technique that takes large volumes of fruit at once. Uneven ripening is better for fruit eaten fresh. It allows later fruit to continue ripening while the earliest fruit is being consumed. The problem is that the best stone fruits ripen very evenly, all at the same time. If not shared with neighbors, some is sure to rot.

If some of the fruit ripens later than the rest, it will be inside the shadiest part of the canopy. The most exposed fruit on the exterior of the canopy ripens first, and for most types of fruit, has the best flavor. After all fruit is harvested from a tree, any remaining bad fruit should be removed from the tree, and from the ground around the tree. Diseases proliferate, and later overwinter in rotting fruit.

Flowers Are Only The Beginning

70719thumbFlowers have a bigger and better agenda than coloring our gardens and homes. They bloom to get pollinated. Their color and fragrance are designed merely to attract pollinators. Less vain but more abundant blooms take advantage of the wind to disperse their pollen. Once pollinated, flowers fade and deteriorate as resources get diverted to the production of seed and fruit to contain it.

Some flowers are on a tight schedule. They bloom in a single brief season. Others have a bloom season that last significantly longer than the individual flowers do. They might bloom continually for a few months, replacing fading older flowers with new flowers; or they might bloom in phases, with each phase blooming simultaneously, and then getting replaced with a subsequent phase.

Fruit trees and many fruiting vegetable plants bloom once annually, and then produce fruit. Tomato, summer squash and bean plants bloom and produce fruit continually. Tomato fruits are best if allowed to ripen on the vine. Beans and summer squash like zucchini are better if harvested while young and tender. Also, the plants are more productive if regularly deprived of premature fruit.

The priority of these plants is to produce seed. Production of seed requires significant resources. Plants that are busy producing seed within maturing beans and zucchini do not put much effort into producing subsequent bloom and fruit. However, if deprived of maturing seed and fruit, these sorts of plants are compelled to divert resources into new bloom, and seed and fruit production.

The same applies to many flowering plants, particularly perennials and flowering annuals. ‘Deadheading’ is the removal of deteriorating flowers to promote continued bloom. It is not practical for plants with profuse small flower, such as sweet alyssum and lobelia. Nor is it necessary for some sterile or nearly sterile plants that do not produce much seed anyway, like busy Lizzy (impatiens).

French marigold, petunia, zinnia, floss flower and cockscomb all bloom better if deadheaded. Rhododendrons do not benefit directly from deadheading, but look better without old floral trusses. Conversely, the potentially picturesque dead flowers of sea holly might be left intact.