For millennia, olive, Olea europaea, dutifully produced oil and edible fruit for civilizations of the Mediterranean region. During the last several centuries, it migrated to do the same in other regions of similar climate throughout the World. At least two centuries ago, it got to California, and became a major agricultural commodity. Now, it lives in home gardens.
The abundant and oily fruit that justified cultivation of olive trees for thousands of years is ironically a potential nuisance for home gardens. Few people harvest and process them. Olive fruit can stain pavement and attract rodents. Fruitless or mostly fruitless cultivars of olive, and dwarf cultivars, have been increasingly popular for only the past few decades.
Olive trees are not big, but slowly develop grandly sculptural trunks. Some might be little more than twenty feet tall when mature. Few get more than forty feet tall. Most have a few leaning trunks, which become furrowed and distended with age. The narrow and grayish evergreen leaves are about two or three inches long. Olive fruits are about an inch wide.
Of all the cultivars of citrus that are popular for home gardens, the ‘Meyer’ lemon is likely the most popular. However, it is not overly common in markets. That may be an incentive for growing it at home. Technically, it is not totally lemon. It is an odd hybrid of lemon and orange. Hence, its fruit has a distinctly rich flavor, but a bit less acidity than other lemons.
‘Meyer’ lemon is distinct among citrus trees. It grows more like rigid shrubbery, with a few irregular trunks. Because it naturally develops compact form, it does not require dwarfing understock. Most old trees therefore grew from cuttings on their own roots. Modern trees commonly grow on understock though, so can develop suckers below their graft unions.
‘Meyer’ lemon fruit is abundant during autumn and winter. Minor quantities ripen through spring and summer also. All ‘Meyer’ lemon trees from nurseries nowadays are ‘Improved Meyer’, whether or not their labels say so. Their improvement was selection of stock that lacks a particular tristeza virus that was inherent to the original cultivar prior to the 1940s.
Winter is the primary season for citrus fruits. Some ripen significantly earlier. Some ripen significantly later. Many citrus trees continue to produce a few fruits randomly throughout the year. Nonetheless, citrus fruits are collectively most abundant during winter. It seems odd that trees that are vulnerable to frost are so productive during the coolest of weather.
Citrus trees are fortunately only marginally susceptible to frost in only the cooler climates here. They mostly recover from minor damage where they get a bit too much chill. Those in coastal climates may never experience damaging frost. Some types of citrus are more resilient to frost than others. Vulnerable citrus trees may need frost protection when new.
Home garden citrus trees are different from orchard trees. Most orchard trees, particularly older trees, are ‘standard’ trees. They grow on standard rootstock that allows them to get larger, and therefore produce more fruit than ‘dwarf’ trees. Most home garden citrus trees are ‘dwarf’ trees. They grown on dwarfing rootstock that keeps them dense and compact.
Furthermore, the many cultivars of citrus that are available for home gardening are more diverse than those that commonly grow in orchards. ‘Lisbon’ lemon is very profuse within season, so is preferable for orchards. ‘Eureka’ lemon, although a bit less productive, may be a preferable option for home gardens because it produces a few random fruit all year.
Now that citrus are in season, some last longer than others. Grapefruit can hang on their trees for months. They actually develop richer flavor with mellowing tartness as they age. Conversely, Mandarin orange and tangerine are the most perishable citrus. Because the rind is loose, their pulp within begins to oxidize after ripening. Lime eventually gets pithy.
Although this is the time of year to enjoy fresh citrus fruits, it is not the season to do much else with citrus trees. Pruning and application of fertilizer will be more timely after winter. Premature pruning or use of fertilizer is likely to stimulate premature growth. Such growth either languishes through cool weather, or succumbs to mild frost.
This weird tropical cactus gets mixed reviews. Pitahaya fruit, or dragon fruit, is abundant in favorable conditions, but develops potentially bland flavor. The green succulent stems may be vigorous, but develop distinctly pendulous form that resembles Sigmund the sea monster. Bloom lasts from summer to autumn, but individual flowers open for just a night.
Selenicereus undatas is the most popular pitahaya. Its fruit weighs between half a pound and a pound, and has white flesh. Selenicereus costaricensis fruit is similar, but with red flesh, and perhaps slightly more flavor. Selenicereus megalanthus fruit is smaller, thorny and yellow, with white flesh and richer flavor. Home grown fruit is superior to market fruit.
Pitahaya grows very easily from cuttings or pruning scraps. Young stems climb with wiry aerial roots, so need substantial support. Fruiting stems hang downward from the tops of such support. Most modern cultivars need no pollinator. Some old cultivars need another of its same species for pollination. Pitahaya is vulnerable to frost where winters are cool.
Bare root season began as the Christmas season ended. Literally, as the last Christmas trees relinquished their space in nurseries, bare root stock occupied it. Most of this stock grew in Oregon, where winter weather is cooler, so was ready for digging and relocation prior to arrival. Now that it is here, the season for planting bare root stock is quite limited.
Almost all bare root stock is deciduous. It defoliated through autumn, so the stems are as bare as the roots are. Most bare root stock is fruit and nut trees, such as almond, apricot, cherry, plum, peach, apple, pear, persimmon and fig. Grape, currant, gooseberry, wisteria and rose are ready for planting bare root too. All are dormant, so unaware of the process.
They do not stay dormant for long though. They must be planted in their new homes prior to the end of winter, when warming spring weather stimulates new growth. They can not sustain such growth if their roots are unable to disperse into soil. This is why the season for relocating and planting bare root stock is so limited to winter. It relies on cool weather.
Fortunately, planting bare root stock is surprisingly simple. Soil amendment that prompts root growth away from confined root systems of canned (potted) stock is not so important. Since new roots grow directly from formerly bare roots into surrounding soil, amendment is only helpful for soil of inferior quality. Fertilizer will not be helpful until growth resumes.
A hole for planting bare root stock needs to be just big enough to contain the flared roots. It must be shallow enough to suspend any graft union above grade, without loose soil to settle below. Watering is only needed to soak and settle soil around roots, and will not be needed again until after the rainy season. Pruning removes crowded or damaged stems.
Of course, not all fruit trees are conducive to planting bare root. Evergreen plants are not as dormant during winter as deciduous plants are. Their roots are therefore less resilient to separation from the soil. Pitahaya, avocado and some citrus, which can be marginally vulnerable to frost in some climates, are more vulnerable after autumn or winter planting.
Like many ‘English’ plants, the English walnut, Juglans regia, is not actually from England. It is Persian, so is quite comfortable here in California. However, the foliar litter and husks contain a natural herbicide that can make nearby seed grown plants and annuals uncomfortable. Planted trees are typically grafted onto native California black walnut understock (roots) that is more resistant to disease, and improves stability.
Mature trees can be as tall as seventy five feet with trunks as wide as five feet, but are almost always significantly smaller, and even proportionate to urban gardens, although notoriously messy with bloom, leaves and nuts. The pinnately compound leaves are generally less than a foot long, with five to nine leaflets that can be between two to six inches long, and about two inches wide. The bark is notably smooth and gray until trees get quite old and furrowed.
As for fig, date, avocado, grape and olive, the esteemed pomegranate, Punica granatum, has been in cultivation for a very long time. Several thousands of years of domestication have generated countless cultivars. They are now popular in many regions and cultures throughout the World. They produce very well here and in other Mediterranean climates.
Most locally popular pomegranate fruits are brownish red, and about three to four inches wide. Each fruit contains hundreds of seed, which are surrounded by juicy and delicately succulent flesh. They separate easily, like many tiny and tender berries. Most are garnet red. Some cultivars produce fruit with darker purplish, lighter pink or even colorless flesh.
Without dormant pruning, pomegranate trees can get taller than fifteen feet, and develop dense thicket growth. Fruit is easier to collect from well groomed shorter trees. Individual trees may develop a few trunks, and live for two centuries. Orangish red flowers bloom in spring. Leaves turn yellow prior to defoliation in autumn. Fruit ripens in autumn or winter.
Dormant pruning happens during winter, while the plants that benefit from it are dormant. Obviously, it would not be dormant pruning otherwise. Such processes are less stressful to plants while they are inactive and essentially anesthetized like a surgery patient. This is also why fresh bare root stock becomes available and ready for planting during winter.
Bare root stock grows on farms for a few years. Any grafting is part of the process. When stock is sufficiently mature, growers dig and separate its roots from the soil that it grew in. Much of the stock goes to retail nurseries for heeling into damp sand for sale. Some gets neat packaging with damp sawdust around its roots. Some goes out for mail order sales.
Regardless of the process, it all happens quickly and early during winter dormancy. Bare root stock must then get into soil again, quickly and before the end of winter dormancy. It will not survive if it resumes growth without soil to contain new roots. Planting should be as soon as possible, so that roots can settle in with rain, and be ready to grow by spring.
Bare root stock is less expensive than canned (potted) stock because it is so lightweight and easier to process. Since it occupies less space than canned stock in retail nurseries, more varieties of bare root stock are available. Bare root stock is easier to load into a car, and plant into a garden. Once in a garden, it disperses roots quickly and more efficiently.
Deciduous fruit trees are the most popular bare root stock. Of these, most are stone fruits or pome fruits. The stone fruits, of the genus Prunus, include cherry, plum, prune, apricot, peach, nectarine, their hybrids, and almond. Apple, pear, and quince are pome (pomme) fruits. Pomegranate, persimmon, fig, mulberry and walnut are somewhat popular as well.
So much more than deciduous fruit and nut trees are available as bare root stock. Grape, kiwi, currant, gooseberry and blueberry are deciduous fruiting vines or shrubs, not trees. Blackberry, raspberry and strawberry are evergreens. Rhubarb, asparagus and artichoke are perennial vegetables. Rose, wisteria, hydrangea and so many more are fruitless ornamental plants.
Most other deciduous fruit trees provide delightfully profuse spring bloom as well as fruit. Persimmon, Diospyros kaki, does not. It compensates though, with brilliant orange foliar color for autumn. Defoliation reveals comparably bright orange ripe fruit. The awkwardly bulky fruit may look silly on lanky limbs of otherwise bare trees, but they sure are yummy!
Persimmon trees will not require a pollinator to generate an abundance of fruit. However, according to some experts, paired trees of different cultivars produce more abundant fruit of slightly better quality. Abundance is not necessarily an asset though. Unfortunately, all that very perishable fruit ripens at the same time. Fruit is inedible before completely ripe.
Mature persimmon trees can get big enough to become moderate shade trees. If they do, their abundant fruit will be too high to reach, and will generate a horrendous mess when it falls. Although they are handsome trees, they should probably stay relatively short and compact. New trees should be planted while dormant during winter, preferably bare root.
While they are dormant through winter, deciduous fruit trees require specialized ‘dormant pruning’. Exceptions are rare. Most need major pruning that might seem to be excessive. Without such pruning, fruit trees produce more fruit than they can sustain. Excessive fruit is very likely to be of inferior quality, beyond reach, and heavy enough to disfigure limbs.
Dormant pruning limits the volume and weight of fruit that can develop during a following season. By eliminating structural deficiencies and maintaining compact form, it improves the structural integrity of trees. It eliminates diseased stems, and concentrates resources into healthy stems. Dormant pruning concentrates resources into less but better fruit too.
Dormant pruning is necessary because of extensive breeding to improve the quality and quantity of fruit that fruit trees produce. The ancestors of modern cultivars of fruit produce either smaller or less abundant fruit that they can generally support in the wild. However, even some wild fruit trees will produce better fruit with pruning to concentrate resources.
The many various types of fruit trees need various types of specialized dormant pruning. Unfortunately, such trees, which are so commonly available from nurseries, do not come with instructions. It is important to be aware of the sort of maintenance any particular fruit tree will require, prior to incorporating it into a garden. Some dormant pruning is extreme!
The various stone fruits are the most popular deciduous fruit trees. They are of the genus ‘Prunus‘. Their fruits contain single large seeds, or ‘stones’. This includes apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, prune, almond and all their hybrids. They need the most intense dormant pruning. (Almond nuts are stones of leathery fruits that are the hulls of the nuts.)
Although uncommon within the mild coastal climates of Southern California, pome fruits, primarily apple and pear, are very popular too. They require specialized dormant pruning that is very different from what stone fruits need. Likewise, persimmon, pomegranate, fig, mulberry, currant, kiwi, grape and cane berries, each need customized dormant pruning.