Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Fall Preparation Holds Keys to Successful Spring Fruit Garden

Fall is most often viewed as the sea­son for har­vest­ing the last boun­ti­ful crops from the gar­den. How­ever, many gar­den­ers over­look an even more impor­tant gar­den activ­ity — prepar­ing a new gar­den for next spring. When cre­at­ing a fruit gar­den, home orchard, or other gar­den for that mat­ter, prepa­ra­tion is espe­cially important.

Prepar­ing the gar­den at this time of year offers many advantages:

• Fall is an ideal time to eval­u­ate a site for suit­abil­ity while the grow­ing sea­son is still fresh in your mind — does the gar­den receive the 6 or more hours of sun­light needed for a fruit gar­den, does the soil hold ade­quate mois­ture and drain well after heavy rain, is it ele­vated enough to avoid blossom-damaging spring frosts?
• Remov­ing sod and weed com­pe­ti­tion by rototill­ing or spad­ing now does less dam­age to the soil struc­ture than it does in the early spring when con­di­tions may be too wet. Cre­at­ing a weed-free site gives fruit trees and bushes the best pos­si­ble jump start on healthy, pro­duc­tive growth.
• Some soil amend­ments, notably lime, potas­sium, and phos­pho­rous are slow act­ing. The win­ter months pro­vide the addi­tional time they need to break down in the soil, before becom­ing avail­able to fruit trees and berry bushes in the spring.
• Cover crops will have time to grow but not become unman­age­able. Ide­ally, cover crops should be given at least four to six weeks to grow before win­ter weather sets in. In warm cli­mates they can be grown for six to eight weeks and turned under before grow­ing too tall. Cover crops will enhance organic mat­ter that is vital for soil struc­ture, nutri­ent avail­abil­ity, and appro­pri­ate mois­ture reten­tion. They also help choke out new weeds. Some cover crops will help loosen hard, tight soils and deter root­knot nema­todes. Field peas or other legumes will add addi­tional nitro­gen to the soil. Winter-killed plant residue will also act as a mulch to pre­vent erosion.

Once the site has been selected, fol­low these easy steps for prepar­ing a garden:

• Remove weeds and sod.
• Spade or rototill to loosen the soil.
• Test the soil pH and nutri­ent con­tent.
• Plant a cover crop. Oil seed radishes, annual rye grain, oats, and Aus­trian win­ter peas are all good choices.

Many gar­den­ers won­der about plant­ing fruit trees and bushes in the fall. In mild cli­mates regions (zones 6 through 10), it is com­mon to plant fruit trees and berry bushes in the fall pro­vided a site has been prop­erly pre­pared. It is per­fectly fea­si­ble to plant in fall in colder north­ern regions as well.

Some ben­e­fits of fall plant­ing include:
  • Fruit trees and berry bushes adjust well to fall plant­ing. When the tem­per­a­ture is cooler, plant leaves lose less mois­ture, thus reduc­ing trans­plant shock.
  • Sea­son­ally abun­dant rain usu­ally means less work drag­ging hoses around the garden.
  • Pest and dis­eases are slow to develop and less prob­lem­atic dur­ing cool temperatures.
  • Cooler soils encour­age more rapid root growth. The fruit plant can develop a stronger root sys­tem to sup­port new leaves that come with the flush of spring growth.

The biggest chal­lenge to plant­ing at this time of year is find­ing a source of avail­able trees and bushes. Often what is left at the nurs­ery is picked-over and in poor con­di­tion, root bound, or not an appro­pri­ate vari­ety. One may find the occa­sional bar­gain. How­ever, it is impor­tant to exam­ine the plant care­fully to make sure it is healthy. A stunted fruit tree will never really pro­duce to its full poten­tial. Its growth will lag behind a healthy, prop­erly spring-planted spec­i­men. Tim­ing can be tricky too. Plants should be in the ground at least six weeks before the ground freezes hard. Pro­vid­ing straw or other loose win­ter mulch is a good pre­cau­tion for pro­tect­ing roots should a sud­den hard freeze occur.

When buds swell, plants need to be put in the ground, and it seems every­thing needs to hap­pen at once, proper gar­den prepa­ra­tion will pro­vide a jump start on spring. If you’ve prop­erly pre­pared your gar­den in the fall, you’ll be ready for spring, no mat­ter when it arrives.

Buy bushels of infor­ma­tion for keep­ing your fruit gar­den and orchard healthy here.