Yes, fruit gardening really is much like being a Boy Scout. One of the big keys to long-term fruit garden success is being prepared. Right now — in late summer — is the perfect time to take on that preparation. “What’s that,” you say, “now?” Yes indeed!
A bountiful fruit garden takes some planning and a bit of time to come to fruition. Now, rather than early spring, is the ideal time to kick-start your plan. Here are several steps that are best done sufficiently ahead of planting time:
- Making sure your future garden site is free of weeds
- Testing the soil
- Adjusting soil pH and organic matter if necessary
Once you have selected a site with adequate soil and sunlight, ridding it of sod or weeds is one of the most important things you can do. Weeds compete strongly for water and soil nutrients and you want to give your fruiting vines, berry plants, and bushes every advantage to get off to a strong start. A weed-free site is key! You can achieve this in several ways:
This involves covering the planting area with a light-impervious barrier, usually a dark tarp, multiple layers of newspaper, or cardboard. Old discarded carpet can also do the trick. Eventually, starved for light, the weeds succumb. This will take several weeks, hence getting the head-start during the summer is best. The heat of summer also helps kill the covered weeds much better than cool spring temperatures. If you wait until spring, your planting time will likely be delayed; not the best situation for dormant planting and developing a strong root system on your new tree or bush.
Once the weeds have died, the area should be spaded or cultivated in some way to remove the old vegetation and roots. Getting rid of the roots is also key. They may not be completely dead and can eventually lead to a new crop of weeds or grass.
Cultivating or tilling will give you weed eradication results faster than soil solarization, but can have a few negative effects on your soil biology. Repeated rototilling can breakdown soil structure, especially if the soil is very wet, as it often is in early spring. It can disturb earthworms and bring weed seeds to the surface where they will be exposed to sunlight and germinate. Follow-up hoeing or hand pulling of the new weeds may then be needed. Spading the soil is usually less destructive to the soil, but often harder physical work.
This method, which is often frowned upon by organic gardeners, will also yield relatively quick results with minimal physical labor. You will have to decide if you want to go this route or not. It is most commonly used if you are trying to get rid of thick sod. The usual approach is to use Roundup®, a contact chemical that is translocated within the plants it is sprayed on, clogging the water and nutrient transport vessels. Within about 2 weeks the plants and roots die and can be removed as you would with soil solarization.
It is very important to select an herbicide that does not remain in the soil as it may also kill or stunt the fruit plant or tree you later plant. It is also critical to choose only wind-free times to spray any herbicide, usually early morning or just before sunset. This will help avoid drift to other plants or areas you did not intend to treat. Roundup® will kill almost any plant that it comes in contact with, so be very aware of this.
Take step one of fruit garden preparation now. Go be a weed slayer! We’ll talk about soil testing, organic matter building, and fertility modification in upcoming posts.