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.

Fruit Gardening is Much Like Being a Boy Scout

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:

Soil Solar­iza­tion

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.

Her­bi­cide use

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.