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The holidays are behind us and we are waking up to frosty mornings in Napa Valley. The ground is barren and spring seems a long way off. While gardening is probably the last thing on your mind, now is actually the best time to plant a bare-root fruit tree. 

Buying a bare-root tree is also the most affordable way to add a fruit tree to your garden. Local nurseries have a large selection.

Before purchasing a bare-root tree, evaluate your site. All fruit trees need good soil, adequate drainage and at least six to eight hours of sun a day. 

Make sure your chosen site has soil that is not too compacted or rocky. Otherwise, you won’t be able to dig a suitable hole. Ideal soil pH for most fruit trees is around 6.5.

Test for drainage by digging a posthole 30 inches deep and filling it with water. If the hole empties in less than 24 hours, you have good drainage. If it empties in 48 hours, conditions are marginal. If you find standing water after 48 hours, the site is unsuitable for a fruit tree. 

Even if you have good soil and drainage, you will not have success with fruit trees if the site is shady. Also consider the proximity of structures, trees, fences, pavement and utility lines. A standard bare-root fruit tree can reach 35 feet in height.

If your site is appropriate, head to the nursery and look for a tree that bears fruit you enjoy. (Nothing is sadder than a fruit tree whose fruit is left to drop and rot.) Local nurseries offer a good selection of stone fruit trees and pome fruit trees. Stone fruits are those with a single pit in the center, such as peaches, plums, pluots, apricots, cherries, nectarines and almonds. Pome fruits include apples, pears, pomegranate and quince.   Apples, figs, pears, persimmons, plums, pluots, pomegranates and quince are particularly well suited to Napa Valley’s clay soils and wet springs.

The tree’s label should indicate whether it is dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard size. Dwarf trees generally grow no more than 12 feet tall; semi-dwarf trees top out at about 20 feet and standard trees at 35 feet. Tree height does not affect fruit size. If space is a consideration, choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety. In all cases, proper pruning can help you keep the fruit within reach. 

Some fruit trees are not self-fertile and need another tree of the same type for pollination and fruit set. Consult the label or ask the nursery staff. Even self-fertile varieties will set a better crop with another tree of the same type nearby. 

The label should also tell you how many  “chill hours” your tree requires to set fruit. Chill hours are the total accumulated winter hours at or under 45 degrees Farenheit in your area. These hours need not be continuous. Napa usually has between 700 and 1,000 chill hours. 

Finally, the label should also tell you when you can expect to harvest fruit. Consider planting early, mid-season and late varieties of a favorite fruit to lengthen the harvest season.

Look for a bare-root tree with a trunk diameter from 1/2 inch to 5/8 inch. This tree will have a better survival rate and be quicker to establish than a smaller or larger bare-root tree. Inspect the roots. They should look strong, healthy, unbroken and untwisted.

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Plant your tree soon after purchase. If you must wait, keep the roots moist and shaded. Dig the planting hole slightly deeper than the depth of the roots and two to three times as wide. You do not need to add any fertilizers or amendments to the planting hole.  Plant the tree several inches above ground level to avoid crown rot disease.

Water thoroughly after planting. Protect from sunburn by whitewashing the trunk with a mixture of equal parts flat white latex  paint and water. Keep irrigation water away from the trunk by positioning drip emitters in a circular pattern a foot away from the trunk. Apply a thick layer of mulch around your new tree, irrigate regularly, and avoid fertilizing until your fruit tree is well established. 

Free Pruning Workshops: Napa County Master Gardeners will offer a free workshop on pruning fruit trees from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at Napa Valley College’s Upper Valley campus; and from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 23, at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Napa (address below), rain or shine. Both workshops will include field pruning demonstrations so dress accordingly.

On Jan. 30, from 10 a.m. to noon, the Master Gardeners will conduct a free workshop on rose pruning at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Napa. 

To register for these workshops, call the Napa County Master Gardeners at 253-4221 or visit their Web site at http://cenapa.ucdavis.edu

Napa County Master Gardeners answer gardening questions Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Ave., Suite 4, Napa, 253-4221, or (877) 279-3065.

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