In Northern California, winter is an excellent time to plant trees. The rain moistens the soil, making digging easier, and then waters the tree after planting.
All deciduous fruit and nut trees — including apples, plums, peaches, cherries, nectarines, pears, apricots, quinces and walnuts — are available in bare-root form in January. “Bare root” means the soil is washed off the roots, which makes the tree lighter and easier to plant.
Commercial growers dig the trees when they are dormant, usually in late December, and ship them to retail nurseries right after Christmas. That’s when you will find the best bare-root selection and quality.
Choose trees with good root development. Look for an abundance of small feeder roots with no kinked, twisted or girdling roots. When bare-root trees are uprooted for sale, the grower aims to preserve a full, dense, spreading root system.
Keep the roots moist on the trip home and until you plant by wrapping them in wet newspaper or packing in wet sawdust. If the roots look a little dry, immerse them in a bucket of water while you dig your planting hole.
Select a location where the tree will have room to grow. Choose a spot with good soil, available water and plenty of sunlight. Fruit trees do not thrive in shade or in crowded areas close to other trees or buildings. Good soil drainage is essential. Fruit trees dislike wet feet.
If you have doubts about your drainage, check it by digging a hole one to two feet deep. Fill the hole with water and observe how long it takes to drain. If it does not drain completely overnight, you have inadequate drainage and should not plant a tree in that spot.
When you have selected the right location, dig a hole large enough to contain all the roots of your tree without crowding or bending. A walnut or pecan tree will probably have a tap root. Be sure to dig a hole deep enough to contain it.
Remove any damaged or broken roots before planting and prune back wide-spreading roots if desired. Always make clean cuts with sharp shears.
To ensure that the roots spread out naturally, ask a helper to hold the tree at the proper height while you shovel soil around and between the roots. Make sure that the tree’s bud union is at least three inches above soil level to allow for soil settling. This mounding will also provide good drainage around the crown to help prevent root and crown rot.
Backfill with the soil you removed when digging the hole, discarding any stones, roots or debris. Press the backfill soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets.
Some experts recommend amending the backfill with organic material such as compost or manure. However, some evidence suggests that amended soil may hamper future root development. By amending the soil, you may create an artificial environment that discourages roots from exploring beyond the amended soil zone.
Before the hole is completely full but after all the roots are covered, water the root area well to further settle the soil around the roots.
Prune the tree to thin out and shorten the branches. For a tree with an open center, cut back the central leader (the main upward-growing branch) to a strong lateral (horizontal branch). Select three or four main scaffold branches and remove the other side branches. Alternatively, leave the central leader and shorten or remove the side branches.
To prevent sunburn, paint the trunk with white latex house paint. Finally, top the soil with three to four inches of mulch, keeping it six inches away from the trunk.
In the spring, begin watering your tree and prepare to enjoy the fruits of your labor.This article was written in 1999 by John Hoffman, a Napa Valley arborist and author. His book, “The Trees of Napa Valley,” can be purchased at the Napa County Master Gardener office or via mail-order from the Master Gardener website (addresses below). John passed away in 2011.
Napa County Master Gardeners will conduct a workshop on “Gardening 101: The Basics,” on March 17, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. The class will repeat on March 24, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, at the American Canyon Recreation Center, 2185 Elliott Drive. Learn basic concepts and considerations for planning your garden, including plant selection, planting, watering, fertilizing and composting. Pre-registration required. Class fee is $5.
Napa County Master Gardeners (http://cenapa.ucdavis.
edu) 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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