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Newly Grafted Trees

Young grafts should be treated closer to vegetable starts than to trees. A nursery bed for that first year, at least, is required. Although the tree will require different environmental and nutritional needs than an annual, they do need the same sort of babysitting. Consider water and warmth as the “fertilizers” of first importance. This latter point is all to often left out of the equation. This also means keeping the humidity up, especially if the union is not healed so well. (Drying out the scion may not simply kill it, it may be just crummy growth). Also, make sure it is the growing conditions and not the grafting procedure that is causing slow growth. This especially means aftercare for proper heal. When they are growing, give them the attention you would give to your little tomatoes, including mulching and weeding.

There will be a disconnect in how the baby is treated in this first year or two, and how it will receive nutrition as an adult. Later in life in a healthy system, it will do well with gradual release through organic matter, in conjunction with good mycorrhizal fungal connections. Now, in a bed that has been prepared with forethought (fungal connections partially in place) and living soil, good growth is possible. Even in this situation, some supplementation is helpful. A foliar application is great, but a sustainably derived fertilizer in that bed is a good idea as well. They benefit from a bit of nitrogen which, being easily available in a mineralized form is an easy one, as is K. But, P and other micronutrients really should have been developed in that living soil. It is when the quick fix is needed that growers turn to industrial farming methods like triple superphosphate, miracle grow and 20 20 20 .

Having done this quite a bit commercially, I find that that first year never really is all that spectacular for growth, whether that is seedling plants or grafted fruit trees. I think they are pissed from being moved around and violated, and they need to be at peace again. That second year is always awesome, for most. But, if the soil is a mess and it is too late to fix it, foliar sprays, watering on time, and keeping things in the low 70’s will give the best growth rates.

If the little guys are stunted in that first year or two, it will take a few more to get things back on track, in my experience. That said, a small tree is not always a poor tree. (Charlie Brown knew this) As long as it is healthy, slower can also mean denser and more resilient wood. I would put our smaller gritty trees up against the overly succulent fertilizer pushed trees any day of the week.

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Ask the Farmer : Tree Irrigation ?

Do you see many orchards around here choosing to irrigate?

Irrigation of course, can mean a lot of things. What is being asked here I think is whether or not a constructed system is put in place to deliver the water.

Irrigation, as in drip-line, is used for high density dwarf systems. In these arrangements, whether they cultivate or not, it is usually recommended due to the meager root system. Trees using size reduction rootstocks (dwarf), require a good deal more pampering with respect to water. Traditionally this was delivered through open canals, overhead sprinklers, etc. Modern techniques include soil drenching through plastic emitters in miles of plastic tubing. It is an absolute must in many of the dryer regions of the northwest and California, but is popular throughout the country.

In the wet northeast, with standard  trees it is unnecessary. Trees obtaining their natural large stature will have roots mining for water over a very large area. Roots can extend meters down and in circumference at least twice the distance of the canopy. This means resilience during dry spells, and buffering against extreme cold.

Irrigation can confine roots to the pampered area in many cases. If the rooting mass is confined to shallow, smaller areas due to trickle irrigating, later stresses like cold or drought can lead to mortality. The mechanism here (and backed up with numerous studies) is the tendency for roots to amass in areas of ideal culture. That is, where it has good nutrition and soil moisture content. While this is good for the tree in general, it does limit the yardage the roots will occupy. This is pronounced if the outlying area is dry. Roots do not really grow toward ideal soil, they just don’t proliferate where it is poor. An example of the possible danger is when irrigation is confined to a shallow depth by continuous light applications. Roots will be largely clustered in this same shallow zone. In colder areas, this can lead to root damage or death . It can also have such consequences in warmer, dryer areas if there is a pause in irrigating (ie- broken lines or power outages).

Some alternatives include:

  • Increase the organic matter in your soil. Fully composted materials are advised if you are incorporating it directly.
  • Surface application of organic materials. This is the place to put the coarser materials, and higher carbon detritus. If it is a continuous application, we call it mulch. Bark, hay, straw, leaves and wood chips all fit in this category.
  • A 5 gallon pail of water really isn’t all that heavy. At 8 pounds a gallon, that’s 40. One in each hand (filled 4/5 so it doesn’t spill on you) is 64 pounds. That’s all you need to deal with during the occasional drought for your young tree.
  • Grow standard trees. These are those with a natural seedling rootstock that will let a tree grow to its full size. They can be pruned to be less tall and still have a large canopy and extensive root system. Think of this route as raising self sufficient children.

We suggest watering during that planting year, especially during dry spells, for better growth. Sandy soils of course will need more attention than heavier ones. Mulching is a great way to conserve that moisture ( keeping  it away from the trunk) and do it initially after the soil is wet.

Here is something to consider : The US Geological Survey posts on their site that a mature oak can transpire 40,000 gallons of water in a year. That’s one tree. Now, an apple tree is a whole lot smaller than an oak, so in the interest of fair play, let’s reduce that figure 40 times. That leaves us with 1000 gallons for a mature apple. However, if the tree is transpiring that much as water, it must also be absorbing  more to use in metabolic processes. Then there is the issue of delivery versus root uptake. That is, the soil must contain more than this amount of water to begin with. Irrigation through precipitation or human intervention must exceed the volume absorbed by the tree. To make an impact, it would seem a very large volume would have to be delivered indeed.

In conclusion, a plant with a small root system will require a good deal more attention as regards water. This lines up nicely, since a small root system stands the chance of benefitting from the amount of water we are likely to be able to deliver. This is why farms tend to irrigate their high end vegetable plots but not irrigate hay fields and cider orchards.

Water is the single greatest and most overlooked of fertilizers for plants. Time and money are the single greatest commodities of the human being. With proper decisions, nature can do a good deal of the work for us.

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How to Plant Your Tree

Planting that Tree

Planting a tree seems a pretty straightforward enterprise. Well it is, but here are a few tips that can help you do it perfectly:

1. Location, location, location. Very few trees will do well in wet muck, atop ledge (close to surface stone), or in a cold hollow. The ideal position is on a slight hillside so cool air can run past your planting- it must have an outflow. Hillside also means water drainage. Spring flooding is usually ok, but should drain by the time growth begins in earnest or root death will ensue. Drain tile or trenching can help with water issues, and clearing air outflow by taking down trees and such can remedy that issue. Extremely dense hardpan soils and shallow ledge, however, cannot be corrected without excavation or blasting. The good news is there is usually a good spot to be had in close proximity, the subterranean world is often just as varied as the world on top. Aspect (think compass direction) isn’t as important, unless you are trying to influence blossom timing (ie- delaying early bloomers) or heating (ie- ripening grapes). Despite all these words,  we all have to deal with the land we have and do the best with what we’ve got.

2. Soils. Look up any species and its soil preferences and you’ll find it would like a nice bed of something like “sandy loam”, or “rich loam” or somesuch. So, if you are one of the 1% of folks on this planet with this underfoot, you are in perfect shape. For the rest of us, we will have to make due. Any, and I mean any, soil can be made to grow food. Whether the amending process makes practical sense is entirely up to you to decide.( Look deeper at soil improvement coaching in the Research section of the website. Most important is to find spots in your landscape that will require the least labor and cost, bearing in mind a diversity of soil types may simply mean finding the right species for each area.

3. Dig that hole. A good shovel is all you really need, but a mattock/grubbing hoe will make short work of heavy sods and stubborn tree roots. Loosen the soil, then shovel it. It will prove easier and will also break the debris up so you can use it for backfill. Make the hole big enough to accommodate roots without bending them, but don’t overdo it. An overly expansive hole means a soft and fluffy perimeter, which can lead to poor anchorage. You want the tree to anchor its roots in firm soil in the near future.

4. Ammendments. Here too you want not to overdo things. Compost (which does not mean uncomposted manures) is always a good start, especially on soils low in organic matter. Phosphorus in the planting hole is also important as it is important for root development, does not move as easily through the soil in topdressings, and normally takes time to be made available to plants. General fertilizers are ok in the hole but often not advantageous. Anything containing nitrogen should be used only in plantings made before mid-summer or winter injury from succulent growth is likely. Furthermore, most nitrogen sources will produce injury to roots with direct contact.

5. Check over the tree. After removing the tree from the bag, pot or wrapping, check for roots that are injured or are that were circling and distorted. Spring or earlier summer planted trees will deal with root pruning and general root manipulation (ie- tugging, unwrapping and root ball loosening) better than late season planting. In this case prune away dead or decaying roots, and allow for distorted roots to be directed once in the hole. Fall planted trees, however will be less stressed if left alone. These should have their root ball left intact and unpruned or manipulated if the root system appears healthy.

6. Set the tree. A few spades of soft backfill and some of the ammendments should go in the hole first, followed by the tree in question. Nestle the tree in and continue filling the hole with the loosened backfill, etc. , while making sure the roots have good soil contact by periodically tamping. When the hole is filled, give it a good long drink. A 3-5 foot tree would like a 5 gallon pail. After the water settles, stamp the soil down well. If you are in a dry area, or have very sandy soil, a slight depression will help collect more water on rainy days. Firming the soil makes sure that there is good soil to root contact, and prevents large air pockets from drying roots out.

7. Stake it. Trees on standard rootstocks usually only need the support for the first year or two. Metal stakes go in easiest, but can be 3 times the price of a good ol’ cedar, oak or locust post. Large diameter wood posts are also far more sturdy. Two posts and support wires are often used. (Run the rope or wire through a piece of garden hose where it touches the tree, or use fabric to prevent rubbing damage). We normally use a single post, but you should pound the post into the hole (for close proximity to the trunk). If you attempt the single post after planting you are likely to smash it into your nicely planted tree roots. With either method, the tree should be tied loosely enough to allow it to sway and develop some trunk strength.

8. Place your trunk guard. A tree without a guard on the trunk will become a rodent’s next meal. Conceivable anything a mouse or vole can’t chew through will fit the bill. Hardware cloth is high on the list for toughness and longevity, and although pricier than screen it is cheaper in the long run. Metal window screen is fine, but some rust quickly and its can be absorbed into the growing trunk if it is wrapped tightly. Mesh plastic guards work ok, but plastics photodegrade eventually, and are less likely to be available at the local store. We do not advise the use of the common white spiral guards for several reasons. Firstly, they will quickly shatter under the influence of weather or string trimmer. Secondly, they take special skill to get the guard tight enough to keep critters out- which incidentally is their purpose. Finally, there have been a fair amount of reports of (and our experience with) trunk glazing, winter damage, and burr knots. Ideally a guard would be placed as a closed cylinder around the trunk without touching. It’ll go from soil level (or a bit deeper) and upward as high as it will go. A foot or so is often enough to deter voles and mice, but the higher the better, especially in colder areas since these little guys sometimes run atop the snow and nibble from the new heights. That said, most rodents will crawl lower, at the soil/snow interface and chew below.

9. Further protection. Those of you who live in areas with deer or moose pressure will need to protect new trees from heavy browsing and racking damage. If you have the ability to do so, a stong 8 or 9 foot fence is the best. It should be strong enough to take an animal that size trying to crash into it either accidentally or on purpose. Woven or welded metal fences are nice, 12 gauge or better. The plastic deer fences I have observed are nearly worthless. There may be some better ones out there but I have seen many torn to pieces the first season. The actual fence can be as low as 4 feet, provided you apply a continuous line of wire above it every foot or less so the animal cannot jump over. This too needs to be of sufficient gauge to withstand a leaping creature, 12 gauge being about the minimum, and wound (cables) are often better. For those on a budget that have only the occasion tree, a little corral of 4 posts and a 5’ tall fence will probably do just fine. Our original small planting used just that, and we never had any trouble. The corral should be too small a space for them to jump in, and too wide for them to reach the branches with their naughty little teeth. Do the best you can. Browsing will not kill it, but it is not what your young tree wants either. Smaller unit fencing like this also keeps out the bunnies which can also damage trees. We have heavy pressure of snowshoe hare here for instance, and cute as they are can do a real number on lower branches.

10. Keep it clear. A circular area about a foot in diameter should remain clear of clutter. This means organic mulches, weeds, and especially sod (aka perennial grasses). This means a clean cultivated area, or better yet a 2-3 inch layer of stone (¼ to 1 inch diameter). The cleared area allows the trunk to remain dryer and healthier. It also prevents any unnecessary competition in a tree’s young years. Organic mulches, like hay or wood chips will allow rodents a nest right up and cozy to the trunk, which we do not want. Also, these types of mulches are in the act of decaying, and that can be detrimental when in such close proximity to the bark. The benefits of the stone mulch are that it suppresses competing growth in the area while keeping the soil moist. It can also help to anchor the bottom portion of our tree guard. Stone mulch in cold areas will become a concrete like mass come winter and impenetrable to digging critters like voles. A clear area about the trunk will also make for a clean path of sight when looking for damage and insect or disease issues. Apple tree borer activity, for instance, is easily spotted.

11. Maintain a mulch around your new tree. What this constitutes is a ring of material beginning from the outer edge of your stone mulch/soil circle and extending at least to the dripline (to where the branches extend). The contents of your mulch will depend on what you have access to. Deciduous trees like fruit bearers will appreciate hardwood tree debris like bark and chips, the older the better. (See other Research entries on the website) Hay, straw, compost, and anything else that will rot are good choices. Several inches thick is a nice start, but don’t be too stingy, all this will become beautiful compost as we lay more mulch down year upon year. Mulching will moderate soil temperature swings, preserve soil moisture and feed our tree in a healthy, gradual fashion. It will also help to suppress excess sod and weed growth which could compete with the tree for water and nutrients. A mulch can look can look as tidy as a golf course or as messy as my son’s room, but it will all lead to the same purpose. We like to lay a fresh coat of hay beneath the trees just before harvest, which allows the fruits to fall into this “pillow” and keep them from bruising. Also makes the perfect recline to munch a crispy apple on.

12. Visiting. Like grandma, your tree will be happy if you visit frequently, and be a bit scornful if neglected. Mulching, for instance will insure against the average drought, but be wise enough to water it if times between rains starts to stretch. A 5 gallon pail once a week isn’t too much trouble and can make a big difference to a young tree. A regular program of observation, nutrition and care will be ongoing, but it really isn’t too terribly difficult. What is important is that you notice if your tree needs a hand. There is an old saying that the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footprints… and it is about the best advice this farmer can give you.