Imagine walking out into your yard and picking fresh fruit from your own tree. There is something exciting and rewarding about growing your own fruit, and I have received many calls this past week from people who are up for the challenge. And if you are also one of those people who are considering planting and growing fruit trees, now is the time to start. Fruit trees are widely adapted in Texas. However, success in growing fruit trees and in producing quality fruit doesn’t just happen. Careful attention must be given to basic management practices including site selection, variety selection, weed control, water and pest management.
Good soil moisture drainage is essential for growing healthy, productive trees. Soils with standing water or ones that remain saturated for even a day or two following a heavy rain are unsuitable for fruit trees. If this describes your soil, you can still grow fruit by planting trees in well-drained, raised beds. Prepare beds by bringing in or scraping up topsoil into a 6- to 12-inch-high mound at least 8 to 10 feet across. A raised bed can be framed with railroad ties or edging timbers for a more attractive appearance. Plentiful sunlight is a key to maximizing fruit production. Choose an area that is sunny most or all of the day. Early morning sunshine is particularly important to dry dew from the plants; thereby, reducing the incidence of diseases. If the planting site does not get sufficient sun, expect reduced performance from the trees.
Purchase trees from a reliable nursery source. Bargain plants may not be healthy or may not be a variety adapted to your area. Ideally, purchase 3- to 4-foot trees with good root systems free of apparent disease problems. A smaller tree with a good root system is more desirable than a larger tree with a poor root system. Specify that you want trees that are budded onto Nemaguard rootstock to prevent rootknot nematode damage. Most fruit trees are sold “bare root.” Purchase and plant bare root trees while fully dormant, generally in January and February for our area of Texas.
Plant in the winter, preferably before March 1, to allow for root development before spring growth. Before planting, soak the roots for no more than 1 hour to ensure they are not under any moisture stress. Dig the planting hole just large enough for the tree’s root system to be spread in a natural position. Avoid digging a hole deeper than the root system as loose soil beneath the roots usually causes trees to sink too deeply. Larger holes filled with topsoil are of no benefit unless the soil at the planting site is extremely poor (rocky, calcareous, etc.). In this case, use raised beds. Stone fruit trees will develop at least a 15-foot diameter limbspread at maturity. Plant them at least 20 feet apart to avoid excessive competition. Set plants at approximately the same depth that they grew in the nursery. Using the soil taken out of the hole, firm it around the roots and do not add fertilizer to the hole. Water the trees thoroughly soon after they are set; be sure that air pockets in the hole are filled and that the soil is at the proper level on the base of the tree after watering.
Water is essential for producing large fruit and maintaining healthy trees. Whether trees are watered by drip irrigation, sprinklers, the garden hose or rainfall makes little difference as long as the trees receive sufficient water. Normally trees need water at least every 3 weeks. In summer heat, provide a deep soaking irrigation at least weekly to maintain healthy trees.
Eliminating weed competition around young trees is critical for survival and rapid growth. Heavy weed or grass competition results in severe nitrogen deficiency (yellow foliage with red spots) and valuable moisture will be taken away from the tree and trees will produce little or no growth and often may die. Ideally, keep the soil surface weed-free in an area at least as wide as the limb spread of the tree. The safest way to do this is with a hoe. Chemicals that will do a good job are available, but they are hazardous if used carelessly. Do not attempt chemical weed control unless all aspects of safety and sprayer calibration are well understood. Applying a layer of mulch around the tree also helps control weeds and conserves soil moisture. Make sure not to layer it to deep around the trunk.
If you would like more information on varieties of fruit trees suitable for our area contact the Texas AgriLife Extension Office in Somervell County at 254-897-2809 or 1405 Texas Drive.