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GARDENING : With Care, Trees Come to Fruition

June 22, 1991|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're one of those home gardeners who expected fruit to be rolling off the limbs of a newly planted fruit tree only to find yourself months later still picking oranges and peaches from the supermarket rather than your back yard, don't assume it's a reflection of your gardening skills.

Picking the right tree for your yard is half the battle, says Tom Snyder of Amling's Newport Nursery in Newport Beach.

"You've really got to judge where the tree is going to be planted and select a spot that's going to have the best survival rate," he says.

"If that area's not getting at least six hours of sun every day, chances are the tree is going to fail. If you live near the coast, it doesn't get hot enough for you to grow pink grapefruit," says Snyder.

Look at the fruit trees in your neighborhood that are productive and consider planting one of those varieties.

"The farther inland you are, the more luck you'll have with deciduous trees, such as peach, plum, nectarine," says Kirk Ballard of Anaheim Wholesale Nursery & Landscape Supply in Anaheim.

Height and width become a problem when it comes time to prune limbs that cross property lines or get in the way of other plants.

"Standard citrus trees can get up to 20 feet high, and peach trees can reach 10 feet," says Snyder. "The danger is that you're not going to be free to prune the tree evenly as it matures, then during a big wind or storm, it can be knocked down."

In a yard with limited space, or if you'd like to plant several trees, consider planting a dwarf fruit tree, which grows to half the height and width of a standard tree, says Ballard. "The only difference is that the dwarf provides less fruit."

The biggest tree at the store isn't always the best. Look for the healthiest.

Trees aren't designed to be pulled out of the ground, sold and replanted. When they arrive at a nursery or store, they're in a state of shock. "Look the tree over carefully to make sure there's no leaf or trunk damage," says Tim Kitano of Kitano's Garden Center in La Palma. "Pull the cover off of the root ball and see if there are any new, white roots, which means it's still growing."

Snyder says the roots should be moist and pliable. "Citrus trees have a taproot that extends straight down from the plant. Make sure it hasn't been damaged when the tree was potted."

Nearly all fruit trees sold have been grafted, which means they have been attached to the root ball of another, stronger tree that is hardier and more resistant to disease. Check the graft, which is where the trunk meets the roots and make sure the trunk has a sturdy connection to the root ball.

About half of the fruit trees planted fail because of transplanting mistakes, according to nursery experts.

If the tree comes as a bare root, meaning it's not in a pot, remove the burlap or plastic covering and soak the root ball in a bucket of water overnight. "This gives the tree a chance to revive itself," says Snyder.

Carefully place it in the hole and fill with dirt. Don't cover up more or less of the trunk than was covered in the pot or bag, and check to see that the graft line is above the soil line.

A shallow hole often means an early grave for a fruit tree. "People just don't dig deep enough," says Kitano. "They dig a hole that's about the size of the root ball or the container and just drop it in, then the roots grow out to the hard soil and stop, as though they've been put in a pot. You need to dig a hole that's twice as wide and twice as deep as the container."

Without the right amount of watering, the tree is going to suffer. Citrus and avocado trees need a great deal of watering, especially in the early years. To water them efficiently, create a berm or saucer of dirt around the tree and fill it with water. As the tree gets older, you can use a root irrigator that waters the roots directly.

The quality of soil varies in the county, which affects drainage. "In parts of north and central Orange County, you have a lot of clay in the soil," says Ballard. "This affects citrus and avocado trees, which need good drainage.

"Dig a hole and fill it with water. If there's still water in there after a day, you'll need to dig a bigger hole, then mix the soil with gypsum, which is available from a nursery. This keeps the soil from compacting and holding in the water."

If fruit doesn't appear, don't give up. A peach tree that's been given a good start can begin producing fruit in a year, while orange trees can take up to five years to produce.

Treatment of a tree this year will determine the quality of its fruit next year. "That's why it's important not to forget about the tree even though there may not be fruit on it yet," says Kitano. "Water and feed it regularly."

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