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Gardening : Apricots Challenge to Southland Gardeners

March 20, 1994|BILL SIDNAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is hard to beat the sweet, sun-ripened goodness of a freshly picked apricot. In addition, its profusion of white blossoms and its deep green foliage makes the tree an attractive addition to most landscapes.

While the apricot tree sounds like an ideal candidate for a home orchard, some Southland gardeners have found it difficult to get good fruit production from it.

We asked two Southern California fruit tree experts for their thoughts on growing apricots successfully here. Bill Nelson, of Pacific Tree Farms in Chula Vista, is known throughout the west for his expertise with fruit trees and Gary Matsuoka, of Laguna Hills Nursery in Lake Forest, specializes in mild-climate fruit trees.

The biggest complaint from home orchardists is that apricot trees have sporadic production habits--crops some years and almost no crop in other years.

Both Nelson and Matsuoka agree that this is mostly because of our mild Southern California climate. For good fruit production, most apricot trees have a winter chilling requirement (temperatures below 45 degrees) of 500 or more chilling hours during the winter for the trees to produce well. Unlike the prime apricot growing areas of the Central Valley, many of the climatic zones of the Southland normally don't get cold enough for decent fruit production form many apricot varieties.

According to Nelson most of the Los Angeles Basin and a good portion of the rest of Southern California receives only 200 to 300 chilling hours during the winter. Matsuoka has broken it down even further. He says that in a normal year in the most populated zones of the Southland, hilly areas tend to be warmer and flatland areas are colder. He says hilltop and hillside areas typically receive 200-250 chilling hours, valley floors and other flat areas get about 300-400 hours and areas along river beds usually get 500 or more chilling hours because cold air tends to flow along river beds. Also, higher elevation zones, such as Beaumont, get a good number of chilling hours.

Matsuoka and Nelson both suggest the use of low-chill apricot varieties for the milder Southern California zones. These trees, they say, will usually set a good crop in all but the very warmest winter years.

Which apricot tree varieties to select? They both named a variety called Gold Kist as their top choice. Year after year it is a reliable producer of high quality fruit.

Nelson calls it "an excellent back yard apricot tree for mild winter zones." Gold Kist is a heavy producer of good-sized, very flavorful fruit. It produces an early harvest; often three to four weeks before most other varieties.

Other varieties favored by Nelson include Royal, Autumn Royal and Flora Gold. Nelson says that Royal (also called Blenheim) is supposed to require more chilling weather that it actually does. He says that in most years Royal is a good producer. Royal is the leading commercial variety and it is a longtime favorite, with sweet, mild fruit. I have personally had good success with Royal. However, Matsuoka says that he has found Royal to be an inconsistent producer in the warmer zones. Autumn Royal is similar to Royal but it bears later in the season. Nelson has found Flora Gold to be a very reliable producer of good quality fruit.

Matsuoka says that Early Golden, a new variety, shows promise in the milder zones. Matsuoka has also grown the various genetic dwarf apricot trees with very poor results.

All the varieties mentioned here are self-fruitful; they don't need another tree planted nearby for cross-pollination.

As to care, Nelson says that during the growing season, apricot trees need ample water. He says that this is often not understood by the home grower. He suggests a weekly watering schedule, especially during warm weather. "They need as much water as citrus trees," he says.

During the winter when the trees are dormant, normal rainfall will suffice. However, in winter drought years the trees will often require supplemental watering. Matsuoka connects his trees to a drip irrigation system, which has produced good results. Both Nelson and Matsuoka stress that the soil the tree is grown in must drain well to prevent soggy soils, which promote root problems.

Nelson recommends feeding the trees once a year with slow-release fertilizer tablets. He feeds his trees in late February each year with a product called Best-Tabs, which he says last for a year and provides the trees with the basic nutrients and also the important trace elements.

To enhance fruit production, apricot trees should be pruned during their winter dormant period. Without diagrams, it is difficult to explain the pruning procedure (apricot trees require different pruning from other stone fruit); a good pruning book will make the procedure simple. Matsuoka cautions that apricot trees should be pruned moderately or lightly. He says excessive or improper pruning can lead to heart rot.

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