In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
March, 2006
Regional Report

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Orange trees in spring bring us blossoms, fruit, and glorious fragrance!

Growing Fruit Trees

The weather from now through June is ideal for planting citrus, avocado, kiwi, kumquat, and pomegranate, and other tender trees. In frost-free areas, also try cherimoya, guava, mango, and passion fruit. For containers, be sure to choose dwarf types. For the best choice in citrus, look for trees with many strong branches, a smooth graft union, and deep green leaves.

Choosing a Planting Site
For the planting site, choose a southwest exposure that's protected from the wind, for the best protection from cold weather and frost. Plant trees on a slight mound or in a raised bed so water drains away from the roots. Rub suckers off trunks as they appear. Tape together or remove broken branches. Paint trunks and large limbs with a matte finish, off-white interior latex paint mixed half and half with water to prevent sunscald. In addition, keep walkways, decks, and other heavy traffic and construction at least 5 feet away from the trunk, so feeder roots won't be harmed.

Tree roots can extend almost four times the distance from the trunk to the dripline. The longest ones -- the feeder roots -- are in the top 12 inches below the soil surface. When planting the tree, dig the planting hole twice the size of the rootball, and turn over soil a foot deep for that distance again further out. Rough up the outside edges of the hole so roots can work their way out into the native soil and become well established. Fill the newly planted hole three times with water to make sure roots at the bottom are moist. Then, place organic mulch 2 or 3 inches deep around the whole planting area, but keep it 6 inches away from the trunk.

Fertilizing
Feed all trees to encourage strong growth and good fruit production. Top-dress them with compost and fertilizers high in nitrogen (fish emulsion, chicken manure, cottonseed meal, blood meal), and phosphorus (bone meal and rock phosphate). But don't overdo it and try to rush growth of nectarines, peaches, or plums by providing too much nitrogen. This contributes to generally poor fruit quality, poor color development, delayed maturity, softness, and reduced storageability.

Too much vegetative growth from excessive nitrogen can also result in poor fruit set for the following year. If the trees have good growth with dark green leaves in the spring, they have sufficient nitrogen. Keep compost, manure, and fertilizer away from tree trunks.

Pruning
Prune frost-damaged wood once the plant or tree has completely leafed out and you can easily see just what wood is dead. If you're in doubt, wait another month to avoid pruning wood that was just late in leafing out. By midsummer, any remaining dead wood will be obvious.

Start thinning excess fruit set on trees and vines so the remaining fruit will be better developed, and grape clusters won't be too heavy for the vine. This is especially important for those trees bearing fruit for the first or second time. Allow a spacing of 5 inches between peaches on opposite sides of the branch, and 3 inches between plums and apricots. Thin peaches before the fruit reaches almond-size.

Be ruthless in your thinning: The fruits are small now but will take lots of energy to mature, and you don't want to stress the tree or vine to produce fruit you won't eat because there's too much ripening at one time.

Preventing Sunscald
Paint tree trunks with light-colored indoor latex paint to prevent sunburn damage. Use an inexpensive brand, or thin down an expensive one to a solution of half water and half paint. This is the one time when "cheap" is best.

Staking
Newly planted trees may need support for a year while they develop strong root systems and trunks. First, remove the stake that came from the nursery. Into the ground on either side of the trunk and a foot out from it, drive two sturdy 1- or 2-inch-wide stakes about 16 inches deep. About two-thirds the way up the trunk, tie loops from each stake around the trunk; use soft material like stockings or rags or old garden hose pieces. Tie the loops loosely so the trunk can sway gently in the wind; this strengthens the trunk and stimulates strong root growth. Remove the stakes after a year.


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