Site Selection and Soil Preparation

Fruit plants are most productive if you carefully match them with the proper planting site. Very few sites are naturally ideal. To succeed, you may have to overcome some combination of weeds, diseases, pests, poor drainage, low soil organic matter, and poor soil fertility.

Each of these can severely reduce the size of your harvest and the health of your plants. So it's best to take care of them before planting. Once plants are in the ground, it is very difficult to reduce soil pest populations or correct nutrient deficiencies. The most important year for production is the one before planting when you modify the site to take care of these problems. This is very important, especially if you want to use a low-spray/no-spray approach to pest control.

A previously cultivated site is often preferable to a new site because you usually do not have to work the soil and perennial weeds are often already under control. But you should not plant strawberries or raspberries where crops that are susceptible to verticillium wilt have been grown (these include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers). If you must plant strawberries or raspberries following these crops (or following strawberries or raspberries), choose cultivars resistant to verticillium wilt.

While gooseberries and currants perform adequately in partial shade, other fruits require direct sun for at least six hours a day, preferably more. All fruits require well-drained soil with good water-holding capacity. Although a commercial fruit grower may use tiling or grading and leveling to improve drainage, these methods are not usually affordable for home gardeners. For best results, simply choose a well-drained site or plant on raised beds.

To reduce weed pressure, to increase soil organic matter, and to improve soil structure and drainage, grow a cover crop before planting fruit. Plant rye or wheat in late summer or early fall as an overwintering cover crop before a spring fruit planting. Oats planted at the same time will grow in the fall and then die over the winter, leaving a dead mulch on top of the soil. For additional soil improvement, plant buckwheat as a summer cover crop before establishing the winter cover crop. Growing marigolds, Sudangrass, or certain mustards (oilseed rape) for a year or two before planting fruit can help control certain parasitic nematodes, which are occasionally a problem in certain soils.

Weeds are extremely difficult to control once a planting is established, so eliminating most weeds before you plant is an important first step. Before planting cover crops, kill existing vegetation and eliminate perennial weeds such as dandelions and quackgrass. You can do this by applying a postemergent broad-spectrum herbicide that leaves no residue in the soil, by covering the area with black plastic for a year before planting, or by cultivating the site regularly throughout the year before planting.

Because it's difficult to correct nutrient deficiencies and adjust soil pH after you've planted, it is critical to test your soil before planting to see if you need to add lime and nutrients. Collect subsamples from several locations to provide a representative sample of the site. (Contact your county Cornell Cooperative Extension office for more information, or see www.cce.cornell.edu/ local_offices.cfm.) The soil test will report the pH (relative acidity or alkalinity of the soil), the cation exchange capacity (a measure of the resistance of the soil to changes in pH), and the amounts of various nutrients present.

Fruit trees, grapes, strawberries, brambles (blackberries and raspberries), currants, and gooseberries grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.5. If your soil tests below this range, add lime to raise the pH as recommended on your soil test report.

Blueberries require acid soil with a pH of about 4.5. You can apply sulfur to lower the pH before planting. On some soils it may be too difficult to lower the pH enough to grow blueberries, especially soils with a natural pH of 7.0 or higher.

Because it takes about a year for sulfur or lime to affect soil pH, you need to apply them the year before planting. Acidifying the soil with aluminum sulfate is not recommended because it requires six times more chemical than acidification with sulfur does. In addition, aluminum sulfate applications are expensive and can contaminate the soil with excess aluminum.

Phosphorus is important for root growth and flower bud formation, but it does not move easily through the soil. For this reason, incorporate fertilizer based on your soil test recommendations into the top 8 inches of soil before planting.

Plants need potassium to activate enzymes, move sugars into the fruit, open stomates, and assist in nitrogen uptake. The amount of potassium required by fruit plants depends on the soil type. It is important to incorporate phos-

Keys for Success

Prepare the soil. The most important year in the life of your fruit plants is the year before you plant them. Test the soil and begin preparing it by adding organic matter and planting cover crops about a year before you plan to establish your planting. This is particularly important if you need to adjust soil pH.

Start small. Consider how much time you have to care for your planting. You will probably get more fruit— and satisfaction—from a small, well-tended planting than you will from a large, neglected one.

What's available locally? If you already have a good local source of a particular fruit, do you really want to grow more? You might want to focus your planting on hard-to-get species or varieties with special traits (such as good flavor, early harvest, disease resistance) that you can't find locally.

phorus and potassium before planting because severe deficiencies cannot be corrected later.

A soil test also will include results for magnesium, which is necessary for chlorophyll formation, and calcium, which is essential for fruit development, pollen germination, and membrane integrity. Because lime contains varying amounts of magnesium and calcium, choose a type of lime that will adjust calcium or magnesium levels as well as raise pH. If calcium is low, use calcitic lime. If magnesium is low, use dolomitic lime.

Levels of other nutrients needed by fruit crops are best indicated by a leaf analysis during the first growing season. (For more information about leaf analysis testing, contact the Cornell Nutrient and Elemental Analysis Laboratory, telephone: (607) 255-1785, web site: www.hort.cornell.edu/depart-ment/facilities/icp.)

A good strategy is to test the soil and carefully prepare and fertilize the soil at least a year before establishment. Then retest the soil to make sure that soil nutrient levels are adequate before planting. Once you've established the planting, have the soil tested every three or four years. If you see signs of nutrient deficiency that are not showing up in your soil test, have a leaf tissue analysis done.

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