Getting your fruit in the ground

How to plant fruit depends very much on the type of fruit you want to plant and what form it comes in. In the following sections, I first give you some pointers on planting according to whether your fruit is initially available to you in a container, as a bareroot plant, or as a balled-and-burlapped tree. Then I tell you how to plant a berry patch, because you handle growing berry patches slightly differently from other ways of growing fruit.

Container plants

Container plants are the form in which you commonly find berry bushes and some small fruit trees. Assuming you have an appropriate spot ready, the planting process is simple and logical if you follow these steps:

1. Choose a good day.

All danger of frost is past, but the weather is overcast or drizzly. A hot, sunny day is too stressful. If the weather is clear, at least plant later in the day.

2. Prepare the plant first.

Water it well and let excess drain away. Groom it lightly, trimming away any damaged branches and leaves. Pinch off buds, if any (most, not all); this act encourages the plant to redirect its energies toward root development. After the plant establishes itself, it'll surely generate new buds, anyway.

3. Pop the root system out of the pot.

If the root system is thick and dense, sliding a butter knife or stick around the perimeter should dislodge it, or perhaps you can cut the container away with tin snips. Tease the roots loose on the bottom and a bit on the sides — this act encourages the plant to venture out into its new home in your garden soil. If the plant is rootbound, score the sides at four or so even intervals with a sharp knife, slicing only about an inch in — this scoring severs girdling roots and inspires new feeder roots to start growing.

4. Plant it at the same level it was growing in the pot and water.

Backfill soil into the hole and firm it into place to eliminate air pockets. Water well, let the ground settle, and add more soil as needed.

Bareroot plants

Most fruit trees, and sometimes berry-producing shrubs, are sold as bareroot plants; strawberry plants are commonly sold in small bareroot bundles. These plants are dormant, which means you can buy and plant them earlier in the gardening year — as soon as the soil is dry enough to crumble easily in your hand. If you can't plant right away, store bareroot plants in a cool, shaded spot and keep the plant moist.

On planting day, here are the steps to follow:

1. Prep the plant first.

Unwrap the plant, and if the roots are more than a foot long or look damaged or frayed, trim them back with clean, sharp clippers. Then soak the roots and stem in a bucket of tepid, muddy water (add a handful of soil) for a few hours or overnight to rehydrate them. As for the top growth, if the plant has branches, shorten them to few inches (cutting to just above an outward-facing bud); this trim inspires vigorous, spreading growth. If the tree or shrub is a mere whip (single stem), cut it back to 2 or 3 feet tall if the grower hasn't already done so.

2. Make a mound inside the hole.

Use the excavated soil (or a mixture of it and some organic matter) to make a mound in the hole; You'll set the plant here and array the roots on it, so make the mound tall. To allow for some settling, adjust the height of the mound so the plant will stand about 2 inches higher than it stood at the nursery (How do you know? Look for the telltale old soil line low on the trunk).

3. Add the plant and position it.

Place the tree or shrub atop the mound and spread the roots out evenly on all sides. Be careful not to bend or break them, and don't crowd them either. If the tree is branched, orient it with the lowest branch facing southwest — this positioning will eventually help shade the trunk and lessen the chance of sunscald. If the site, being out in the open, is windy, lean the tree ever so slightly into the direction of the prevailing winds.

4. Backfill.

Hold the plant steady (or get a helper to do so) and scoop soil back into the hole. You may have to bounce the plant up and down slightly as you work to settle the soil among the roots. When it stands on its own, add more soil, tamping it down gently with your hands as you work to prevent air pockets.

5. Create a basin.

Make the basin about a foot or two out from the trunk, mounding up soil to several inches high. Fill it partway with compost or other organic material, which will nourish the new young feeder roots that are developing. Top off with some weed-inhibiting mulch.

Finally, soak slowly and thoroughly today and at least once a week for the rest of the season, unless you get good rainfall. A young fruit tree or berry bush is a thirsty plant.

Batted-and-burtapped plants

Fruit trees and larger berry-producing shrubs may be available in balled-and-burlapped form. It indicates that the plant was recently field-dug, and the purpose of the burlap or other cloth and trusses is to hold the soil protectively in place around the rootball. Here are the steps to follow to return the plant to the ground in your own yard:

1. Get the hole ready.

The size of the rootball in this case is perfectly obvious, which is nice. Make the hole slightly bigger, both for maneuverability and also to encourage the roots to move outward in their new home. Assuming the plant is not too big, you can check your work by temporarily holding the trussed plant in the hole.

2. Double-check depth.

Set the trussed rootball in the hole, and then place a piece of lumber or a rod of some kind across the top of the hole. The top of the root mass should meet it. If not, you know what to do — take it out and dig more, or backfill a bit.

3. Unwrap the plant.

Do this unwrapping outside the hole but right nearby. Cut off or unwind all rope, twine, string, or whatever is holding the burlap or cloth in place. Be especially careful to get off any material binding the trunk. Modern burlap may contain synthetic (plastic) material that practically never decays, so don't leave the burlap on. Some rootballs are also enveloped in a planting bag or wire basket — whatever you have, remove it.

Set or wiggle the rootball into the prepared hole and backfill thoroughly to eliminate air pockets. If the tree is branched, orient it with the lowest branch facing southwest to eventually help shade the trunk and lessen the chance of sunscald. If the site is windy, lean the tree slightly into the direction of the prevailing winds.

5. Create a basin and water.

Make the basin about a foot or two out from the trunk, mounding up soil to several inches high. Fill it partway with compost or other organic material, and top off with some weed-inhibiting mulch. Soak slowly and thoroughly at planting and at least weekly till the end of the season (unless you get good rainfall). Watering is particularly critical because the rootball may have dried out while it was out of the ground, despite its protective wrapping.

A berry patch

Want to grow raspberries, blackberries, or marionberries? Planting a berry patch is a little different because you have to prepare an entire area and install future support. I advise starting with a single row. The reason for the trellis is that it keeps your plants upright (rather than in a slumping tangle); this method keeps the plants drier and thus less prone to disease, and they're much easier to harvest from.

If you are space challenged and still want to experience the sweet flavor of homegrown strawberries, plant up a strawberry jar. It is a vertical container with "pockets" to hold the trailing plants. I recommend that you select the everbearing or day neutral varieties so you can enjoy the fruits throughout the growing season. For more information on container gardening, see Chapter 16.

Don't grow cultivated berries anywhere near wild brambles or near an area where you grow or have recently grown eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, or strawberries — all these plants can host diseases that are harmful to cultivated berries.

Here are the steps to follow when creating your berry patch:

Clear out an area of all weeds, grass, and physical obstructions. The row should be about 2 feet wide and as long as you want.

2. Create a planting trench.

The roots of berry bushes are likely to grow down to about a foot deep, so excavate to at least that depth. Improve the soil with organic matter and with amendments that adjust the pH, if recommended by a soil test.

3. Erect support.

The object is to keep the canes off the ground and not to crowd them. You want good air circulation, which lessens the chance of disease. Use wooden posts (rot-resistant wood, like cedar) or metal posts, plunge them deeply into the ground, add braces if warranted, and then run strong wire between them to support and confine the plants. Your support setup options include

  • A patch with posts at four corners
  • Single posts at each end of your row
  • Single posts with crosspieces. The standard advice is to rig the wires at 2- to 3-foot intervals.

Space the bushes at even intervals, 2 or 3 feet apart down the row and right under the lowest wire. Follow the previous planting directions in "Container plants," including giving each plant a good soaking.

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After planting and watering is complete, tiptoe into the patch with your clippers and cut the plants off at ground level. I know, this shearing sounds drastic, but you may be eliminating canes that harbor diseases; plus, you don't want the plants to charge into early growth and fruiting. Instead, this step forces your new berry plants to focus on establishing and expanding their root systems. New canes will appear soon enough.

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