Where you plant your dwarf fruit trees can make a big difference in how they grow and perform. A major consideration is the soil. Fruit trees are no different from other trees and shrubs in your landscape; the soil needs to drain well. Placing the home orchard where water will drain away very soon after a rain event will help ensure the roots will have the needed soil oxygen to supply both the moisture and nutrients needed to the canopy. This supports the continued growth of the foliage and filling of the fruits. If the soil oxygen is displaced for extended periods of time, the roots are unable to move the moisture and nutrients up into the tree. Soils that remain too wet also will promote root loss through decay, putting further stress on the fruit tree. If your soils are on the heavy side – meaning lots of clay – then plant the fruit trees a bit higher in the planting hole. Even a couple of inches can make a difference.
In addition to the soil needing to drain, an area that we do not often hear about is air drainage. Home orchardists can avoid those late spring frosts to a great degree by placing the trees on a slope or at the high point in the landscape so the cold air settles elsewhere. The concern here is preventing the more frost-susceptible flower buds from damage. In late winter and very early spring, the trees survive, but the flower buds do not. With the cold weather we have had this winter, stone fruits, like peaches, have likely already suffered the loss of their flower buds. We cannot do much about a hard frost or light freeze, but by planting our trees in the best possible locations in the yard, we can reduce the risk.
Home orchardists can do a couple of things to reduce the risk of a late frost too. You can delay the spring growth of your dwarf fruit trees by mulching the soil late in the fall or early winter, well after we have had cold weather set in and after the ground is very cold or even frozen. This activity will keep the ground frozen and the root system cold, and it delays the fruit tree from breaking dormancy, even by a few days. This helps us get past the chances of that late frost.
Another way to protect those flower buds from cold air is to place a temporary windbreak to break up or slow the cold wind. Be creative and make the windbreak out of common materials you already have or use the least expensive material you can buy. The windbreak only has to last for a few weeks and does not have to be set up in the fall. You may have to place the supports in the fall before the ground freezes, but the actual material used for the windbreak itself can go up later. If you have the space, you can plant a permanent windbreak just like the commercial orchards.
Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties.
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