Fruit trees, bushes and canes offer so much reward for so little work – it's almost unfair! Plant them carefully, train, coax and encourage where necessary and you'll be blessed with a sizeable take of fruit. If you are considering introducing more fruit to your kitchen garden then the new fruit tree and bush additions to the Garden Planner will make getting this right first time a doddle.
As most fruit plants last several years (even decades!) you will have the pleasure of fresh pickings year after year. It makes sense, then, to take a few simple steps to ensure a flying start to the new growing season. The juicy bonus that follows will multiply your labours many-fold.
Weed 'em out!
Preparations for the new season start in early spring just before your plants start back into growth and the first buds break to herald the return of warmer weather. First task on the checklist is a spot of weeding – especially important around recently planted or young fruits.
The roots of a tree generally spread as wide as the canopy above, or wider if you've trained your tree into a narrow cordon, espalier or fan shape. For this reason I try to weed out to this theoretical root limit. A young tree will appreciate the lack of competition from weeds, which can seriously stifle its establishment. Weeds around cane fruits such as raspberries pose even more of an impact and diligence exercised here will see more juice-filled berries a few months down the line.
How you weed depends on the age of your plants and how close to the surface their roots are. If you are unsure exercise caution by hand weeding or hoeing off the weeds right at the soil surface. Entwining roots of perennial weeds such as couch/twitch grass or bindweed will need a little more effort to extract. If you are able to, follow the roots to their tip before teasing the whole thing out. Use a hand cultivator (the type with three prongs is very effective) and loosen the soil beforehand so the roots don't snap near the surface only to re-sprout in a few days' time.
Annual weeds can be popped straight into the compost bin. The roots of pernicious perennial roots can be 'drowned' in a bucket of water for up to two months before adding the resulting slush to the compost heap. Alternatively gather perennial weeds into a pile and cover with light-excluding material to kill them off and rot them down.
Feed glorious feed
With the ground beautifully clear of weeds it's time to pamper your plants with the equivalent of a vitamin shot. Teasing in a general-purpose balanced fruit tree fertiliser is just the ticket for this job. Products such as Dr Earth's Organic Fruit Tree Fertiliser (available in North America – see www.drearth.net) work well to stimulate good root growth, which in turn leads to solid fruit growth.
British gardeners should try a natural, balanced fertiliser such as Biochar Fertiliser from Carbon Gold (www.carbongold.com). This charcoal-based blend has all manner of additional micronutrients, along with seaweed and wormcasts for stimulating growth and mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots to take up water and nutrients more effectively. Carbon Gold has also launched Tree Growth Enhancer, which has been shown to dramatically improve establishment of transplanted or newly planted fruit trees and bushes.
A balanced fertiliser contains equal parts of nitrogen for leaf and stem growth, phosphorus to encourage a healthy root system and potassium to boost blooms and the fruits that follow, together with overall disease resistance. Lightly scratch your chosen fertiliser into the soil surface using a hand cultivator or the tine tips of a border fork.
Mulch to finish
The final step to round off ground preparations is to add a topping of organic mulch around your fruit trees, bushes or canes. You can use any well-rotted material for this – manure or garden-made compost is best, though bark chippings would suffice. While the fertiliser acts quickly to feed your plants, the mulch will deliver its nutrients gradually as it rots down further and is incorporated through the activities of worms and other soil fauna. Mulches also hamper the efforts of weeds plotting a comeback while locking in soil moisture ready for the new season.
Shovel your mulch around the tree or bush or along the line of cane fruits. Distribute it evenly, spreading the mulch out to the extent of the canopy above or the area you have weeded and fed. Rake it out to leave a final depth of 7-10cm (3-4in). If you're super tidy you can contain the mulch within a ring of rocks, timber edging or similar. This will prevent the mulch from creeping outwards over time.
If the soil is particularly dry give it a good watering beforehand (and I mean a really thorough watering – drench several times, don't merely wet the surface). The mulch will then slow evaporation of the moisture below and reduce the amount of watering you might need to do later in spring.
I think you will agree that this three-point checklist – weed, feed and mulch – is far from taxing. Tick them off and expect great things this growing season!
By Benedict Vanheems.