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How to help your fruit trees survive drought, triple-digit heat

Apples are moderately drought tolerant and can get by with twice-monthly irrigation. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

Fruit and limb drop common during high temperatures, say master gardeners

When temperatures go up, fruit starts to drop. And this summer, so do branches.

Fruit drop and limp drop are both signs of heat stress in fruit trees, a staple of backyard gardens throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County master gardener Quentyn Young has seen the effects of triple-digit heat in the demonstration fruit orchard at the master gardeners’ Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.

“We lost quite a few branches from a combination of heat and high winds,” says Young, a longtime professional nurseryman who oversees the 60-tree orchard.

Sudden fruit drop – which often happens during early triple-digit days in summer – is another sign of heat stress.

“One of our citrus trees dropped all its fruit all at once, and that’s not uncommon,” Young said. “When something happens like that, you also have to ask: Did you stop watering it? Was that tree getting its water from a nearby lawn that’s now not getting watered? Or is there something wrong with your irrigation?”

If fruit is ripening on the tree, wait to cut back on irrigation, if possible. Developing fruit needs that water, and so does the tree during this period. After harvest, the tree will be better able to withstand a drastic reduction in irrigation.

Other signs of heat stress: Brown edges on leaves or curling foliage. Heat-stressed fruit trees also tend to attract spider mites.

Many fruit trees had a heavy fruit set this spring. All those baby plums and peaches stress branches, too.

“Regular thinning helps trees,” explains Young, who also is manager of Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery in Sacramento. “There’s less stress on the limbs – you’re taking off weight – and the tree will need less water. That’s important during drought like right now.

“Thinning also helps set a better harvest next year,” Young adds, “so you’re helping your tree with two harvests at the same time.”

See the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center’s demonstration orchard (and ask questions, too) during Harvest Day, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 6. Hosted by the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Sacramento County, this free event is a celebration of Sacramento area gardening. Fair Oaks Horticulture Center is located at 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks, in Fair Oaks Park. Details: .

Tips for saving water around fruit trees

Sacramento County master gardeners recommend these ways to save water this summer while keeping fruit trees healthy and productive:

– Prioritize your fruit trees. Young trees that are still developing need regular irrigation. Pay special attention to rare specimens or sentimental favorites; those are the trees you want to keep healthy.

– Remove dying or non-producing fruit trees. This is a good time to make some decisions. Replant with a water-wise (or more productive) alternative in fall or spring.

– Prune overgrown trees – but not too hard or all at once. Over-pruning adds to tree stress. Instead, reduce the tree’s height by no more than one third, pruning a little more each year for three years. Do this after they finish fruiting.

– Irrigate early in the morning to cut down on evaporation. Water deeply, then wait until soil feels dry 4 to 6 inches below the surface. (Take a trowel and look.)

– Skip the fertilizer. It prompts fast growth and that needs more water.

– Mulch around fruit trees with bark, wood chips, leaves or straw, about 3 to 4 inches deep. Avoid mounding mulch around the trunk; instead, clear a circle about 6 inches away from the tree.

– Weed. Unwanted plants under trees compete for water.

Which fruit trees need the least water?

Most drought tolerant (water deeply once or twice a month): Almonds, figs, olives, persimmons, pomegranates.

Moderately tolerant (water twice a month or once a week): Apples, apricots, cherries, pears, prunes, walnuts.

Least tolerant (water weekly or twice weekly): Nectarines, peach, citrus.

Source: UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Oct. 1:

Make the most of this cooler weather. Get to work on your fall garden:

* October is the best month to plant trees, shrubs and perennials. Plants become established – sending down deep, strong roots – faster in warm soil.

* Divide and replant perennials. Add a little well-aged compost and bone meal to the planting hole, but hold off on other fertilizers until spring. Keep the transplants well-watered (but not wet) for the first month as they become settled.

* Now is the time to plant seeds for many flowers directly into the garden, including cornflower, nasturtium, nigella, poppy, portulaca, sweet pea and stock.

* Plant seeds for radishes, bok choy, mustard, spinach and peas.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Set out cool-weather bedding plants, including calendula, pansy, snapdragon, primrose and viola.

* Reseed and feed the lawn. Work on bare spots.

* Dig up corms and tubers of gladioli, dahlias and tuberous begonias after the foliage dies. Clean and store in a cool, dry place.

* Treat azaleas, gardenias and camellias with chelated iron if leaves are yellowing between the veins.

* Clean up the summer vegetable garden and compost disease-free foliage.

* Harvest pumpkins and winter squash.

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