'Tree killer' diagnoses fruit tree challenges

Pots and balls deadly to trees

Ray Mueller

CUSTER – In several states and in various ways, Jackie Clay Atkinson killed so many apple and other fruit trees that she decided to share her experiences with others in order to spare them from having similar disappointments.

Overcome challenges with fruit trees by planting the right trees and taking care of them right.

One occasion at which Atkinson did that,was at the 2017 Energy Fair, where her assignment was to offer advice on growing fruit trees in hostile climates.

Atkinson, who is a writer for Backwoods Home magazine, and her husband currently live in northern Minnesota – about 60 miles south of the border with Canada.

Avoid the dwarfs

Despite her tree loss episodes, Atkinson has also enjoyed a fair amount of success with fruit trees, promising similar results by “planting the right trees and taking care of them right.”

One mistake that she sees many people making is the choice of dwarf or semi-dwarf which she says are suitable in states such as Missouri and Oklahoma but not in a northern climate.

The problem with the dwarf varieties is that they have very shallow roots while the standard varieties have deep taproots that have helped them survive winters with up to 90 days of temperatures below zero, Atkinson observed.

With proper pruning, standard variety trees can be shaped to resemble semi-dwarf trees, providing the ease of harvesting that most buyers of the dwarfs are seeking, she promised.

Above all, don't ever think about buying a potted fruit tree from a local garden center, Atkinson emphasized. She explained that they are grafted onto the rootstock of a tree for which the acceptable growing zone is usually not identified.

No pots or balls

Those potted trees are also likely to have balled roots, Atkinson pointed out. That presents two ways to lose the young tree – by cutting the roots or by leaving them in a ball so they won't develop, she noted.

To solve those problems, Atkinson's solution is to buy bare rooted stock for planting in the spring. Order them by February from such reliable and reasonable cost suppliers as Fedco Trees and St. Lawrence Nurseries which specialize in hardy rootstock, she suggested.

If the intent is to have apples that store well into the autumn and winter, grow varieties that mature late in the growing season, Atkinson advised. That rules out early season varieties such as Norland or Yellow Transparent, she cautioned. Atkinson prefers such varieties as Honeycrisp, Honeygold, and Frostbite.

Planting instructions

The next step is to plant “a $30 tree in a $150 hole,” Atkinson stressed. For accommodating the taproot, there needs to a a deeply dug hole – one then filled with a mix of garden soil and compost, she explained.

Do not allow any time to elapse between taking the bare rooted sapling out of its moistened shipping wrap and placing it in the hole with the grafted point two inches above the soil, Atkinson stated. The planting location, which should not be at a natural wet spot, should nonetheless act as a water basin for pouring five gallons of water per day, she advised.

Place mulch at a depth of 8 to 10 inches in a six-foot diameter around the tree (about a foot from the trunk to deter rodents) and protect it against wind damage with three stakes to secure its stability, Atkinson continued.

Atkinson recommended pruning in the tree's third year by taking out branches that are rubbing and those that are pointed inward in order to maintain air flow and allow light to penetrate to the middle. To encourage spreading of the branches, trim the top in the early spring, she added.

Protection practices

At most sites, protection must be installed against rabbits and voles because of how they girdle the bark and eventually kill the tree, Atkinson pointed out. Wrappings around the trunk must be high enough to account for the height of snowbanks, she noted.

Where there are deer, put up at least a six-foot fence to keep them away, Atkinson stated. She admitted to failing with urine, hair, soap, a wolf dog, a radio, and a five-foot fence as ways to deter deer.

Sunscald during the winter is another common threat to apple trees because of how the phenomenon leads to cracked bark and rot, Atkinson observed. The remedy is to cover all of the trunk with white interior latex paint in the autumn while leaf curling diseases can be treated early in the season with a copper based fungicide, she said.

While Atkinson has chickens which dine on spoiled fallen apples as a way to deter the carryover of diseases, she advised everyone growing apples to remove debris in the autumn and burn it.

To a question about growing apricots in a northern climate, Atkinson recommended the Adirondack Gold variety. Beware of borers with peaches, the plum curculio on several fruits, and treat with the non-toxic Tanglefoot to cope with aphids, she suggested.