Garden miracle or lesson in patience?
Planting a bare-root, deciduous fruit tree is a little of both.
The garden miracle: that what looks like a stick with a few scraggly roots will ultimately yield a delicious bounty.
The patience: you have to care for that stick for three to five years before it completes its transformation into a leafy tree that bears fruit.
Now is the season for bare-root fruit trees. They're dormant, so they don't mind being stripped of soil, transported and planted before waking up, come spring.
They include apple, apricot, cherry, fig, mulberry, nectarine, nectaplum, peach, pear, persimmon, plum, pluot and pomegranate.
The Big Chill
Deciduous fruit trees need winter cold to set fruit properly before breaking dormancy. That cold is measured in the number of hours that the temperature drops below 45 degrees between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28.
Hours can vary widely in different locations and from year to year.
For instance, as of Jan. 9, Santa Barbara had accumulated 177 chill hours. But by January 9, 2005, Santa Barbara had scored only 54 chill hours.
However, in general, we can expect 50 to 200 chill hours a year on the coast, with inland areas receiving 400 to 1,000 or more.
UC Davis tracks the data. Visit http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/, then click on "Weather-Related Models" for your area.
Stick to your chill hours, no matter how tempting a certain tree might be. For example, Dorsett Golden apples, from Bermuda, require next to no chill hours, while Golden Russet require 800 to 1,000.
In addition, if you don't have much room, consider trees with dwarf rootstock, or grafted trees that have branches bearing three or four types of fruit, such as early, mid and late-season peaches.
Regardless of the variety, inspect the roots. They should be gray and limber, not black, shriveled or brittle. Look for good "spokes" radiating from the trunk; a smooth, strong bud union where the root stock is grafted to the trunk; and a trunk about the diameter of your thumb.
Don't worry about the branches, other than making sure that they flex. You'll probably tip back most of them when you plant. Be sure to get instructions from the grower for your particular tree.
Deciduous fruit trees need at least six hours of direct sunlight during the growing season to develop fruiting buds and mature fruit.
Provide good drainage. If your soil stays soggy, shape a mound or build a raised bed.
Avoid wind, which can damage or destroy buds and fruit.
If you're pushing the envelope with winter chill hours, plant in a low spot where cold collects, rather than near your house, driveway, patio or other hardscape that captures, then radiates heat.
Space small trees 8 to 10 feet apart and 4 to 5 feet from fences and walls. If their canopies reach 6 to 8 feet, you'll have a foot or two to maintain them and pick the fruit.
Plant larger trees as much as 20 to 25 feet apart.
Dig a hole three times as wide as the roots and a foot or so deep. Line the hole with 1/2-inch chicken wire or galvanized mesh to thwart gophers.
Lay a shovel across the hole to determine the planting depth. The faint soil line on the trunk should end up an inch or two above the existing grade to allow for settling. This should also put the bud union 3 to 5 inches above the soil.
Mound a cone of excavated soil in the center. Place the tree on top, splaying out the roots, then fill the hole.
Or hold the tree over the hole with one hand, then use the other hand to dribble in soil around the roots. Gently shake the trunk now and then to prevent air pockets as you go.
Shape a basin around the tree. Fill with an inch or two of organic mulch, keeping it from piling against the trunk.
Don't apply fertilizer. The roots already have enough stored energy to break dormancy and any salt in the fertilizer may burn new roots.
A Quick Trim
Don't be surprised if the nursery instructions call for cutting down your "tree" to a knee-high stick.
While techniques vary from one variety to the next, in general, expect to snip off the top just above a bud that's 30 to 36 inches off the ground, then trim the side branches to 3-inch stubs bearing two or three buds.
During the first growing season, new whips are likely to shoot out in every direction.
In July or August, cut back the new growth by up to half, with an eye toward evenly spaced, strong, balanced branches that will allow plenty of air to flow through the tree.
At planting time, give your new tree a thorough watering. If the surrounding soil is dry, it's likely to wick away moisture, so run the water for a while.
Over winter, deciduous fruit trees are dormant and don't need much water. After that first watering, you may be able to get by on rain alone.
But as your tree stirs to life, start paying attention. UC Cooperative Extension notes that a healthy, first-year fruit tree that's not been mulched requires 5 to 10 gallons of water a week.
A mulched tree needs less. Let the top inch or two of soil dry out between waterings, then use drip irrigation or a trickling hose to give your tree a slow, deep soak.
This mail-order nursery, based in Atascadero, offers hundreds of different fruit trees, shrubs and vines. Each description includes the root stock and number of chill hours required.
While the nursery operations are wholesale only, the website provides bountiful information for home gardeners.
The site offers in-depth articles about all aspects of backyard orchard culture, ranging from propagation to pollination, pests, diseases and harvest.