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Planning for bountiful fruit and nuts

Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine

Go behind the scenes at Fowler Nurseries, a 100-year-old commercial tree nursery in the Sierra foothills, to learn some secrets for growing healthy trees and producing delicious fruit.



Nancy Fowler Johnson, whose family has grown trees for orchards in the Sierra foothills for nearly 100 years, said the Placer County tree nursery employs a combination of innovative plant breeding and cultivation of the best of “old tried and true” growing techniques.

That means the family operation, which includes Johnson’s husband and grown son and daughter, cultivates new, hardy rootstocks for fruit and nut trees that are popular with farmers and backyard growers alike. The nursery provides new commercial-scale orchard stock for almonds, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and prunes. And, it opens its doors once a year to the public for backyard plantings.

Because of the long timespan between putting a new tree in the ground and a grower’s first harvest—five to seven years or more—she says deciding to plant and then being prepared to care for the growing tree is a commitment for farmers and homeowners.

Johnson lists drought, pests and natural disasters as things that can stifle tree production and lead to disappointed growers. That’s why it’s essential to give planting fruit and nut trees careful consideration. Factors to consider include elevation, marine layer or fog, wind patterns, average rainfall, frost and excessive heat, she said.

In general, citrus trees, which Fowler Nurseries doesn’t sell, require a great deal of summer heat and relatively frost-free sites. The trees do best on slopes above valley floors in the southern part of the state.

Apricots were historically grown in the Winters area of Northern California because of the moderate climate that was influenced by cool breezes from the San Francisco Bay Area. More recently the Fresno area is producing early apricot varieties because of newer, climate-tolerant trees.

Experts at the University of California Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program advise those living in areas with strong winds, to plant trees in protected locations rather than on hilltops. In areas with spring frost, plant where air flow is adequate, such as midway down a gentle slope.

Chilling is another consideration for fruit and nut tree success. Chilling—the number of hours below 45 degrees F required for effective bud break, fruit set and fruit development—is crucial to abundant production. Most fruit and nut varieties require from 200 to 2,000 chilling hours in the winter to break dormancy in a normal manner.

Insufficient chilling is probably the most limiting climatic factor for sweet cherry, peach, apricot, nectarine and apple. When considering planting a fruit or nut tree, be sure to ask about required chilling hours to see if your area historically meets minimum climactic conditions.

But, Johnson said probably the most important consideration when looking to produce delicious fruit and nuts is soil. Soils should be very well drained and deep (4 to 9 feet) for good tree growth. Shallow, poorly drained sites will produce small, weak plants, with lower yields, that have more pest problems and require special water management practices—in other words, a homeowner headache.

One way to avoid that is to visit the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardner’s new Web site, “California Gardening: Advice to grow by...” The site is full of free information and advice. Check it out at cagardenweb.ucdavis.edu.

Information on Fowler Nurseries’ special tree sales to the public is available online at fowlernurseries.com.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@californiacountry.org.


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