Feels like spring out there; time to attend to fruit trees

Abnormal. Somewhat strange. A bit peculiar with an air of absurdity.

No, this isn’t how my kids describe their dad or a way to describe the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.

Way back in December, the vast majority of us were cursing – or praising, depending on your love of snow – the presence of El Niño, while constantly digging ourselves out from storm after storm. Winter was here, and it was about time.

But then the high pressure umbrella opened up over Southwest Colorado, and all of a sudden, it was spring – on Feb. 8 – and it hasn’t stopped. However, just because we are able to hike in shorts and T-shirt or hop on the paddleboard, it doesn’t mean disaster for our currently-dormant trees and shrubs.

Yet.

Typically, our fruit trees will start budding out in the month of April. Our sweet cherry and apricot trees traditionally start the season, challenging Mother Nature to nip those flower buds.

Usually, they lose this challenge, which is why we don’t harvest sweet cherries and apricots every year. Next comes the peaches, pears, sour (or pie) cherries, plums and apples. Depending on the cultivar of fruit tree or the microclimate where the tree is growing, that order can be rearranged a bit, but, generally, that’s the fruiting progression.

When temperatures dip down to the mid 20s, we start to see more damage. For example, with Bing cherries, which bloom pretty early, if the temperature reaches 27 degrees for 30 minutes when the flower buds are just breaking and petal color (white) can be seen, you can get 10 to 20 percent damage. However, if the temperature drops three more degrees to 24, the tree can incur up to 90 percent damage. Additionally, the longer the duration of cold, the more blossom loss one can expect.

This range of damaging temperatures is about the same for all fruiting trees, the difference being when they break bud and start to flower. On average, if you want to plant a sweet cherry or apricot or peach tree, expect to get fruit every three to five years. If you get more, consider it a bonus.

Pears, pie cherries and plums can produce fruit every year, or every couple of years, and the same just about goes for apples, too. The nice thing about apples is that there are so many different types that you can ask your local nursery for apple trees that flower later in the spring, which will in turn increase your odds of a yearly harvest.

February and early March is also the time to prune our fruit trees. We want to do this during the dormant season, preferably when the temperatures start to climb (read: now) and before the flower buds start to swell.

In general, when pruning, take out any dead or broken limbs first, and then look for branches that are crossing or growing downward or toward the center of the tree and water sprouts (rapidly growing vertical shoots, typically coming from the upper side of branches). After that, you can always take some growth from the tips of the branches, always making your pruning cuts right about an outward-facing vegetative bud.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to prune. Many homeowners are nervous that they are removing too much; however, almost all fruit trees do better when 20 to 30 percent of the canopy is pruned every year (peaches are 50 to 60 percent).

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at parmenterdm@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.