Q. There are peach and apple trees planted along the edge of my lawn. They are just starting to bear fruit, although a late frost kept them from producing any fruit in 2007. In 2006, we had to prop-up branches on the peach tree due to the weight of the fruit. Is there any easy way to support heavy laden tree branches other than using props? The props make it really tough to mow the grass! I was also thinking of burying soaker hoses in the sod around my fruit trees to provide them with more moisture in dry spells. Burying the hoses would make it easier to mow, instead of having to move the hoses all the time. Will a soaker hose still work if it’s buried in the ground?
A. Removing the sod from under your trees, at least out to the ends of their branches, solves both problems. Grass is a fierce competitor for water and nutrients under any tree, but especially fruit trees. They invest a lot of their resources in producing fruit and can ill-afford the competition. Penn State fruit specialists recommend maintaining bare ground under fruit trees in commercial orchards for this reason. In a home fruit planting, you can substitute rings of mulch at the base of the trees for more ornamental appeal.
Once you strip the sod away, lay your soaker hose, and then cover it with mulch. Two to three inches of coarsely shredded hardwood bark will help conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature, and help keep down weeds.
Coarse-textured bark lasts longer then more finely shredded mulch. It is also less likely to mat together and become water-repellant. As the bark decomposes, it will add organic matter to the soil.
Avoid physical contact between the tree trunks and the mulch. Deep piles of mulch against tree trunks can cause the bark to rot, and act as a hiding spot for rodents to chew on the bark unnoticed until the tree starts to decline.
You should pull the bark back when you fertilize the trees every spring. Broadcast granular fertilizer evenly over the area under the tree, staying six inches away from the trunk all around. Water it in and replace the mulch. Do not fertilize after July 15. Fertilization pushes new growth that may not harden off for winter if applied later in the season.
Beyond thinning your abundant peach crop carefully so that you leave one fruit every six to ten inches along the branch, propping the limbs up from below is probably the least damaging to the tree. Place something soft between the prop and the trees’ bark to minimize damage. Make your mulch circles at the base of each tree large enough to contain the props, and you will not have to mow around the props any more.