Move over Valentine’s Day! February is not only the month for flowers, but it is also a time for gardeners to show their love and care for fruits! Right now is the absolute best time of year to perform general maintenance practices such as pruning, fertilizing, and spraying needed for quality home fruit production.
Prune fruit trees to maximize sunlight and increase airflow through the tree’s canopy, while they are dormant in February or early March. All pruning cuts should be made at the branch bases, leaving only the branch collar (1/4 to ½ inch) so that wounds heal properly. First, remove all dead or diseased shoots and limbs. Both apple and pear trees are very susceptible to the bacterial disease called fire blight. This disease is easily recognizable by the “shepherd’s crook” and dark black color located at the end of a branch. Next, take out any signs of shriveled fruit left on the tree and dispose of it. Do not leave diseased plant debris near the growing site.
For the remainder of the trees, use heading back cuts to reduce the height of the tree so it is easier to manage and also thinning out cuts to open up the tree for sunlight and airflow. Make sure that the pruning blades are sharp to provide a nice clean cut. Sanitize blades of cutting tools between each cut with a 10 percent bleach solution or rubbing alcohol. This task may seem redundant but it protects healthy tissue from being infecting with harmful bacteria.
After trees are pruned, apply a dormant oil spray to both apple and pear trees. Dormant oil is a refined petroleum product that effectively controls red mites and scale insects from overwintering in tree bark with a suffocating layer of oil. Since this is a dormant oil, apply dormant oil spray before new growth begins in the spring and when temperatures are above freezing for at least 24 hours. Make sure to always read and follow label directions for proper use of any pesticide. Dormant oil is sold at local garden centers and is relatively inexpensive.
Lastly, fertilize fruit trees in February unless it is a newly planted tree. For first year plantings, fertility adjustments are made prior to planting so their root system has time to establish in the ground. During subsequent seasons, apply fertilizer rates according to the plant growth rate and condition. If the average terminal growth is less than the value listed under the desired vegetative growth in Table 1, increase the quantity of nitrogen applied. If the terminal growth exceeds the amount, reduce the quantity of nitrogen. Nitrogen should be at its peak level during the spring growing season.
To obtain more information related to fruit tree care and maintenance, please contact the Warren County Extension Office at (270) 842-1681.