The Drought Chronicles: Fruit Trees Having a Fighting Chance Part II

Part II of our series on fruit tree care during the drought. Read Part I here, or see all our posts about Fruit Tree Care.

During the current state of drought here in Southern California, residents must use water as efficiently as possible. In the previous article of this series, we learned practices to help fruit trees uptake more water and waste less. This article explores more ways to care for our fruit trees and why they need some extra TLC this summer with advice from two fruit tree aficionados.  Tom Spellman is the Southern California rep for Dave Wilson Nursery with over 25 years of experience in nurseries in Southern California and specializes in fruit trees.  Kyra Saegusa is the Ranch Coordinator and Horticultural Researcher at the Huntington Library and Gardens.

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest mistake homeowners make is not under watering their fruit trees- it’s over watering them. “The first thing homeowners need to do, is stop over watering”, Tom Spellman expressed. Tom stated that over watering kills more plants in Southern California than any other factor. Homeowners can save their trees if they learn to “water smart”.

Signs of drought stress on fruit trees such as wilting leaves, dropping fruit, and citrus curl are also signs of over watering. This is why it is crucial for the homeowner to be educated and mindful of the correct diagnosis.

Before doing any type of watering (drip system, hose, sprinkler, etc.) one must learn when the tree needs water. A tree’s need for water is not always in sync with a homeowner’s watering schedule. Homeowners must manually check the soil moisture before every application. A couple times a week, dig down about 6” below the soil in four or five areas around the tree. If the soil is dry to the touch, it needs watering. If it is still moist, check back in a couple days. Moisture meters are extremely helpful and can make this process simpler and quicker.

Once the homeowner determines that the tree does in fact need watering, it is best to wait until the morning to do so. Watering in the morning allows for the tree to dry out during the day. If water is applied in the evening, the tree stays moist and can easily develop disease and fungal issues. Tom believes that mulching is imperative when it comes to watering smart, “Mulching is an extremely important way to manage water.” In the summer, mulch can cool the soil 15-20 degrees! Mulch also brings back bio-activity by inviting life into the soil. Tom recommends using a mulch made up of diverse materials. He suggests 85% wood material and 15% green material as an ideal mulch mixture.

According to Kyra Saegusa, fruit trees are more susceptible to damage from heat and sun when they do not have enough water. When fruit trees undergo water stress, one of their first coping mechanisms is to drop fruit and foliage, which makes the tree susceptible to sunburn. Kyra emphasized, “Once a fruit tree is damaged by drought conditions it will never recover its former vigor in times of moisture.”

Summer is a critical time to accurately water fruit trees. The tree’s buds, which will become fruit next spring, form during the summer and will not fully develop if the tree does not receive enough water. Summer is also the best time for pruning to re-establish fruiting wood. Proper pruning not only improves fruit yields and tree health, but it makes harvesting and maintenance much easier.

Both Tom and Kyra support saving home fruit trees in times of drought. Tom believes fruit trees offer beauty, food security, and functionality. “The message is don’t just irrigate to irrigate- water smart. Ask yourself- how can I get away with watering this tree less, instead of thinking you’re doing it a favor by watering it more”, advised Tom. Kyra sees home fruit trees as an investment over several years. Removing a home fruit tree or letting it die would be wasting years of time and resources put into it. On the other hand, Kyra shared that mono-cropped commercial orchards in Southern California are not sustainable models for times of low resources. “The majority of the all the produce and orchard crops that California produces, (and use the majority of our water resources), are shipped out of our borders which means essentially we are exporting our water during a time of severe drought.” So homeowners, remember- it pays off to water smart.

Learn More about Fruit Tree Care

For classes and workshops taught by Tom Spellman, visit the Dave Wilson Nursery website. Tom teaches tree pruning workshops in the summer and winter.

For more information about the Huntington Ranch Garden and upcoming events, visit their website.