As unsold holiday junk is cleared from store shelves the day after Christmas, nurseries around Southern California will be filling up with bare-root fruit trees. The thought of apricots, cherries and plums alone could make your mouth water. Put the trees in the ground in January and you will have blossoms by March. Some trees, such as 'Anna' apples, may even fruit the first season.
But along with the yearly exhortations to plant these fruit trees, one rarely hears even half-decent suggestions about where to put them. In the middle of the lawn? By the garage? Along the street?
The best example in town may stand in a confusing tangle of residential streets off National Boulevard in West Los Angeles. There, in front of a striking, two-story modern house is one of the simplest, nicest fruit tree plantings in Los Angeles.
The nearly 30-foot-long front walk is sheltered by an arbor of 'Santa Rosa' plums.
The trees serve as such an understated accent to the entrance that it comes as no surprise to learn it's the work of architect Davida Rochlin, daughter of noted Southern Californian architect Fred Rochlin.
Davida Rochlin says the arbor is a collaboration between her, a noted gardener and cook from up the street named Hilary Bein, and landscape architect Mia Lehrer.
However many accomplished women it takes to create something so economical, the arbor is what happens when someone with a keen design sense becomes smitten by plums. After designing and building the house in 1999, Rochlin says, she wanted something that would mark it as Californian. "Nothing to me is more Californian than the 'Santa Rosa' plum."
Then there was a craving for romance. An arbor over the front walk amounted to a gracious welcome that started right at the curb. It took only six trees in all, three on each side of the walk, to give Rochlin's entry an enchanted, welcoming feeling.
After planting the trees, Bein slowly began pruning and tying the branches together with garden twine to create a tunnel.
For those without a skilled gardener two doors up, Marin-based UC Cooperative Extension horticulturist Steven Swain has some tips.
First, he suggests plotting out the tunnel's shape using wire, then constructing a temporary frame.
"The nicest arbors I've seen were grown by people who came up with a small wire enclosure that they could take down as the trees grew," he says. "Then they could tie the branches to the wire enclosure. That will allow you to train things. It also gives you a reference point about where you want to prune."
Laissez faire gardeners could forgo the frame by allowing the trees to retain a natural shape and by pruning to keep the path clear. Whatever form you choose, naturalistic or sculpted, Swain has more tips.
When planting the trees, take off as many lateral branches as you need.
"You can even prune the tree down to a whip," he says.
As new growth comes in, he recommends pruning for shape and gently tying new growth in the shape you desire. But do this in late summer, he says. Cuts on main branches made in winter will stimulate only wild growth. Done at the right time, it will keep arbor maintenance to a minimum. Once the trees are where you want them and branches are growing in roughly the right directions, you will be on your way to what Rochlin describes as a year-round show. Fruit trees are unusual among plants in that they flower before they put out spring leaves. So for the first show in spring, think Chinese line drawings for the branches with a sudden dainty spangling of white flowers.
As the leaves come in, the vivid spring greens will outshine the forming fruit. But by early summer, for those who choose 'Santa Rosa' plums, the arbor will be dripping with fragrant, ever-reddening plums.
Even kept tightly pruned, Rochlin's six trees "give tons and tons of plums every summer," she says.
After she's had her pick and her neighbors also have foraged, some plums will stain the concrete.
Rochlin doesn't mind. In fact, she loves it. She knows, as does nature, it wasn't a good party if a little wine wasn't spilled.
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Tree planting 101
So you're sold on the idea of planting an arbor of bare-root fruit trees. What kind of trees to buy? Where to buy them? And how best to get them started? Here's a quick beginner's guide:
Nurseries: Most big box stores will have decent selections of bare-root fruit trees. For an enjoyable dilemma, study the stock lists of local nurseries. Three good ones are Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, www.sperling nursery.com; Dave Wilson Nursery in the Central Valley, www.davewilson.com; and San Gabriel Nursery & Florist in San Gabriel, sgnurserynews.com.
Varieties: Consider peaches, plums, apricots, apples, almonds, even the relatively newfangled pluots and apriums. A common mistake that limits fruit yield in the Los Angeles area: planting varieties that need temperatures to drop below 45 degrees for at least 300 hours annually. For gardeners in the relatively mild, non-mountainous areas of Southern California, look for "low-chill" varieties.
Low-chill apples include 'Anna,' 'Beverly Hills,' 'Dorsett Golden,' 'Tropical Beauty' and 'Ein Shemer.' Low-chill plum varieties include 'Santa Rosa,' 'Burgundy' and 'Beauty.' For apricots, UC Cooperative Extension horticulturist Steven Swain recommends 'Gold Kist,' 'Katy,' 'Early Golden' and 'Newcastle.'
Most bare-root trees take three years to fruit. Anna apples fruit the first year.
Planting: Dig a bowl-shaped hole no deeper than the root requires. Use little if any soil amendment because this will settle dramatically. Chop the planting hole wide and roughly. The roots will travel laterally, Swain says. Soak the hole, allowing water to percolate. Plant the tree and cover the roots with backfill. Make sure the crown -- where root meets trunk -- is above grade.
Mulch lightly, but not within 6 inches of the root crown. Water, and water again occasionally unless winter rains can take over. As spring heats up and blossoms start, do slow waterings -- a steady trickle for half an hour, once a week. Soaker hoses, looped at least a foot around the planting basin and concealed by mulch, are ideal.
Spacing: Davida Rochlin's plum arbor covers a 29-foot-long walkway. It contains three trees on each side, planted at identical 8-foot intervals. Each tree is 6 feet away from its twin on the opposite side of the path, roughly a foot and a half from the walkway.
Pruning: Most nurseries will carry reprints of the nifty paperback "How to Prune Fruit Trees" by Robert Sanford Martin. Swain recommends the "California Master Gardener Handbook" (UC Agriculture and Natural Resources publication 3382), "The Home Orchard" (UC ANR publication 3485) and the American Horticultural Society's 1996 book, "Pruning & Training, a Fully Illustrated Plant-by-Plant Manual" from DK Publishing.
-- Emily Green