This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V23", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
In reading different agricultural and horticultural papers and magazines, I find many writers discussing the subject of "root blight" in apple trees in Missouri and Texas. Now, if I can add one word that will lead to a solution of this vexed subject I will feel myself amply paid for my time and trouble-It is true that apple trees die by the thousands in Texas every year, until many have come to the conclusion that apples cannot be raised here on account of this imaginary disease, "root blight." I say imaginary disease, because I think there is no such a disease. I boldly assert that I can find lands in Texas that will grow apple trees and mature the fruit as well as any lands in Missouri, Ohio or any other State in the United States. And again, I can find land all over the State that will not grow apple trees at all, or rather the trees will die in two, four or six years or as soon as the roots have penetrated the subsoil. More apple trees die from borers and improper planting and cultivating than anything else. There are many places in our State where the cotton plant and bois d' Arc hedge die more or less every year, and some years worse than others. This soil has puzzled our scientists a great deal and they have not yet agreed upon the cause and remedy.
On analysis of the soil, both top and subsoil, nothing destructive to plant growth was found. Wet springs and early summer, with our usual dry hot weather through July, August and September produce death on this soil. But if we have but little rain in the spring and a mild summer with occasional showers, but little damage is done. Our soil in many places is like a jug - will hold water as well. If we have plenty of rain in the spring to thoroughly wet the subsoil, with dry hot weather, as before stated, the water in the subsoil stagnates, the lower roots take up this stagnant water, convey it to roots above, the roots soon begin to blacken and the bark to slip like a scalded potato, and this is the "root blight." All surface rooted plants do well on this soil, while the sweet potato, a deep-rooted tuber will rot; the pea, another top-rooted plant dies; in fact many vegetable plants and many kinds of trees that have a centre root that goes deep in the subsoil will die and rot in this poisonous soil, which shows conclusively that the destructive element is in the subsoil. Professor S. B. Buckley, of San Antonio, Texas, a close student of nature, thinks it has been proven that this so-called "root blight" is caused by a minute fungus.
I doubt this, but do not deny that fungus is found in the roots of the water-soaked trees; but on healthy trees, or rather trees growing on land that will drain its subsoil you cannot find a particle of fungus of any description. We have here what I call wind blight in pear trees. Young pear twigs are killed for one or two inches by the continued dry south winds we always have through April, May and June; but this does not injure the trees to any great extent, - it only checks the growth and causes the trees to mature more fruit buds.
I live on a belt of black sandy land, the soil of which is six inches to three feet deep on a red clay foundation. This red clay foundation is from four to six feet thick; then sets in a hard yellow sand, as hard almost as cement, and when dug up and incorporated with the soil makes an excellent manure. The clay when turned up and exposed to the sun soon slacks like lime and is easily incorporated with the soil; hence you see our soil is inexhaustible. You will find this destructive soil on our black waxy lands as well as on sandy soil.
I have lately examined the roots of an apple tree, under a great magnifying microscope, that was destroyed by this stagnant water, and discovered fungi in active growth, but this does not prove that the tree was killed by fungi, for it is too true that the decomposition of vegetable matter will often produce what botanists call "organic acids" which are very destructive to the apple and pear; but on the contrary, if the little roots or feeders could only take up pure water from this decomposed vegetable matter no injury would be done, but the trees be greatly benefited; but should the roots be kept in stagnant water with the addition of the acids above-mentioned death will invariably follow.
How are we to save our trees from this destructive soil? My plan is to bore deep holes with a six-inch post auger, say eight or ten feet, fill up with chips, tan bark or a small pole. Several of these holes bored around your trees filled with tan bark will save your trees. The idea is to get to a soil below that will drain itself. Deep subsoil drainage is the only remedy, and if properly done "root blight" will disappear forever. There are certain varieties of apples that will do well with us, none better than Early Harvest, Red Astrachan, Horse Willow Twig, Ben Davis, Twenty-ounce, Shockley and Nicka-jack. I will add Excelsior raised from seed in Hill County, Texas, ripens in July. As for pears, there is no country in the world that will beat Texas for pears, which has been proved by Wm. Watson, of Brenham, Texas, and others all over the State.