The question of soils and manures for fruit trees presents itself under two aspects - establishing new trees, and improving old ones.
I have already expressed an opinion on the common practice of placing large quantities of rich dung underneath the roots of young fruit trees when they are planted. It is not, in my opinion, the best plan. I cordially agree that it is superior to starving the trees; I know full well that it was practised in the case of several plantations that are now thriving and healthy; but I also know that in many instances it has led to a great amount of gross wood being made, and to the fruiting being thrown back in consequence.
Theoretically, we ought to differentiate between the varieties of fruit when we consider this question. Compare, for example, an Emperor Alexander Apple with a Stirling Castle, or a Tower of Glammis with a Manks's Codlin. The Emperor Alexander loves to romp away into great, strong branches; the Stirling Castle delights in forming spurs. To be scientifically exact in manuring, we ought not to give the former half so much manure as the latter, because in the one case we want to check growth, and in the other to encourage it. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to ensure the right thing being done. The average planter likes to put in the particular varieties which he fancies, just because he fancies them; and he wants to treat them all alike, because it is most convenient to him. I may be wrong, but I believe that, however eloquently experts may argue on the merits of individualising, the great majority of growers will go on lumping the sorts together, and feeding and pruning them by rote.
If the ground on which fruit trees are planted is well drained, and the soil is bastard trenched, a much more favourable state of affairs exists than is secured by the mere shovelling in of manure. It is a common practice to make a, deep, narrow hole, with "up and down" sides, half fill it with manure, and put the tree on the top. This is not the best practice. True, the manure forces plenty of growth, but the wood is not always of a fruitful character, and the tree settles down too deep, owing to the rotting away of the manure beneath it. Water sometimes collects, too. Very little manure is needed beneath a tree. In my own somewhat extensive practice I have made it a rule to put only a light coat underneath, and to mix it well with the soil, then to apply a good dressing above in the form of a mulch.
It may be asked if artificial fertilisers have been used in the place of dung. Most certainly, and with equally good results. It is the mechanical state of the soil which is the real arbiter of failure or success, not the particular sort of manure used. I have planted trees under the three following conditions:-
1. Dung below and above the roots.
2. Artificials below and above the roots.
3. Artificials below and dung above.
The last has perhaps satisfied me the best, but where artificials alone have been used the trees have done well. I give herewith a formula which I have used with very successful results:-
A Mixture for Use when Planting Trees.
3 lb. of superphosphate of lime. 1 lb. of steamed bone flour.
2 lb. of nitrate of potash. 1 lb. of nitrate of soda.
1 lb. of sulphate of lime.
The quantity (8 lb.) is sufficient for 1 square rod (30 1/4 square yards).
An important question arises in connection with planting fruit, and that is - Will all kinds of fruit do equally well on the same kind of soil? Under natural conditions they certainly will not. I have seen many instances of failure through indiscriminate planting. For instance, a grower planted many sorts of Apples on a strong, tenacious, undrained clay, and three parts of them died. He appeared to feel himself a very much injured man. Of course his was not a natural Apple soil. If he had observed how much better Plums and Raspberries succeeded in his locality, he would have saved himself a great deal of money; A grower in another part of the same county planted some Cherries in a bottom, and more on a ridge in the same field. Those on the ridge did twice as well as those in the bottom. An examination revealed the truth of a suggestion which I at once threw out, namely, that a seam or stratum of chalk ran along the ridge, not far from the surface.
In all cases where planting, but especially where planting for profit, it is of immense importance to suit the crop to the natural circumstances. If this can be done a long stride towards success will have been taken. Many waste energy and capital by trying to grow crops which are not adapted to the locality, and have, so to say, to be forced on Nature. It may be helpful to some persons if I append a few generalisations on this subject.
A slope with a southern or south-western aspect is better than a northern or eastern one, providing it is not exposed to strong, cold winds.
A slope is generally better than a bottom, because frost is not felt so severely Late-blooming sorts should be planted in bottoms.
Apples usually do best in a light to medium loam. They are not suited to heavy land. (See "Selections" in a future chapter.)
Pears will thrive better in strong than in sandy loams.
Plums will succeed in strong land, if it is drained; if it is not, they are apt to push a good deal of young wood which is often badly cut by frost.
Cherries do not like clay, a medium loam overlying chalk being best. They loathe stagnant soil.
Gooseberries, Red and White Currants, and Strawberries all thrive in a sound loam, but rarely in clay.
Black Currants and Raspberries will thrive in clay if it be drained.
Generally speaking, soil that will make good bricks will grow good fruit.
Remember that it does not follow that a plantation made on high ground is naturally well drained. Ground on a hilltop may need draining almost as badly as soil in a valley. I could quote an instance where forgetfulness of this led to disaster.
A great deal of the foregoing may tend to alarm small growers, for it is quite likely that circumstances will debar them from giving each fruit its particular soil. They have only one small plot, and they have to make the best of it. Here, however, culture comes in and sweeps difficulties away. While it is true that natural surroundings exercise considerable sway, experience teaches me that by thorough cultivation almost any soil may be made suitable for fruit. In this connection the private grower has an advantage over the market cultivator, for the man with a small piece of ground can, to a great extent, adapt it to his fruits by thoroughly cultivating it; whereas the man with a large quantity may, from want of capital, have to adapt the fruits to the soil.
The subject of soil and feeding is only half exhausted when the formation of new plantations is disposed of. There still remains the equally pressing matter of improving unsatisfactory trees already established.
There is a tremendous field for expert knowledge and enterprise here. A tree bears small, malformed, specked fruit instead of large, fleshy, juicy specimens. Very well. Let us abuse the variety, let us abuse the soil, let us abuse the nurseryman who supplied the tree, but do not let us, under any circumstances whatever, try to improve it. If there were a tacit agreement among fruit growers to follow this line of conduct things could not be more hopeless than they are now. Scarcely any grower takes into account the bearing strain on a fruit tree, or the drain upon the resources of the soil. If the tree is heavily cropped he treats it just the same as if it were lightly burdened. If the soil is poor he leaves it as severely alone as if it were richly stored with nutriment. And he does not want any lecturer to show him, or any writer to tell him, that he is wrong.
There are few trees so old but that they may be improved, and the simplest of all ways of doing it is to spread a coat of good stable manure over the soil beneath them, not merely round the bole, but right out to the spread of the branches. Magical results often follow this practice. I think perhaps the most remarkable example of continuous culture of fruit on an allotment was that provided at Eynsford, in Kent, on some land belonging to Sir William Hart-Dyke. A cottager named Howard had a Winter Queening Apple for fifty years, and at the end of the half-century was able to exhibit a fine basket of fruit from it. The good old fellow attributed the continued productiveness of his tree to the fact that every other year he had taken off a little soil and spread on a coat of manure. He was right, of course.
Chemical fertilisers may be used with equally beneficial effects. As a proof of this I will ask my readers to glance at the accompanying figure. It represents Apples of the same variety gathered from similar trees growing close together. Each specimen fairly represents the fruit on its particular tree. The difference in treatment is nothing more nor less than the application of an "artificial" mixture to one tree and not to the other. I was asked at a lecture to name a mixture for the purpose of improving some unsatisfactory trees. I did so. The person most interested thought he would experiment with it. As a result he sent me the Apples shown. The trees that received no attention yielded fruit that would be dear at a shilling a bushel; the tree dressed bore produce that would be cheap at four shillings. Herewith I give the formula:-
A Splendid Fertiliser for Improving Unsatisfactory Trees.
8 parts of superphosphate. 4 parts of basic slag.
6 parts of nitrate of potash. 4 parts of nitrate of soda.
4 parts of sulphate of lime.
Mix and use at the rate of 4 oz. per square yard in January or February.
Sewage is very valuable for strengthening trees. It will help a heavily laden tree to finish off a crop if given in summer; but as sewage tanks are often emptied in winter, I hasten to add that it will not be wasted if poured on then. Remember that, paradoxical as it may appear, liquid manure is better given when the soil is wet than when it is dry.