Garden writer Ciscoe Morris offers advice on pruning fruit trees, handling aphid problems on fruit trees and planting bare-root trees and shrubs.

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Most experts agree that the best time to prune fruit trees is in August. Having said that, if you didn’t get around to it last summer, or even if you did and find that your tree is still crowded in the middle or taller than desired, there’s no problem pruning now before it breaks dormancy.

Start by removing any dead branches and twigs. Then prune to maintain an upright shape by cutting to an upward facing twig at the point where branches begin to grow in a downward direction. Next, thin out shoots growing into and crowding the center of the tree and remove any upright sprouts growing from the top of the tree.

Control for height by cutting topmost branches back to twigs or buds slightly lower on the branch. Keep in mind that if you make big cuts to drastically reduce the height of the tree, it could result in serous decay. Worst of all, your tree will exact revenge by producing endless sprouts that you’ll end up battling for the rest of your life.

Apply dormant oil sprays now

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If your fruit tree typically suffers severe aphid problems in spring, a dormant oil spray now could prevent the problem from occurring this year.

Aphids normally give birth to live young, but in fall, offspring mate and the females lay eggs that overwinter on the tree. In spring, the eggs hatch at about the same time that new growth occurs. If steps aren’t taken to control them, large populations of aphids can weaken the tree and harm the fruit.

Inspect the ends of branches to see if they are covered with tiny, black, shiny aphid eggs.

If they are present, “Supreme,” “Superior” and “Sunspray” are typical brands of horticultural oil sprays that, applied now, will prevent the aphid eggs from hatching. As long as you follow the directions on the label, dormant oil sprays are harmless to birds and are among the safest and most environmentally friendly ways to deal with aphids.

Bare-root is the way to go

Every year, a wider selection of bare-root trees and shrubs are becoming available at your local nursery. If you can find the plant you want, bare root is the way to go. Bare-root plants tend to establish strong root systems faster than potted plants because the roots don’t have to make the difficult transition from the soil in the rootball to a different kind of soil in the planting hole.

Bare-root plants come only with the roots in a plastic bag filled with sawdust making them less expensive than plants in containers. Store your bare-root plant in a shady cool location and make sure the sawdust remains moist until you’re ready to plant.

Right before planting, soak the roots in a bucket of water for about two hours to rehydrate the roots. Dig the hole wide enough to spread out the roots, and use care not to plant too deeply. The topmost roots should be located just below the soil surface. As the last step in the planting process, pour the water you used to soak the roots into the planting hole and then gently plunge the tree up and down a couple of times. That will remove any air pockets and usually will firm the tree so well that it shouldn’t require staking.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening with Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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