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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.


Can You Plant in a Place where the Previous Tenant Perished?

Q. Greetings from Zone 6a in the Great White North! Before I heard your warning that peaches are a difficult fruit tree to manage, I planted a Red Haven. I struggled with it for five years as the amber ooze just kept getting worse. Last year some of the ooze was hanging two to three inches down on all of the branches and the tree finally succumbed. Can I plant anything in that spot now or is this condition still in the remaining roots of the peach tree and the soil and likely to spread to any newly planted item? I am considering a fig tree.

---Bruce in Toronto

A: Before we get to this week's question, a little geography. A few weeks ago, we answered a sweet corn question from a listener in metro Detroit who mentioned that he was in Zone 6a; and now Bruce, all the way up in Toronto, says that his Zone is also 6a.

Which first had me thinking of the line in the old Talking Heads song: "Two men say they're Jesus; one of them must be wrong…"

But a few minutes on MapQuest revealed that the two locales are only a four-hour drive apart on the Canadian 401, and Toronto is more due East than straight North. Toronto is also right on Lake Ontario, which despite the fact that parts of it freeze over, moderates the temperature. (And Canada in general has a more complex climate than most Americans realize.)

OK; school's over. But before we get to the details of picking a new plant for Bruce, let's first discuss his big concern. Like many gardeners, he seems to feel that the death of his peach tree was caused by some sort of soil-borne disease, fungus, or evil spell cast by jealous gardeners in Syracuse, where they also have lake effect snow but without any actual giant lakes nearby. However, the symptoms he describes instead greatly implicate peach tree borers as the likely culprits; and those pests are pretty specific to peach trees (and not lurking in the dirt).

What troubles me most about his message is the vague part about 'peach tree roots remaining in the soil'. That could mean the stump is still standing. Or it could mean that he had the stump ground down to soil level. Or it could mean that he pulled the entire stump out of the ground and a few snapped-off roots remain.

And if he left the stump in the ground or just had it ground down to the soil line he can't plant anything there because the underground space is still occupied by a massive root system. I continue to be astounded that so many people have big trees cut down, leave their stumps in the ground and then ask what they can plant in the same spot.

(The best answer is to box over the area and build a raised bed on top, thus avoiding that giant plug in the ground. You'll find a detailed Question of the Week on the topic under 'tree stump' in our A to Z archives.)

Now, let's assume that Bruce has pulled the stump and there's just a couple of broken roots in the ground; no problem there. And I can assure him that the departed peach did not curse the soil, so he can pretty much plant anything as a replacement--IF he cares for the new plant correctly; and if the soils drains well. Very few plants can survive constantly wet soil, which I suspect is abundant up in his region. (And 'wet feet' would have weakened a peach tree and made it an easy target for borers.)

Now, the University-based articles I scanned on recommended fruit trees for his region do suggest apples, peaches, plums and sour cherry (aka 'pie' or 'tart' cherry). And of that four, plums and pie cherries are easier to grow than peaches or apples; which are doable, but you have to devote a lot more time to their care—pruning, thinning, spraying*, praying….

(*specifically with non-toxic protective agents like the micronized clay spray Surround, not nasty toxic chemicals, which are unnecessary.)

But again--nothing's going to thrive there if the soil stays constantly wet. Maybe willows; but you don't get a lot of good eating off them. So I'm going to instead make a hard left turn and suggest the fruit I most associate with really cold climes: blueberries.

They're easy to grow, very productive, tasty and super-nutritious; and if he is battling a wet spot, he'd have to improve the soil with lots of peat moss anyway to make it more acidic (blueberries require VERY acidic soil), which would also make it drain better.

And Canada is the land of peat! Studies show that European peat bogs are endangered, but Canada has vast, sustainable reserves of peat. And blueberries are native to the Northern US and Canada. And the fruit requires little work—just acidic soil and protection from birds.

So, Bruce—think blue!


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