"Home gardeners don't maximize what they can get from fruit trees because they don't give them the water and nutrition they need," Simpson said recently at the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden next to Eleanor Pardee Park.
That's one of the key learnings she'd like home gardeners to take away from her upcoming series of classes through Palo Alto Adult School: Beauty and Abundance: Year-round Fruit from the Home Garden. Part I deals with pome fruits — apples, pears and quinces, as well as citrus; Part II with stone fruits — apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, plus a few berries.
Simpson, who grew up on an 83-acre fruit farm in Pennsylvania, knows that even an expert can slip up on fruit-tree care.
"I had a Valencia orange tree that was healthy for 15 years, then it suddenly was dying," she said, recalling that a friend asked if she'd done everything she was supposed to.
Well, actually, no, she admitted.
So she turned back to her books, reading up on fertilizer, watering schedules and pest control. Then she started feeding and watering by the book.
The next year the "dying" tree boasted dark, dark green leaves and was loaded with fruit.
"The tree was able to get by for a long time with neglect," she said, but re-learning how to care for it inspired Simpson to offer the classes.
"Fruit trees are very forgiving, but there will be a moment when they start to decline. The goal is to get ahead of that moment," she said.
In class, Simpson will begin with a general introduction to planting fruit trees, and demonstrate her talk through Power Point slides. The first class of each series is identical, so those signing up for both could skip the intro class the second time around, she said.
The classes are aimed at those interested in planting fruit trees, those who have trees but aren't getting everything out of them and those who just aren't sure what to do with what they've inherited.
She suggests examining the trees in your yard: How much new growth are they getting? Are they setting fruit, and is the fruit of good quality and is it tasty?
The focus of the class will be on learning how much sun, water, fertilizer, pruning, thinning and pest control will maximize one's harvest.
Thinning, she explained, can actually help with pest control, for example. When apples grow in clusters of two or three, she recommends removing all but one. Each place where the growing apples touch becomes a spot where the coddling moth can lay eggs, the precursor to the "worm in the apple."
Ideally, there should be about 5 or 6 inches between apples growing on a tree, Simpson added. That way, the grower will "get full-sized apples that are fully sweet," she said.
Although she grew up on a fruit farm, Simpson really didn't get very involved in home gardening until she retired from the Palo Alto Unified School District in 2000. She had started out as a chemistry teacher and ended her career with the district as assistant superintendent of human resources.
When she had a problem with a quince tree at home, she approached the master gardeners. Soon she found herself involved in the 16-week training course, 12 hours of continuing education thereafter, plus a commitment to then go out and volunteer to pass on research-based information about home gardening.
The UC Master Gardeners offer free monthly talks at the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden, typically attracting 40 to 60 people. They also speak at local libraries throughout the county.
Her all-time record for a class was on July 4, when 170 people showed up to see a demonstration of summer fruit-tree pruning, she said.
The timing of the fall class is important, she added, because the best time to plant fruit trees is in December or January. "You want them to be thinking about it in time to order" bare-root trees from the nursery, she said.
Simpson said, with the right mix of trees, it's possible to have fruit year-round in this climate.
Of course, she added, "You can't ever get prideful about your garden. Nature will humble you."
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What: Beauty and Abundance: Year-round Fruit from the Home Garden
What: Part 1, Pome fruits
When: 7 to 9 p.m., Tuesdays, Sept. 11, 18 and 25
What: Part 2, Stone fruits
When: 7 to 9 p.m., Tuesdays, Oct. 2, 9 and 16
Where: Palo Alto High School, Room 1701, 50 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto
Cost: $42 for each class, or $70 for both
Info: 650-329-3752 or www.paadultschool.org