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Q. The home we moved into a few years ago backs up to a creek running through our subdivision. On both sides of the creek is a thicket of ferns, bushes, briars, poison ivy, spindly trees and wild woody vines. The vines grow into the tops of a number of the trees, including cedars. We’ve cleared out a portion of the thicket closest to our home, put up a picket fence and now have a nice backyard with grass. We’ve also slowly worked on thinning out the poison ivy and briars beyond the fence, but don’t want the area to become too open. With the cedars, we enjoy privacy from the homes on the other side of the creek year round, especially, of course, in summer when all the trees are full and the ground is covered by brush. I was told, though, the vines that grow up the tree trunks and into the tree tops can strangle the trees. So, is it a good idea to remove them, cutting them off where they grow from the ground? Should they then be pulled out of the trees, if possible, or left to eventually fall on their own? Should the dead trees standing along the creek be removed? What about the fallen dead wood? How much should we leave or take away before things like the ferns start disappearing? — George Castor, Avon, Ind.

A. A purist could argue that you should leave the woods entirely untouched and let nature run its course. If you aren’t living on a nature preserve, however, most gardeners would work to make the area more livable. You are correct in your belief that ferns and many other plants require the soil and nutrients provided by decaying organic matter, so your goal is to improve the area slightly, without making it sterile.

The vines in the trees could girdle the tree if they went around the trunk and didn’t expand as the tree trunk expands. This is not usually the case, as the vines grow in a more vertical rather than circular pattern. They do compete for sunlight with the foliage in the tree tops and can add considerable weight to some of the branches. Poison ivy has incredible fall color and provides food to wildlife, but I still choose to remove it from my trees for the safety of my family. I cut the vine at ground level and carefully try to remove it from the branches above. If it doesn’t come down readily, I leave it in place for a year. No matter how much time passes, the vines still contain the oil that causes the skin reaction so be careful, even if no leaves remain!

In my woods, I remove standing dead wood if it poses a danger to my house, fence or family, and I remove fallen dead wood only if it’s in my major paths. Finally, I selectively remove the honeysuckle, multiflora roses and garlic mustard. They are invasive species that will choke out native plants.

Your questions should be carefully considered. Some resources relative to management of woodlands include: FNR-137-W “Forest Ecosystem Management in Indiana, http://www.ces.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-137-W.pdf; Indiana Coverts Project, http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/fnr/Coverts/index.htm; and the Indiana Woodland Steward, http://www.inwoodlands.org/.

Q. I have a question concerning our Stanley Plum and peach tree. Last year, for the first time, they bore a lot of fruit. We could hardly wait for the first to ripen when all of a sudden we noticed that the peaches and plums were covered with something that looked like they had been dipped in mud. They became very soft and just rotted and fell off. Please tell us what that was and how we can treat it if it is going to happen again. — Theresia D. Gilstrap, Orleans, Ind.

A. Brown rot disease will cause some loss every year, and, in years when humid, rainy weather occurs, the disease may destroy the entire fruit crop. Brown rot can be just as damaging to cherries, nectarines and other stone fruits.

You will see a small circular brown spot that develops very rapidly, if the fruit is mature. The rotted area eventually becomes covered with gray-colored tufts, which break through the skin of the fruit. The fruit usually retains its form and remains attached to the tree for some time after it is completely rotted; then, it either falls or, if retained on the tree, gradually dries into a firm “mummy.”

The causal fungus overwinters in infected twigs, in mummified fruit on the tree or on the ground. These overwintering sources supply spores for infection in the spring. The blossom clusters and twigs, which become infected in spring, will then provide a secondary source of spores for fruit infection later in the growing season. Therefore, it is important to control these early infections. The disease is most damaging in years when wet weather prevails during bloom and from three weeks prior to harvest until harvest.

Brown rot cannot be effectively prevented by one or two sprays or dusts applied in the spring. A combination of both cultural and chemical control measures is required for control.

Orchard sanitation is of major importance in controlling brown rot. Trees should be pruned to eliminate weak and dead wood, including small twigs, that may have been killed by brown rot the year before and to open them so good spray penetration can be obtained.

Mummied fruit left on the tree after harvest and those on the ground should be removed in early spring and either burned or deeply buried. Rotten fruit that appear in the trees early in the summer should be removed immediately, since they are a source of infection for fruit at harvest time.

A fungicide spray program, beginning at bloom and continuing throughout the season, is required for those stone fruits highly susceptible to brown rot. Fungicides commonly available to backyard growers for control of brown rot include myclobutanil (sold as Immunox) and captan. Read the label carefully for pre-harvest use restrictions.

For more information, contact the Purdue Extension office in your county or go online for copies of ID-146, “Managing Pests in Home Fruit Plantings,” http://www.entm.purdue.edu/Entomology/ext/targets/ID/ID146pdf/ID-146.pdf and BP-445-W “Brown Rot of Stone Fruits,” http://www.ces.purdue.edu/extmedia/BP/BP-45.html.

Q. When is the best time of year to trim apple trees? Thanks. — Richard

A. Late March is an ideal time for fruit tree pruning, allowing time to assess the toll of winter, yet early enough to allow for fast healing of wounds, without pressure from insect pests or disease.

For the first few seasons, your pruning goals will include removing dead, damaged, weak or diseased branches. You want new growth to head toward the outside of the tree, not inward toward the trunk or other branches. Thin out overcrowded areas where branches cross or grow the wrong direction by removing the offending branches back to the trunk or to an outward-facing bud or side branch.

Older, neglected fruit trees may take more drastic measures to make them more productive. Pruning will help open up the tree to better light penetration and usually results in better fruit set, as well as better quality and flavor. It may also help bring the tree back to a more manageable height.

As with the young tree, late winter is the ideal time to take action. First, strive to remove dead, broken or diseased branches. Then, if needed, lower the height of the tree by cutting back larger “scaffold” branches, making the cut just beyond an outward-facing branch. Try not to remove any more than 25 percent of the tree’s live wood in any one season. If more size reduction is desired, spread the pruning out over several seasons. Thin out the remaining wood by removing the weakest branches that are growing too close, crossing another branch or growing toward the center trunk. Make your cut just above or beyond a branch or bud that is pointing in the direction you want the new growth to go, away from the center of the tree.

For more information, look online for a recent article, “Pruning the Home Orchard,” http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/prunehomeorchard.html.

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