Planting Fruit Trees

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There are proper methods for planting fruit trees (and any other tree for that matter) to assure a quicker start healthier tree and earlier crops. You'll only plant a tree one time (hopefully), so don't skimp or take short cuts.

Planting Fruit Trees - When to Plant

Fruit trees seem to do best when planted in the mid to late fall. Most mail order nurseries will ship trees for late fall planting.

Planting fruit trees in the early spring is fine, but late fall is by far the best. I've planted trees in early November before, and have had to scrape a bit of snow out of the way before I could dig.

Planting trees in the fall will allow time for the roots to get established while the ground is still thawed, but the air is cold enough that the tree doesn't try to break dormancy.

All of the tree's energy goes into establishing a strong root system early on (until the ground freezes). This makes for a stronger tree with better growth in it's first spring when it starts to grow foliage.

Planting Fruit Trees:
Preparing your New Trees

If you have purchased bare root trees, it's a really good idea to place the roots in a bucket of water as soon as you receive them. Soaking overnight helps the tree rehydrate after being dried out in shipping or storage. If you can't plant the tree within a day or two after you get it, you really need to get the roots covered in soil. Either put the tree in a bucket of moist potting soil or heel it in.

Heeling in involves digging a quick trench, laying the tree in at an angle or just laying all the way down, and covering the roots to prevent them from drying out. I don't recommend leaving a tree heeled in for more than a week. You're really better off if you plant you trees within a day or two after you get them.

Planting fruit trees that are potted, or those with the root ball wrapped in burlap(B&B) don't need as much preparatory care. If you aren't going to plant them right away, keep them well watered, until you ARE ready to plant.

Planting Fruit Trees: Digging the Hole

You've probably heard the old saying that there's a right tool for every job. Well there's a right tool for planting fruit trees as well. A standard shovel will do, but you will have to work twice as hard as if you had used a planting spade. Planting spades are are narrower and longer than a standard shovel, as well as having a shorter handle with a T-handle at the end. These differences allow you to work more easily in a smaller space, and make sod removal a breeze by comparison.

Once you have selected the site for the tree it's time to dig the hole. Start by cutting a circle in the sod about three feet in diameter. Bigger trees may need a bigger circle. Cut the sod into quarters (like cutting a pie). Skim off the sod at a depth of about 1-2 inches, and set it aside. It won't be going back around the tree. I use the sod to fill in bare spots in other places in my yard. Fall & spring are good times to move sod anyway, so make the best of it.

NEVER dig a hole just big enough for the root ball to fit into. The tree may survive this treatment, but will take much longer to get established, and will also take longer before it bears fruit.

dig a hole at least 3 feet wide

Dig a hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball of the tree. Digging and loosening the soil that far around the tree will allow the roots to grow and develop more quickly. The sooner your new tree can get it's roots established, the better it will do, and the quicker it can get down to the business of producing fruit for you. You should also loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole a foot or more down so that the roots can work their way down vertically as well as horizontally.

Don't go cheap on digging a planting hole, you'll only do it once for each tree, and the results are worth the extra effort.

Planting Your Fruit Trees

If you have heavy clayey soil, it's a good idea to amend the soil that will be going back into the hole. Mixing in some compost while the soil is out of the hole will make for much healthier and happier trees, which means better fruit yields for you in the future.

Do not fertilize when you are planting fruit trees. Especially in the fall. If you're Spring planting, it's OK to use a liquid root stimulator when planting. "Fertilome" brand is one that I have used before and like pretty well. Fertilizing should be done in the spring when the tree breaks dormancy.

Position the tree so that the graft is 2-3 inches above where the soil level will be. Make sure that the tree is straight, even if that means that the root ball isn't. If you're planting a bare root tree, make sure that the roots are spread out evenly around the tree and not restricted or wrapped.

Spread roots evenly around the hole

Water in your new tree before completely filling in the hole

Back fill the hole with the original soil, being sure to keep the roots spread as the soil goes back in. When you have the hole filled about 3/4 of the way, add water to the hole until no more will soak in. This helps to remove air pockets, settle the soil and gets the tree started with a good watering. Then finish filling the hole with the remaining soil.

Build a "bowl" or a dam of soil around your new trees the same diameter as when you removed the sod. The "bowl" holds the water around the base of the tree so that it will soak in instead of running off to water the grass near it.

Planting dwarf trees or planting in a very windy area may require you to stake your trees for the first year or so until the roots are well established.

Planting Fruit Trees:
Start-up Care and Maintenance

Keep the soil under the trees well mulched and weed free for AT LEAST the first few years to reduce drought stress and competition. Grass and weeds will compete with your new tree for valuable nutrients and water. Mulch also keeps mowers and weed eaters away from delicate bark. Bark damage is one of the main causes of death for small fruit trees.

Rabbits will eat the bark from small trees in the winter, and can girdle a tree. Girdling means that the bark has been removed in a ring all the way around the trunk. Once this happens, the tree is as good as dead. Nutrients and water travel up the tree through the inner layers of the bark. No bark means no water or nutrients which means a dead tree. So, it's a good idea to put trunk protectors around your trees for the first couple of years - at least until the bark thickens up so rabbits and other gnawing critters aren't tempted to take a nibble.

If you have a very dry time right after you plant, it's a good idea to keep the new tree watered to maintain their health. Even if it's quite cold. As long as the soil isn't frozen, the roots are still somewhat active and growing.

Planting a fruit tree is a one time venture, but having fruit trees is a multi-year commitment. If you want to have happy, healthy trees that produce crop after crop of awesome tasting fresh fruit, make sure to take the time to plant your new trees properly. Start them off right, and they will thank you with many years of delicious home grown fruit.

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Related Links:

Pruning Fruit Trees

Planning an Orchard

Planting Fruit Trees

Flowering and Pollination

Sources for Fruit Trees:

Stark Bro's

Dig A Hole...

There's an old saying about planting fruit trees, and it holds true for other trees as well. It goes something like:

"Dig a $20 hole for a $5 tree."

Essentially what this means is, the more effort you put into digging the hole and up front preparation, the healthier and happier (and more productive over time) the tree will be.

NEVER dig a hole just big enough for the root ball to fit into. The tree may survive this treatment, but will take much longer to get established, and will also take longer before it bears fruit.

Standard Shovel and Planting Spade