Fruit Tree Planting & Care [Part 2]: Where & How to Plant

In part one of this series, we explored many questions to consider when selecting deciduous bare root fruit trees for your garden or orchard. In this post, we’ll discuss how to assess your landscape to find the ideal place for your new tree to thrive.

Where will your tree grow best in your landscape?

In addition to being clear on your goals for any permaculture design, it’s important to identify the various sectors of influence on your landscape and how these will affect any new elements, such as the productivity of your new tree.

We’ve mentioned climate, chill hours, and soil type, but the physical orientation of your landscape, its microclimates, and how it receives wind and sun are also important.

Apple tree in enclosed garden area near a bench

An apple tree in the garden at William Wordsworth’s birthplace.
© Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Access

You will need to access your trees many times throughout the year. Designing for ease is imperative. What will pathways look like? Where will you set your ladder? Think about spring thinning, how to build and maintain your irrigation system, what pathways you will use for bringing in mulch and compost, and taking out prunings and harvests, and how to manage access on a slope if there is one. Hardscaping, steps, terraces, zig-zag pathways, and on contour planting can be very helpful. “Planning is best done in advance.”

Sun

Select a location that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. If you live in a particularly hot climate, choose a spot that also receives shade in the hottest months.

If your landscape is sunny and you’re planting the tree for both its fruit and the shade it will one day provide, consider where the shade will fall and whether it makes sense to one day place a bench or picnic table there to enjoy the shade.

Wind

If possible, select a location that is also protected from wind. Continual wind from the same direction can cause your tree to lean, which will affect its ability to grow. If your landscape is open and receives strong winds, consider planting a hedgerow or some other windbreak to protect your fruit tree. This article by (Perma)Culture and Sanity explores how and why to add a windbreak to your landscape.

Sector analysis showing sectors of influence on the landscape

Soil

Ideally, you have a few years’ lead time to prepare your soil for the fruit tree, including cover cropping, adding soil amendments based on soil test recommendations, double digging, and adding compost each time you dig. If you have a vegetable garden where you’ve been building fertile soil already, you could plant the tree in a portion of the garden. For those of you whose soil is lacking but your appetite for homegrown fruit is strong, you could try the “multi-year hole approach” that Orin Martin describes in “Selecting and Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees.”

Finally, if you’re planting more than one tree, you’ll need to consider spacing requirements, which will be dependent upon your rootstock and the eventual height of the tree.

When to dig

Once you’ve identified your scion, rootstock, and considered these siting factors, you’re ready to dig! You can actually dig the hole for your tree before the rainy season begins, making it much easier to plant as soon as December rolls around. As long as the rainy season lets up long enough for you to dig your hole without damaging your soil structure, you can always dig the hole on the same day as planting.

In Coastal California, you’ll want to plant the tree as early as possible in December-January. Technically you can plant the tree up until April in the Santa Cruz area, but the earlier the better if you want your tree to grow optimally in the first year.

What materials do you need to gather for planting day?

To plant your bare root fruit tree, you’ll need to the following materials:

– A shovel or spade for digging your planting hole

– Digging fork

– Your dormant bare root fruit tree that has been kept dormant through refrigeration, timing of your order, or heeling in

– Compost (two shovels-full per tree)

– Alfalfa meal (one full two-inch pot, or a rounded ½ cup, per tree; we recommend Down to Earth brand)

– Kelp meal (one full two-inch pot, or a rounded ½ cup, per tree; we recommend Down to Earth brand)

– Organic concentrated granular fertilizer (one full four-inch pot, or 1.25 cups, per tree; we recommend Sustane brand)

– Water (for watering in the tree, and so you stay hydrated!)

– Woodchips for mulching around each tree after planting

You’ve done all your research, have your materials, and know where you’re planting. How should you actually plant the tree?

Assuming your soil is prepared, you’re only planting one tree, and you aren’t going with the “multi-year hole approach,” here are the steps for planting your bare root fruit tree:

1. Dig a hole slightly larger than the tree’s root ball. Attempt to keep soil profile layers separate (a pile for the topsoil and a separate pile for subsoil).

2. With your digging fork, fracture the bottom and sides of the hole so that the tree roots can more easily extend into the surrounding soil.

3. Set your bare root fruit tree into the hole and check to make sure the bud union (where the scion and rootstock join) is at least 2-4’’ above the soil level. To do this, lay your spade across the hole and see where it crosses the trunk. This is the true soil level. If you bury the bud union, the trunk could rot or the scion wood might produce roots that will override the rootstock controls and produce a tree much larger than expected. Don’t bury the bud union!

Another reason to plant the tree taller in the hole, or “plant it proud,” is that over time the soil will compress in the hole and the tree will settle and sink. Make sure the roots highest on the trunk are level with the original grade of the ground (see diagram below).

4. If the hole is too deep, remove the tree and add more soil. Don’t add the compost and other amendments to the hole itself; we’ll add them to the top so that the nutrients can soak down into the roots. If you add all of your nutrients for the tree to the hole, the roots may not branch out in search of nutrients elsewhere, ultimately weakening the tree’s anchoring and nutrient-seeking ability.

5. Once the tree bud union is 2-4’’ above the soil level, position the tree so that the stem scar where the rootstock was cut (at the bud union) is facing north to avoid sunburn.

6. Then check that the hook above the bud union is facing into prevailing winds such that strong winds won’t snap the tree at this weak point.

7. Fill the hole with the soil you removed, attempting to fill first with subsoil and then with topsoil.

8. Tamp the soil down so that there aren’t air pockets.

9. Sprinkle the alfalfa meal, kelp meal, granulated fertilizer, and compost evenly around the tree trunk, creating a circle that goes slightly wider than the tree’s current root width. With your digging forth or your hand, lightly “scratch” these amendments into the top inches of the soil.

10. Water in the tree, covering the same circumference of soil where you applied the amendments. Give it a good drink, imagining the water trickling down to the roots below. If you haven’t already, take a sip of water yourself. You deserve it–you just planted a tree!

How to plant a fruit tree diagram by Robert Kourik

Image source: Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape – Naturally, Robert Kourik, Metamorphic Press, 1986.

Now that you now how to plant your bare root fruit tree, you’re probably wondering what comes next and how to care for your tree throughout the seasons.

What’s next?

In the coming year, we plan to write and share more how-to guides related to winter pruning, growth cycles of fruit trees, summer pruning, thinning, and more. In the meantime, you’re invited to join us on February 3, 2018 for our Winter Fruit Tree Pruning Workshop in Sebastopol, California. This daylong workshop covers the basic goals and techniques of winter pruning deciduous fruit trees, including apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums and more. The workshop includes lecture, demonstrations, and an opportunity for you to gain hands-on practice pruning. You can register through our website. Please note that the last day to register is Tuesday, January 30th. We hope to see you there!

Resources

– “Apple Trees for Every Garden” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS (Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems)

– California Rare Fruit Growers

– “Chilling Hours” (UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information Center)

– “Chilling Hours Maps – October 1 Start” (Midwestern Regional Climate Center Vegetation Impact Program)

– “Choosing and Growing Stone Fruits” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)

– “Designing and Establishing Multi-Use Windbreaks” ((Perma)Culture and Sanity)

– Video: “Fruit Trees: A Selection Guide” (Peaceful Valley Farm Supply)

– “Fruit Trees That Require No Pollination” (SF Gate)

– Video: “How to Plant a Bare Root Fruit Tree in Your Garden or Orchard” (Peaceful Valley Farm Supply)

– “Reliable Fruit Tree Varieties for Santa Cruz County” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)

– “Rootstock Basics” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)

– “Scion Basics” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)

– “Selecting and Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees” by Orin Martin (UCSC Chadwick Garden & CASFS)

– Web Soil Survey (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service): U.S. soil maps and data

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