Planting fruit trees

Watch a video tutorial on how to plant a fruit tree.

The main points of successful transplanting fruit trees are:

    1. Don’t plant fruit trees in the shade, choose a spot in full sunlight.
    2. Don’t plant fruit trees on top of other roots of living trees, or on old orchard land.
    3. Stay away from any type of hedge. The distance depends on the height of the hedge: for example if the hedge is 3 metres tall, plant the tree at least 3 metres from the hedge canopy.
    4. Plant fruit trees in a crumbly soil, which is essential to enable new roots to gain access to the soil’s nutritional storehouse of goodies.
    5. Don’t plant fruit trees in water or a waterlogged soil. The tree will suffocate as it cannot get hold of the essential oxygen for the roots to live and work properly.
    6. Prepare the planting spot well before the tree’s arrival.
    7. Dig a decent-sized planting hole at spade depth. Approx. 1’6” diameter. Loosen the sub soil with a rigid tine fork. Keep the union of the tree above soil level. Put the top soil in a wheelbarrow.
    8. Knock in a good quality, 6-foot stake, so that the tree can become established well. The tree should be staked at all times from planting, right through its life. Use a 2” diameter, round, treated stake, 6 feet in length, treated against wood rot fungi. Put the round stake upright in the ground, to a depth of 1’6”.
    9. The soil is the tree’s home. Only the best will do. Mix the topsoil with some blood and bone meal, or well-rotted manure, or John Innes compost number 3 as a soil improver, at a 50/50 ratio. Ideal pH: 6.3- 6.8.
    10. Put that wonderful mixture on top of the roots, move the tree up and down, for this mixture to filter in between all the roots, firm it gently, making sure the union of the tree is 5 cm above the finished soil level.
      Always make sure crumbly soil is put back on top of the roots. Not big lumps of stiff clay. Firm the soil with your boot. Don’t stamp.
    11. Tie the tree with a flexible adjustable tie. If you don’t have a proper tie, an old nylon stocking is a good substitute.
    12. Put a rabbit guard on the trunk. If deer are a problem, use the appropriate guard.
    13. Apply a mulch of wet hay or straw, or better still well-rotted manure around the trunk of the tree, without touching the stem, for an area of at least 1 square yard.
    14. Keep 1 square yard of soil around the trunk free from grass and weeds, during the growing season, from April to September during the next 4 years. If you think that regular weeding is going to be difficult, use a soil membrane from the garden centre. Without this, the trees will struggle. Grass is the worst enemy of young fruit trees.
    15. In the spring, when the tree is beginning to show green, make sure your tree has the benefit of one watering can full of water, on a weekly basis, during its first year in your soil. A full watering can for each tree. The first 3 years are decisive for healthy tree development.
    16. Prevent aphids from damaging your trees. This applies in particular just before flowering time and soon after that. Any garden centre will stock what you will need for this. Use an approved organic method in order to save the ladybirds, lacewings and earwigs. These are excellent predators and the earwigs remove lots of caterpillars.
    17. To stop deer having a go at the young foliage, hang a piece of strong-smelling soap on an S-hook on each tree and replace it as soon as the scent has worn off. Replace the soap every 3 weeks. A 1” square piece is large enough.
    18. During dry periods during the growing season, ensure that the trees get extra water. Two full watering cans a week will keep them going. At all times ensure that the ground is moist. Water is the life-blood of the tree!

How to plant fruit trees in soil subject to flooding

Tree roots need lots of oxygen. This is often forgotten and applies at any time of the year. Tree roots standing in water literally suffocate and if this situation is not alleviated, it will cause the tree to die. If drainage is suspect, always plant your fruit trees on a mound. The height of the mound needs to be at least 10 inches above soil level and 3 foot wide in diameter. Only use the best topsoil to construct the mound. Trees subject to flooding during the spring/summer time, when the tree is full of foliage, are particularly sensitive.

When to plant fruit trees

January, February and March are the best time to plant fruit trees.
Trees evolved their life cycle to survive harsh winter conditions. In winter, there is far less light for photosynthesis, and the low temperatures can easily freeze and kill the leaves. So in the winter months, the tree shuts down, shedding its leaves and virtually halting its uptake of water from the soil, because sap movement has come to a standstill.

From late October, carbohydrate reserves built up in the leaves are sent down to the root system for storage. The tree then sends all the substances it wants to get rid of to the leaves (contributing to their autumn colours) so that leaf drop is like a purification process.

By late November or early December, metabolism has reached its minimum throughout the tree. As the spring approaches, the root system uses some of its reserves to rejuvenate its micro-feeding roots, tiny, microscopic rootlets invisible to the naked eye, the structures that do the job of absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. And so by the start of April the tree is ready to start its new season.

That is why by far the best time to plant trees is in the period from early December to the middle of March. And in that period it is most important to choose the right moment to plant, soil wise and weather wise. It is a mistake to delay the planting until the last moment. The weather is very variable and unpredictable.

The best way of doing it is to have the trees on site, from early January onwards. When you receive the trees, heel them in, near the house, in a trench 8 inches wide and 8 inches deep, cover the roots totally with soil, and leave them until that moment when weather and time are opportune for planting. These moments of ideal planting conditions may only last for a day. If the trees are on the site one can make use of these ideal opportunities , which occur spasmodically during the winter months.

Now, why is it so important to plant early? It is a mistake to think that when the trees are put in the soil they start to grow from that moment. However gently you transplant, the micro-feeding rootlets are all destroyed. Trees need time to adjust and closely associate with the soil, while rebuilding the micro-feeding roots. This process can take as much as from 3 weeks to a month, depending on soil temperature. Without these roots being functional, the trees are totally dependent on the reserves stored in the thicker roots and in the woody parts of the tree above ground. Once those reserves are used up, the tree, if not planted early enough, starves, and will look miserable for the rest of the season.

Advance preparations for planting

It is advisable to prepare the planting site well before the planting season. Check the pH of the soil. It should be between 6.3 and 6.6. Garden centres stock inexpensive pH meters.

Set out the planting positions, with tall bamboo canes, well before the trees arrive. You’ll have worked out the planting plan and the distances between trees with your supplier. Remove one square metre of grass sward for each tree position and remove this grass totally from the planting position. The reason is that the grass roots compete fiercely with the tree, and tend to stop the tree from establishing itself on the new site. Newly-planted trees and grass are BAD companions!

Grass roots are very bad for the trees in the early years, when the trees need all the water available. Break up the topsoil and loosen the subsoil over 1 square metre for each tree. This is very important as tree roots hate stagnant water during the winter months. Keep the soil of the tree positions free from weeds for the rest of the season and for two years after that. The planting hole needs to be at least 1’6” in diameter and approximately 6” deep. Only put the best top soil on top of the roots. No subsoil. Loosen the subsoil with a rigid tine fork, before you plant the tree.

When the trees arrive

If the soil is not frozen, and your planting site is ready, you can go ahead and plant them. If not, you can wait for a few days, leaving the trees in the pack in which they arrived. They will survive for 8 days in a cold but frost-free place. Open the top of the orchard pack to allow fresh air to enter. Protect the trees from rabbit damage. Do not plant when soil is frozen. Instead keep the trees in a cold, but frost-free shed or building. Dampen the roots after 7 days. Before you plant the trees, it is a good idea to put the roots in a bucket of water for 6 to 12 hours. This will invigorate root growth and restore the moisture content of the feeding roots.

Heeling in

Trees heeled in with straw mulchIf you have a fair number of trees arriving, it is a good idea to “heel them in”.

How do you heel in fruit trees? Dig a trench of a couple of feet long, 8” wide and 6” deep, cover the roots completely with damp crumbly soil, and your trees will be very happy to sit in that trench, until you are ready to plant them.

Surround the trees with wire netting so that no rabbits or cats can do damage to the bark of the trees. If you have a half-size oak barrel or similar container, take the trees out of the pack, put some soil onto the bottom of the barrel, place the trees into the barrel, and cover the roots totally with soil. Make sure the soil is moist. Do not heel in the trees close to a hedge as mice damage may occur.

Heeling in means giving yourself plenty of time to plant the trees, when you have got the time to do a good job and the weather is cooperating, so that you can pay attention to the details of planting.

Newly planted trees and night frost

The cropping prospects of your newly-planted trees will be greatly influenced by the level of frost. If temperature at night does not fall below freezing point, then don’t worry, everything will be fine. If on the other hand, night temperatures drop significantly below zero, to between -2 and -5 degrees Celsius as forecast, the blossom will freeze, and the crop will be severely reduced.

There is a remedy. Cover the trees with a double layer of garden fleece during the coming cold nights, and the blossom will be saved. The crop will then not be affected.

Do fruit trees always need a stake?

The amazing thing is that apple trees on MM106 rootstock, if planted well as free-standing trees, usually can do without a stake. The same applies to pears, plums and cherries on semi-vigorous stock. But fruit trees on semi-dwarfing stock such as M26, Pixie, Quince C or Gisela, will most definitely need permanent support. The reason is that dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks have usually plenty of feeding roots but only a limited amount of holding roots. Moreover, fruit trees on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks are more shallow-rooting. This is also the reason why grass, if left to grow right up to the trunks of these trees, is too fierce a competitor, particularly if the good-quality topsoil is shallow.

It is simply impossible for dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees to perform well without a good stake. The wood must have been treated to stop the stake from rotting off at ground level.

You may ask why the stake has to be 6 feet in length. A very good question! The answer is that without a stake of sufficient length, the central leader of the tree will quickly lose its dominant position. The tree will then become a semi-bonsai. In other words, fruit trees on strong rootstocks only need a 4-foot short stake and then only in the early years. Semi-dwarf trees, like M26 for apple trees, will need a permanent tall stake, as highlighted above.

Ideally the stake will need to be set in the soil before the tree is planted next to it. It is important to plant the tree 2 to 3 inches away from the stake, to give the trunk room to expand.

A round tree in a square hole?

We once received a more unusual request from one of our readers who had heard about a tip for planting pot-grown trees. If the tree is in the usual round pot, it advised digging a square hole, the idea being that if you dig a round hole and plant the round root-ball in the hole, the roots come into contact with the round wall, and think that it is simply another larger pot and continue growing in circular pattern around the edge. If on the other hand, the hole is square, the roots will discover the less tightly-packed soil at the corners and go straight on, exploring more ground and ensuring a faster, more extensive root system development. What do you think? asked the reader.

My reply to her was that it all makes perfect sense, and though I had never actually given much thought to this problem, I have in fact been able to try it out, but the other way around! In fact, I received samples of nine new apple varieties from a Canadian research station which asked me to evaluate them under English growing conditions. They were grown on in small square pots. So I followed her tip and planted them in larger round pots! And so next year, when I plant them in the soil, they will go into a square hole.

planting from round pot to square hole

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