Soil is the home of the fruit tree, and so everything possible should be done to make it as pleasant as possible for the trees to live in and happily produce crops for the next 50 years or so. The parts of the tree below ground level, the roots of the trees, must be able to function effectively in order to support the numerous demands of all the remaining parts of the tree above soil level.
Fruit trees are very sensitive. Particularly the first year after planting. Usually if planting is carried out correctly, then the first step has been made to ensuring that the trees do well.
Fruit trees can be grown successfully in any soil. As long as it is possible for the roots to take up water and the basic nutritional elements such as N, P and K, plus the trace elements, then the fruit tree can establish itself.
However, If you live in a location with soils where rhododendrons and azaleas do well, it is important to test the soil’s level of acidity. Fruit trees will do best with a pH of 6.3 to 6.6.
Outside these parameters, the uptake of certain nutrients may become a problem. It is easy to determine the pH of the soil. In good garden centres for little money you can purchase a pH meter. Or you can have a soil analysis performed on a sample of your soil.
How to obtain a soil analysis
If you are moving to a new garden, you will be faced with the question of whether the soil is suitable for growing good fruit trees. To find out the answer, a soil analysis is crucial. It is not expensive, and a soil analysis kit is available from the Royal Horticultural Society soil analysis lab at Wisley.
The soil analysis procedure is not complicated: you send them an email, they will send you some containers in which to put some soil and ask you what you are thinking of growing, and within a fortnight, they will let you know whether the site is suitable in terms of fruit tree soil requirements. As trees are comparatively expensive, they can be thought of as a long-term investment, and so they deserve an initial examination of what will become their new home.
One of the most important factors revealed by a soil analysis is the pH of the soil. Different plants have different preferences: for example, azaleas and rhododendrons prefer acid soils, with a pH of 4 or 5 (7 is neutral). Apple trees on the other hand prefer slightly acidic or neutral soils, so pH 6 to 7. When you receive the soil analysis report from the RHS, it will show the pH and it will also inform you of the soil’s suitability for what you want to grow and on amending new garden soil if necessary.
The analysis will also tell you the type of soil, clay, loam, sand, or a mixture. It will give you the percentages of three substances that are very important for fruit trees, magnesium, potash and phosphate. The recommendations on fruit tree soil preparation are clear and straightforward, and if you follow their advice, the trees will do well. So if you are moving to a new house with a new garden, a soil analysis will help you enjoy tasty fruit that you have grown yourself. The RHS website is: https://www.rhs.org.uk/
This is the link to the RHS web page for soil testing: https://www.rhs.org.uk/membership/rhs-gardening-advice/soil-analysis-service
Soil depth for fruit trees
For optimum health, fruit trees need a minimum unrestricted depth of soil of about 70 cm, 27 inches. For that reason a medium heavy loam soil is ideal. A loam soil has an open nature, which ensures that oxygen is available throughout the soil structure. This makes root growth and the seasonal renewal of the roots possible to the full extent, throughout the soil profile.
Roots cannot grow without energy. This energy is provided by the 21% oxygen in the air. From this it follows that it is essential that the drainage of the soil is working reasonably well, particularly during the winter months. Roots standing permanently in water, as a result of impeded drainage, are death to a fruit tree. Therefore, improve the drainage if it is suspect. Summarising, the soil is the tree’s home. It pays handsomely to ensure that all surplus water, up to a depth of 2 feet of soil, can drain away without any hindrance. Air can enter the soil again and all will be fine.
Soil and water-retention
Pure sandy soils are often problematic for fruit trees as their water-holding capacity is very low. At the other end of the scale, heavy clay is a difficult type of soil for roots to develop well. The closer the soil is to a deep loam the better the trees will perform. These soils will hold a lot of water between the soil particles. This is of great importance particularly during droughty conditions. After all, water is the life blood of the tree. Without sufficient water the tree will die.
To find out whether or not your soil is subject to waterlogging, there is an easy system. Dig a hole roughly where you intend to plant the tree, to a depth of about 8-10 inches. Wait for 24 hours. If the hole does not fill up with water in this time, you can plant a tree.
If the hole that you have dug has filled with water, don’t despair, there is a method! One system is to plant trees on a mound. The mound should be at least 10 inches, 25 cm, in height above soil level and at least 3 feet, 90 cm, in diameter. Only use the best topsoil to construct the mound.
How to improve drainage for a garden orchard
If your garden has problems of waterlogged soil in particularly rainy conditions, we recommend investing in a drainage system. Good professional advice is essential, as there may be some council restrictions to be taken into account, and in any case it is not really a procedure that you can do yourself with a spade.
How to improve soil for fruit trees
The soil’s organic content is of great importance. Without the cooperation of various beneficial micro-organisms surrounding the root tips, uptake of nutrients will become impossible. These micro-organisms work best if the soil has a good level of organic matter.
All types of well-matured farmyard manure are a real stimulus for all-round good development of tree growth and regular cropping. Additional foliar feeding will be very helpful if certain elements are short. This is not a regular occurrence if the soil has been looked after over many years in the past.
Best manure for fruit trees
All living creatures are interconnected, in ways that often we would never have imagined. For example, manure, which is classed as an animal waste product, is an essential food source to living creatures in the lower part of the evolutionary chain, such as fungi and bacteria, including those that live in the soil, in symbiosis with tree roots. So live manure is a superb form of food and nutrients to trees, in our case fruit trees.
Trees love organics: it can come out of a bottle, for example liquid seaweed, or out of a container, natural herb mixtures, or out of a bag, such as dried chicken manure, or straight from the stable such as farmyard manure.
For trees this is pure magic and I have seen the undeniable results as regular as clockwork many times during my life! The real essence of organics is linked to the thousands of nematodes, microbes, fungi and bacteria which work in close harmony with the trees, permitting the uptake of nutrients and giving the trees a real tonic. This in turn improves leaf quality and reinforces the immune system.
Alternatives to manure
If you like your fruit trees to carry regular crops of fruit, do not let them go short of food.
On the market there is a superb product called SUPER DUG. It is totally dried organic natural manure. It comes in a 25 kilo bag. It is a wonderful tonic for all type of trees, shrubs and vegetables. When you plant fruit trees, follow the instructions on the bag, put a couple of spade-fulls in the wheel barrow and mix it well with the soil that you are going to put back into the planting hole. More details at www.compost-technology.co.uk
Soil mulch for fruit trees
A permanent soil mulch is very useful for fruit trees. It typically consists of disintegrating materials such as old wet hay or straw. Or better still, farmyard manure. It should be topped up on an annual basis to a minimum thickness of 4 to 5 inches. It should be applied around the trunk of each tree covering a soil area of a minimum of 1.5 square yards. It is of great importance that the mulch remains largely weed free and therefore is of 100% benefit to the tree and not the weeds. Leave a small ring around the trunk free from mulch as the trunk must remain dry and not permanently damp. This helps prevent fungal infections of the trunk.
Pears and apricots produce better-sized fruits if fed organically. The ideal time of the year to apply this type of manure is in November. This gives the worms plenty of time to start working the manure into the soil. Then by about next April the trees are already beginning to benefit.
How to grow fruit trees in difficult soils
Here are the main rules to follow if soil is not ideal for fruit trees:
- Apples and plums are the hardiest fruit types.
- Always plant at least 2 of each to ensure good cross fertilization. Read more about pollination here, and check our pollination compatibility charts.
- Do not rely solely on self-fertile status. Even self-fertile trees do better if they have a suitable cross pollinating mate.
- Give the trees a chance. Don’t choke the roots under a carpet of grass and perennial weeds.
- The trunk of the tree is the main transport channel for the supply and delivery of water and food to each part of the tree. Protect the trunk from damage caused by cattle, deer, rabbits, mice etc.
Replanting fruit trees
Crop rotation principles have to be applied to fruit trees. If an old apple tree is grubbed because it has reached the end of its life, we can plant another fruit tree on that spot, but not another apple tree. In other words, apple after apple or pear after pear is not to be recommended. If this is done all the same, replant disease will probably badly affect the new tree, and the growing and the cropping of the tree will be a disappointment.
If on the other hand you plant a pear or a plum or a cherry at the place where the old apple tree was, all will be well. Water the young trees weekly, and apply well-rotted farmyard manure or garden compost as an extra tonic.
What is replant disease? An apple tree planted in the ground previously inhabited by an old apple tree will be slow to grow and crop, and may never reach its full potential. The roots of an apple tree develops symbiotic relationships with many fungi and other micro-organisms, and regrowth of the old roots that remain in the soil after the old tree has been grubbed delay the establishment of the new tree’s root system and its respective symbioses. If you plant a tree of a different species, the symbiotic micro-organisms are also different and so the existing micro-organisms in the soil pose less of a problem.