How To Plant a Fruit Tree

eureka-lemon-tree-planted

“He who plants a tree plants a hope.”
-Lucy Larcom

Planting a fruit tree is truly an investment in the future, it may take a year or three before a tree begins to bear fruit, but most fruit trees can be productive for 20 to 30 years or more. To give a fruit tree its best chance at a good start in life, a little preparation and forethought goes a long way.

 

The Best Time to Plant a Tree

Is the tree you wish to plant a deciduous tree, which loses its leaves in autumn and goes dormant in winter? Best time to plant deciduous trees is in winter when they’re dormant, but they can also be planted in spring and autumn, when they’re actively growing.

If you’re planting an evergreen tree, which is in leaf all year round, then the best time to plant is in spring, and the next best time is in autumn. The reason? In spring or autumn the weather is mild, and the tree is still growing, so the roots can grow to reach more water as the tree needs it.

Planting in summer is a bad idea as the roots can’t grow fast enough to access more water when extreme heat and wind strips moisture from the leaves. Unless you plan to water daily, or several times a day, then avoid summer planting.

Evergreen fruit trees are not planted in winter because their roots don’t grow in winter, the rootball remains the size of the pot the tree came in until the weather warms up. On dry winter days, cold winds will strip moisture from the leaves, and once the pot-sized rootball dries out, the tree won’t be able to access any more water, causing the tree to dry out.

It’s important to pint out that tree purchasing time doesn’t have to be the same as tree planting time, it’s okay to buy trees earlier and plant them at a later date. Evergreen trees can be kept in pots over winter, and just like any other container plants, will need to be checked for water, and watered when they need it. An evergreen fruit tree can be planted in the ground in winter, but if it is, it should be treated just like it’s growing in a pot (because the roots are the same size  as in the pot) and watered as often as one growing in a pot would be!

 

The Best Place to Plant a Fruit Tree

Trees and plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize, producing sugars which they use for energy. More sunlight equals more energy, which equals more fruit.

All fruit trees need a minimum of 6-8 hours of bright, direct sunlight while they are in leaf to bear fruit.

As sunlight is reduced, fruit production drops, and beyond a certain point, fruit trees will not produce anything at all, and in some instances, can become much more susceptible to diseases.

If you have a spot in the garden that is sunny throughout most of the year, but in deep shade in winter, then plant a deciduous tree there, winter shade won’t matter as the tree won’t have any leaves at that time.

Planting a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees? Plant the deciduous trees closest to the sun and the evergreen trees behind them. The deciduous trees need to be facing the sun so the soil warms up faster, allowing them to come out of dormancy earlier in spring, and to ensure that they receive enough light as their new leaves emerge.

evergreen-deciduous-trees-planting-position

Soil Preparation for Tree Planting

A few minutes of soil preparation before tree planting can save countless hours of work trying to fix a problem that isn’t easily fixed! Seriously, initial soil preparation can make all the difference between success and heartache when it comes to growing healthy, productive fruit trees.

All soils are made of various mixtures of sand, silt and clay, and each has its benefits and problems.

Sandy soils drain well, but don’t retain moisture and nutrients, which can be a real problem in the peak of the summer heat.

Clay soils retain moisture and nutrients well, but don’t drain very well and can become waterlogged during wet winter weather, causing tree roots to rot.

Both of these extremes and any other soil problems can be improved by adding organic matter, such as compost and manure. Mixing organic matter into the soil improves moisture and nutrient retention in sandy soils and drainage in clay soils.

Compost restores the soil structure, but does not contain much nutrients, so if the soil is quite depleted and lacking fertility, it is best to also add some manure to provide nutrients for the tree’s growth.

 

How to Plant a Tree in 6 Easy Steps

  1. Dig the hole, which should be three times the width of the pot the tree came in. If the tree came in a 30cm (12”) pot, then dig a hole 90cm (36” or 3’) wide. Dig the hole to the same depth as the rootball, so the top of the roots in the pot sit at exactly the same level in the ground.
    planting-tree-01
  2. Mix some compost into the soil at the bottom of the hole to improve the soil below the rootball.planting-tree-02
  3. Take the soil from the hole, and mix it in a bucket in the following proportions – 7 parts soil, 2 parts compost, one part manure. If manure is not being used, use 7 parts soil and 3 parts compost instead. It’s easy to measure with a spade, garden trowel, potting mix scoop, or small empty plastic pot.
    planting-tree-03
  4. Sit the tree in the hole, holding the trunk straight and vertical, making sure that the top of the root ball is level with the top of the soil.
    planting-tree-04
  5. Fill around the tree with the soil-compost-manure-mix, then water it it, don’t pack it down! If the soil level settles down lower after watering, and more soil-compost-manure mix and rewater. Mix some seaweed extract into a watering can and water around the tree. Seaweed extract contains compounds called cytokinins, which are natural root-growth stimulants, which help a newly planted tree establish itself and put its roots down quicker.
  6. Stake the tree to support it (if required), this prevents the new roots from being torn when the tree sways in the wind. Place two stakes outside of the filled hole (not through the rootball against the trunk!), and tie the stakes to the trunk using purpose-made soft tree-tie fabric strip (or pantyhose) in a figure-8 shape to support the tree.
    planting-tree-05

Feed the tree with a balanced fertilizer in at the start of spring, then again in the start of autumn (September and March) to support healthy growth of roots and branches.

Most fruit trees won’t fruit the first year they are planted because they divert all their energy for growth into producing new roots, branches and leaves. After this, they will be more better established and able to reward the gardener with home-grown fruit!

 

About Angelo (admin)

Angelo Eliades is a presenter, trainer, writer, permaculture consultant, urban permaculture pioneer and food forest specialist.
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18 Responses to How To Plant a Fruit Tree

  1. Harry OldMan says:

    On instruction number 3, it says “If manure is not being used, use 7 parts compost and 3 parts compost instead.” Typo I know, but what is the right mixture?

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    • Harry Oldman says:

      I assume it should be 7 parts soil and 3 parts compost but want to be sure because the guy at the nursery where I bought my apple trees said backfill with a mix of half native soil, a quarter compost, and a quarter composted manure.

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      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Thanks Harry for picking up the typo, much appreciated, I’ve corrected it, and you’re right, it should say:

        “Take the soil from the hole, and mix it in a bucket in the following proportions – 7 parts soil, 2 parts compost, one part manure. If manure is not being used, use 7 parts soil and 3 parts compost instead. ”

        The problem with using too much organic matter is that it eventually breaks down, causing the soil level to sink down, which will cause the tree to sink lower below the soil level! This isn’t a problem with vegetable gardens as the plants only last a season, but for trees it would be disastrous.

        Using 25-30% organic matter in a soil blend is as high as you would want to go to prevent the soil sinking when the organic matter decomposes, and I think 25% manure is way too much fertliser, trees don’t need that much as most are slow feeders and you don’t want to force to much green growth too fast. I use the rule of 2 parts compost to 1 part manure when amending soil.

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  2. Lisa says:

    I’m reading conflicting things on whether to amend the soil like you’ve mentioned, or not amending…

    Can I plant my bare root trees into a hole without any soil amendments? (with the theory being that the roots will adapt to whats there, and if I amend the soil the roots may remain in the amended zone and treat the area just like it was in a pot?)

    Could I not amend the soil, but top dress with compost and manure instead?

    Appreciate your thoughts.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Lisa, there’s a lot of bad advice out there! If the tree’s native habitat is just like your soil, then no problem, no need to amend the soil if the tree normally grows in waterlogged heavy clay or lifeless sandy soil, whatever the soil type is. If your soil is different to the tree’s native soil type, then it must be amended to make it more like what it needs, otherwise the tree will not reach its optimum state, will not fruit, will not grow, or will not live, depending on how unsuitable the soil conditions are. That’s why we amend soil. If you’re growing indigenous trees, they go straight in the ground, because that’s the soil they normally grow in. If the trees are native but not indigenous, or exotic to the location, then they need all the help they can get. Hope this explanation helps.

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  3. Dave Prebble says:

    Hi Angelo, greetings from England
    I have about 300 mm very light sandy soil over heavy stony clay. I like to give taproots a easy route to follow as they grow. My planting measures are pretty much the same as yours but with a twist. I drive a 150 dia hole down about 6-700 mm deep from the bottom of the pit using a jumper bar [2m long 10kg chisel] and a spoon type post hole digger to remove the debris. This is filled with a compost / sandy soil mix and the tree planted over it. This has given me good results. Can you see any downsides to this ?

    Dave

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    • Svenulf Skjaldbjörn says:

      By driving a hole into the clay and filling it with compost, the water will soak into the compost which is surrounded by clay that will not drain. and you have created a water pocket that could drown the tree. Plant the tree like normal, and it will decide where its roots need to go.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Dave, fruit trees generally don’t have tap roots, they have shallow spreading roots that only go around 60cm (2′) deep, and they prefer well-draining soil and don’t cope with waterlogging as it causes root rot. The compost filled holes might be okay in the warmer seasons, but will fill with water and stay wet all winter, drowning any roots growing in there.

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  4. Lisa Margaret Hall says:

    Hi Angelo, I am putting in a school garden, the area is compacted as a demountable classroom was removed. As there are raised beds this is not a problem. But I want to put in citrus trees. Our climate is temperate with clay rain fall 1600mm p/y. I have thrown on a cover crop of cow pea and sunflower already ( though I tried decompacting with a fork). The area is very compacted and has a ph of 6.0-5 .0. My thoughts are to rip the soil to decompact , add gypsum, dolomite-lime then compost,manure (cow) and mulch. I would appreciate you advice. Kindest Regards lisa

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Lisa, the soil would have been compacted intentionally to support a building, so it will need serious attention. I think your idea to rip the soil to decompact it is on the right track. Definitely add gypsum, compost, cow manure and mix it into the soil. I’d probably go very light or hold off on the dolomite lime as you’re already adding calcium with the gypsum, as too much of one nutrient can reduce the availability of others. Also, Lime makes the soil more alkaline, and as your soil becomes more acidic or more alkaline, the availability of certain specific nutrients is reduced once again. Once the soil is amended, mulch the whole lot with 5-7 cm of mulch over the top to protect the soil ecosystem that will form.

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      • Lisa says:

        Thank you for your invaluable advice.It is always best to get a second opinion thank you again for offering us the opportunity to ask advice.stay well

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  5. Jesse Ford says:

    I like how you mentioned that you can prevent a complicated fix by doing soil preparation before planting fruit trees which could save a great number of labor hours. My wife and I are thinking of going to a wholesale tree nursery because she’s considering some cherry trees in our backyard to increase the amount of fresh food we grow. I think it’s a good idea for us to consider going to a reputable nursery to get the plants we’re looking for to grow the best fruit possible.

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  6. Charles says:

    Hi Angelo. Love this site. Its helping me learn and solve problems.

    A question about planting fruit trees in a clay soil. I have seen some advice where you do as you have outligned in regards to the hole and soil ammendments. You then fill the hole in and place the root ball on the soil surface (not at the bottom of the hole). you then mound up soil around the root ball and mulch 10 cm thick. You then tether the tree to stop it falling over.

    I guess it depends on how bad your clay soil is. My soil is so impacted you cant get a spade into it further than a few cm. A fork on the other hand is pretty good, like 20cm. In addition its full of mud stone. Bent a few forks on that ! Drainage wise it does drain, albeit slowly.

    Interested to hear you opinion on such challenging ground.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Mounding is useful for growing subtropical trees which hate ‘wet feet’ (waterlogged roots) in winter such as avocados, it’s a technique used to drastically increase drainage, and works for these trees because they have shallow spreading surface roots, because tropical climate soils are typically shallow. The problem arises when you use mounding for temperate climate fruit trees, you run the risk of drying out the roots in extreme hot weather.

      I’m afraid you don’t have compacted soil, you have no soil whatsoever! It sounds like you’re gardening on straight subsoil. Is your soil badly eroded on a rural site or is this a new urban property where the thoughtful developers always bulldoze off the topsoil layer and sell it off as a matter of practice? You really need to establish a layer of topsoil over your mudstone-filled clay subsoil. You can use raised beds on flat ground, or terracing on sloped ground, and you need to purchase real soil from a landscape supplier to create garden beds…

      The other option is to rip the soil with a bobcat earthmover and incorporate in lots of organic matter such as compost and manure, and then cover the lot with a thick layer of woody mulch to try to build new soil out of the subsoil layer.

      If you can’t get your hands through the soil, let alone garden tools, the tree roots wont be able to either, and they won’t grow!

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  7. Charles says:

    My property is in a remnant Messmate gumtree forest on a 12 to 15 degree slope. Prior to the house it was forest.

    I think your right, its subsoil with grass growing on it. I went around the property with a shovel and could put it in an inch in the grass area (where I want to plant fruit trees). Under a granny smith apple tree (in the grass area) 5 to 10 cm and in the remnant forest, 5 to 10 cm. The forest and the apple tree are enriching the soil by them selves.

    From you comments, I think that when the hillside was cleared for a house and a lawn area 30 years ago they took out the topsoil as well. The grass has made a small amount of topsoil in its root zone.

    I like the second option “rip the soil with a bobcat…” rather than constructing a terrace. Would I prepare the soil the same way you have described in your six steps but just on a larger scale, say a 3 meter diameter circle instead of 900mm for a single tree (assuming you were thinking 300 mm pot in the steps)

    Also..sounds like i should incorporate some gypsm to help with the clay soil.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      What most Australians probably won’t want to hear is that eucalyptus trees are generally allelopathic, the exude chemical compounds (terpenes and phenols) from their fallen leaves and branches which kill off any plant life around them. Some native plants have evolved to be able to grow there though. It’s an evolutionary adaptation, European walnut trees also do this. In eucalypt forests, the forest floor often shows a ‘Swiss cheese effect”, where the groundcover plants are killed off. Since eucalypt leaves and branches resist breakdown, and they’re evergreen and don’t create much leaf mulch, they don’t help much with the soil building process. They have what is termed a ‘dynamic canopy’, where they shed whole lower branches as the canopy height increases. If you kill your groundcover plants and don’t add leaf mulch, the soil will erode, especially on slopes! That is what has basically happened on your property. Other native trees such as acacias (wattles) actively build soil and act as pioneer trees to initiate new forests. They would be part of a long-term solution if you had a few years to rebuild the soil profile.

      If you rip the soil with a bobcat, you would create long garden beds that run along the contour of the slope, in other words, they run across the hill at the same level rather than downhill. Make the beds around 3m wide and as long as you like. To prevent all your organic matter being washed downhill, and to help capture and gather valuable organic material carried by runoff form higher up, place a log or some kind of barrier at the bottom edge of the sloped bed. It’s not quite a terrace but a stop, you can even make it out of earth you dig up, to construct a swale, which will catch water and flow it into the ground.

      Definitely add some gypsum to help break up the clay, this will help the organic matter work its way into the soil.

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  8. Charles says:

    Thank you for your advice. Its a blueprint for moving forward.

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