All the Basics: Planting & Caring for Fruit Trees
Learn how and when to plant fruit trees in your home garden—and how to maintain them for the optimal yield.
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After the decisions of where and what kind of tree to plant, deciding when to plant is much less complicated. Though most people don’t think about fruit trees until later in the spring, when they begin to bloom, winter or very early spring (as soon as it is possible to work the soil) is the ideal time to plant. You’ll have access to a wider variety of cultivars earlier in the season, and spring rains will help new trees settle, grow roots, and get acclimatized before the drier and warmer months of summer.
How to Plant a Fruit Tree
No matter what type of tree you select, the protocol for planting is generally the same. Dig a hole at least two times the size of the tree roots and about the same depth. The hole should be V-shaped, with the sides sloping upward. When planting a bare-root tree, it’s helpful to pile up a bit of soil at the bottom so the roots can be draped on either side of the mound. Don’t loosen the soil at the base of the hole, as this can lead to the tree settling too low, which will put it at risk of root rot.
While the care instructions for most other plants advise you to amend the soil at planting time, fruit trees should be planted in plain soil with no additional fertilizer or compost. Research has shown that fruit trees planted in enriched soil are reluctant to spread roots out beyond the area where the soil has been amended.
Plant your tree so that the crown flare—the point at which the roots begin to spread out at the base of the trunk—is at the soil line. As most fruit trees are grafted, look for the bump on the lower part of the trunk that signals the graft point and make sure that it is not buried (it should be 2 to 4 inches above the soil line). Try to position the tree so the outward bump from the graft is pointing to the northeast, to reduce the likelihood of sunburn.
Fill in the hole with the soil that was removed, making sure to tamp it down to avoid air pockets. It’s good if the soil, once the tree is planted, slopes downward a bit on all sides—this will prevent water from pooling at the base of the trunk, which can lead to rot. Water the tree well and keep an eye on it, as there may be some settling of the soil over the first few days.
Cutting Back Bare-Root Trees
If you are planting a bare-root tree, your job is not yet finished. The great benefit to bare roots is the opportunity to shape them to your liking; they are the closest thing the tree world has to a clean slate. To take advantage of this, however, you will have to summon your courage and make one hard cut.
After planting your bare-root tree, you need to cut the main trunk back to about 2 feet tall (roughly knee height). This is called a heading cut. It’s a painful thing to do, especially for someone new to pruning, but it’s for the best. If this cut is done to a bare-root tree while in winter dormancy, before the tree has leafed out, it will stimulate growth in the buds below the cut—which encourages low branches and a strong frame for the tree. Use a sharp set of loppers that have been cleaned, and cut the main trunk at a slight angle, just above a bud, with the higher side of the slanted cut directly above the bud. If you are buying from a local nursery, you might want to ask them to help you make the cut. A full-service nursery should be able to assist you.
This is the only time it is possible to do such an aggressive pruning, when the tree is small and young. It feels like an awful thing to do, but young trees grow quickly. You will be surprised by how soon the tree resprouts.
If there are small branches on the trunk below the cut line, you can either keep them or remove them if they are weak or poorly formed.
After making a hard heading cut, the tree will begin putting out shoots from the buds on the trunk below the cut. Some of these buds will put out two or even three shoots, in which case you want to remove the weaker of the two shoots, or the two side shoots if there are three. The center shoot that remains on the trunk will grow into a branch.
Watering Young Trees
Unless your soil is very heavy, it’s a good idea to create a basin around the newly planted tree for summer watering. Mound the soil so there is a low berm built in a circle about 3 feet out from the tree. This will allow you to water the tree by filling up the basin and letting it soak in slowly. The inside of the berm can be filled with 2 to 4 inches of wood chips, which will conserve moisture and keep the area free of weeds. Make sure to pull the wood chips back a few inches from around the trunk, to avoid creating an environment that is conducive to crown rot. You’ll want to remove the berms once the fall rains start, so the tree doesn’t get too much water, and so standing water doesn’t freeze in cold temperatures.
Young fruit trees need about an inch of water a week, so additional water will be required during the dry months of summer for the first few years. This can be accomplished with soaker hoses or an in-ground irrigation system, or by using the basin system described above. It’s important to water slowly and deeply, to make sure the entire root area is soaked. If using a garden hose, it’s best to apply water at a trickle, and make sure not to place the hose right at the trunk. The roots of a tree grow beyond the branches, so apply water to a wide area around the tree.
Because summer water needs will vary due to the type of soil, the average temperatures in your area, and whether or not you mulch, it’s good to monitor the soil around your young tree the first year or two. Though the surface of the soil may be dry, dig down a few inches to assess the moisture level in the root zone and adjust your watering accordingly.
You can reduce water application in late August, which will begin to prepare a tree for the dormancy stage of winter. Too much water late in the season encourages shoot growth and can lead to lower fruit quality.
Pruning and Maintenance
It is pruning, more than anything else, that intimidates new fruit tree owners the most. How to cut? Where to cut? When to cut? It can all be a little overwhelming starting out. So first, let’s talk about why to cut.
The truth is, trees survive fine without pruning—no one prunes trees in the wild, do they? Then why bother doing so for the trees in your yard? Well, there are several reasons.
It doesn’t matter if a tree grows bushy or tall when it’s in the wild— and the birds don’t generally complain about the quality of the crop. But we want to get the best yield of the tastiest fruit from our backyard trees, and that requires a little effort. Pruning a tree will control its size and growth, which means you can create a strong scaffold that will help support a bumper crop. Pruning also allows for better airflow and helps sunlight penetrate the branches to ripen fruit—trees in the wild can grow into dense thickets that produce fruit only on the outermost branches. Pruning will help grow the sweetest, most abundant fruit crops, so it’s worth getting over a fear of the pruning shears.
I was lucky. Not long after I started tending fruit trees, I spent a day volunteering in Piper’s Orchard in Seattle, an heirloom fruit tree orchard in Carkeek Park. There were two professional arborists there that day, also volunteering their time, and they told stories and jokes as we worked. I had never heard pruning jokes before, but this one was my favorite:
What is the difference between two pruning strategies?
Their point was that the same person looking at the same tree 20 minutes apart might come up with two very different ideas about how to prune; there isn’t necessarily one absolutely right way to go about it.
I’ve thought of that many times since, and it makes me feel better every time I pick up my clippers. Pruning doesn’t need to be scary—it’s simply a series of choices.
You might choose not to do your own pruning at all. There are plenty of arborists who can help you with this job. In this case, make sure the person you hire is knowledgeable and experienced (not all gardeners or landscapers have a background in tree care, and not all tree care professionals are experienced with fruit trees). One way to do this is to hire arborists certified through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), and make sure they have experience working specifically with fruit trees. The ISA certification requires 3 years of professional experience and academic study, as well as a certification exam. Don’t assume the person who comes to your door offering to prune your trees has the experience you need; there are too many horror stories from people who have done just that.
How to Prune a Tree
If you’d like to do your own pruning, there is some education needed. There are entire books written on the topic of tree pruning, but here are some basics to get you started.
Pruning should only be done with clean and sharpened tools. Depending on how much your tools get used, you may want to sharpen them annually. Any store that sharpens knives will usually be glad to sharpen your pruning tools as well.
Clippers and loppers can be cleaned between uses with a solution of half rubbing alcohol to water. You’ll want to clean your tools even between pruning different trees, as this reduces the possibility of transferring diseases. Soak tools for at least 5 minutes before rinsing with water and drying.
Trees should be pruned twice a year—once in summer and once in winter (though some experts disagree on this). My feeling is that pruning twice a year allows you to accomplish different things. In winter, when the leaves are off the tree, it is easier to look at the shaping and structure of the tree; summer pruning, when the tree is fully leafed out, helps you focus on controlling overall size and allows you to see whether or not the fruit is being shaded out. Make sure to schedule your winter pruning for after you’ve had some freezing temperatures, which put the tree into a dormant state.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is how much you prune at one time. Aggressive pruning will cause a tree to respond with vigorous growth—by sending out a lot of thin, vertical branches called watershoots or watersprouts that tend to be weak and unproductive. A good rule of thumb is to make sure to remove less than 25 percent of total tree branches. If you’re concerned, err on the side of removing less. You will always get another chance, at your next pruning, to do more.
When pruning, start with three basics:
- First, remove any damaged or diseased branches, or any branches that rub and chafe against each other (take out the weaker branch, or the one that may be awkwardly located).
- Second, prune out any shoots growing from below the root graft at the base of the trunk.
- Third, consider airflow and sunlight and remove branches that may impede circulation or shade out fruit, or prevent you from being able to access the fruit to pick it.
(c)2018 by Tara Austen Weaver. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Growing Berries and Fruit Trees in the Pacific Northwest by permission of Sasquatch Books.