Planting and Early Care of Fruit Trees
Fruit trees can be an attractive and useful addition to the home landscape. This guide will help you to establish new fruit trees that will provide you with beauty and fruit for years to come.
When to Plant
Fruit trees may be planted in early spring, as soon as the frost in the ground has thawed. If the soil is waterlogged, it is best to wait until it drains. Wait until the soil no longer comes up in sticky clumps that stick to the shovel.
Bare-root nursery stock is usually less expensive and will establish and grow well, if planted in April or early May. If you have to hold onto the trees a short time before planting, store them in a cool, shady place where they will be out of the sun and wind. Pack the roots in moist sawdust or sphagnum moss to prevent them from drying out. Potted or ball-and-burlap trees are preferable for planting dates in late May or early June.
Digging the Hole
Select a site with direct sunlight. Allow enough room between the planting site and buildings, trees, power lines or other obstructions for the tree to fill its space when full-grown.
Tree size varies with different species and the rootstock that the tree is on. The nursery where you bought the tree can advise you as to how much space the tree will need when full-grown.
Fruit trees are tolerant of a fairly wide range of soil types, but the soil should be well-drained, with a minimum of 18 inches of soil above any ledge or hardpan.
Plant the tree deep enough so that the graft union is two to three inches above the ground. This planting depth will keep dwarf and semi-dwarf trees from growing into standard-sized trees.
Start by cutting through the sod in a circle that is about a foot wider than the diameter of the root ball. Roll the sod out of the hole and discard it or use it to cover a place where you want grass. Then dig a hole wide enough to allow the root system to fit without roots wrapping around the edge of the hole in a circle. Dig the hole deep enough to allow the tree to be planted with the graft union two to three inches above ground. This planting depth is critical for trees on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. If the tree is planted too deep and the graft union is below the soil line, the scion variety will form roots and the tree will become a standard-sized tree.
Filling the Hole
What should you put in the planting hole? Only roots, clean soil and water! Never put any fertilizer in the planting hole. If the soil is poor, you can mix in peat moss or thoroughly conditioned compost before filling the hole. Remember that you want to re-fill the hole using the soil that you removed, if you do add amendments to the soil, keep it at around 10% of the overall makeup of your fill soil.
Trim off any broken or damaged roots before planting. Place the tree in the hole, and after making sure that the depth is correct, fill the hole with clean topsoil. It is helpful at this stage to have someone hold the tree straight while the hole is being filled. Pack the soil in the hole by gently stamping it with your feet. After the hole is filled, water the tree with two to five gallons of water, poured slowly enough so that the water doesn’t run off.
Growers often neglect the annual training and pruning of fruit trees. Without training and pruning, however, fruit trees will not develop proper shape and form. Properly trained and pruned trees will yield high quality fruit much earlier in their lives and live significantly longer.
A primary objective of training and pruning is to develop a strong tree framework that will support fruit production. Improperly trained fruit trees generally have very upright branch angles, which result in serious limb breakage under a heavy fruit load. This significantly reduces the productivity of the tree and may greatly reduce tree life. Another goal of annual training and pruning is to remove dead, diseased, or broken limbs.
Proper tree training also opens up the tree canopy to maximize light penetration. For most deciduous tree fruit, flower buds for the current season’s crop are formed the previous summer. Light penetration is essential for flower bud development and optimal fruit set, flavor, and quality. Although a mature tree may be growing in full sun, a very dense canopy may not allow enough light to reach 12 to 18 inches inside the canopy. Opening the tree canopy also permits adequate air movement through the tree, which promotes rapid drying to minimize disease infection and allows thorough pesticide penetration. Additionally, a well-shaped fruit tree is aesthetically pleasing, whether in a landscaped yard, garden, or commercial orchard
Hand pruners – Use this tool to remove small branches and twigs. You’ll probably use this tool the most, so keep them sharp and handy.
Loppers – Loppers have long handles and provide more leverage when pruning larger branches. They’re typically used to prune branches larger than the width of your thumb, or about 1″ diameter or more.
Folding saw – This tool is useful when pruning limbs larger than 3″ in diameter.
Pole pruners – These consist of a blade attached to a long pole and are handy for reaching high branches.
Ladder – Helps reach the higher branches of the tree. Remember to always have someone hold the ladder for you; safety first.
Tips and Terminology
Excessive pruning encourages excessive shoot growth and reduces the quality of fruit on young trees.
Older trees (25 years and older ) will produce higher quality fruit following a vigorous pruning.
Prune young trees ( up to 10 years of age ) lightly. Prune older trees more vigorously.
Be sure to remove all dead and broken limbs when you prune.
Remove sucker growth from the interior of the tree and around the base of the trunk annually.
Thinning-out pruning involves removing an entire limb or shoot, this is associated with increased flower bud production.
Heading-back pruning involves the shortening of the branches, and is associated with encouraging shoot growth.
Burning or burying your trimmings is the best practice.
Pruning New Fruit Trees
The day you plant your trees is the day you should begin to prune and train for future production. Too often, backyard growers plant apple and pear trees and leave them untended for several years. This neglect results in poor growth and delayed fruiting.
The purpose of pruning a young tree is to control its shape by developing a strong, well-balanced framework of scaffold branches.
Unwanted branches should be removed or cut back early to avoid the necessity of large cuts in later years. Currently, the preferred method of pruning and training non trellised trees is the central leader system.
Pruning should be done in late winter. Winter pruning of apple and pear trees consists of removing undesirable limbs and tipping terminals to encourage branching. Summer training is most beneficial if done in early June and early August.
Planting to winter
The proper height to cut a tree back to upon planting is 24 to 36 inches tall. Heading back the tree to this height will bring the top of the tree and the root system back into balance and cause the buds below the cut to grow and form scaffold branches.
When 2 to 3 inches of growth has occurred, begin training the tree. Position wooden spring-type clothespins between the main trunk or branch and the new growth. The clothespins will force the new growth outward and upward and form the strong crotch angles needed to support the fruit load in years to come. Allow the most vigorous upright branch to remain growing straight up; this will become the central leader.
A number of branches should have developed after the first growing season; if they were clothes pinned, they should have good crotch angles. The objective now is to develop a strong central leader and framework of scaffold branches. The objective is to try to leave four to five main scaffold branches spaced around the tree. A typical branch arrangement, viewed from above would look like a star, with the branches evenly distributed around the tree. Always make sure that the ends of the scaffold branches are below the height of the central leader after they have been pruned back.
Occasionally a tree does not grow as well as it should during the first year. If this is the case, prune the tree back to a whip and start over again. You will delay fruiting for a year but you will have a more manageable tree.
During the second growing season, develop a second layer of scaffolds 24 to 36 inches above the scaffolds you established the year before. Be sure to clothes pin the second level to develop wide crotch angles.
Limb spreaders can aid in bringing about earlier fruit production, improved tree shape, strong crotch angles, and improved fruit color. Spreaders can be either short pieces of wood with sharpened nails driven into each end or sharpened metal rods. Always spread the tree before pruning, which consists of entirely removing undesirable upright limbs and reducing the length of new shoot growth by one-quarter. Limbs should not be spread below a 60 degree angle from the main trunk. Limbs spread wider tend to produce vigorous suckers along the top of the branch and might have reduced terminal growth. The spreaders should remain in place for 1 to 2 years until the branch “stiffens up.”
Continue to head back the new growth by one-quarter each year and remove any upright limbs. Any broken or diseased limbs should also be removed. Always maintain the central leader as the highest point on the tree. The ends of the primary and secondary scaffolds should always be kept below the top of the tree. Prune the trees every year in late winter.
Generally, fruit trees need fertilizing each year. Nitrogen is by far the most important nutrient, phosphorus and potassium, are needed in relatively large amounts when the tree is young; however, after it reaches maturity it usually requires only nitrogen.
Every attempt should be made to keep the fertilizer at a minimum of 6 inches from the trunk of the tree
4 ounces of 10-10-10 over a 2 foot circle under the tree 1 month after planting, do this in April, May, June and July.
Double the amount of fertilizer applied to 8 ounces, and doubles the size of the circle to 4 feet. Do this three times a year in March, May and July.
The tree is now transitioning from a non-fruit producing sapling into a mature fruit bearing tree. Only apply fertilizer twice this year, once again doubling the amount and the size of the circle you are applying the fertilizer to.
4th year and beyond
In the fourth year of the fruit trees life, start by applying four pounds of 10-10-10 to each fruit tree the last week of February. Keep annual records of the amount of fertilizer you applied, when you applied it and how the tree responded. If you get the desired results from your fruit trees ( moderate tree growth, quality fruit) then do the same thing next year. If the fruit tree produced too much growth, decrease the amount of fertilizer by one pound, if the fruit tree produced too little growth; increase the fertilizer by one pound
Mulching is an easy way to cut down on water loss by plants and soil, as well as to slowly add nutrients back into the soil. Mulches come in organic and non-organic forms; and they affect soil acidity, water retention ability, and nutrient levels—all things that are important to good plant health. Healthy plants are best equipped to survive the drought conditions that we often have.
When considering whether or not to mulch around your plants or trees, some factors to consider are the following:
Cost: What is the least expensive mulch available in your area? You might live next to a dairy, stable, or chicken farm, which could provide very cost-effective manure. In the Willamette Valley, straw is easily obtainable mulch. Rice and buckwheat hull are sometimes available, while most people have a ready source of grass clippings or leaves.
Soil Acidity: Whatever you put on your soil will affect its acidity later on. Mulches that are acid include oak leaves, peat moss, and pine needles. Non-acidic mulches are rice hulls, corncob, grass clippings, sawdust (elm, hemlock, and locust), and leaves (except oak). Some inorganic mulch that will not affect soil acidity is black plastic, and weed-barrier cloths
Other things to consider when mulching are appearances, fire hazard (hops are the most fire resistant of the organic mulch), durability, and avoiding weeds and disease. Grass clippings will decompose the fastest, while wood chips usually last a couple of years. There is always a danger of introducing diseases, so knowing where your mulch is coming from will ease your concern. Using organic mulch that is weed free or was composted to a temperature of 130-140 degrees will cut down on weed problems from within.
Applying mulch properly will cut down on problems later on. Mulch needs to be put on at a depth of 4 and ½ to 6 inches for maximum moisture retention. Summer mulching around fruit trees is great for water conservation, but in the fall the mulch should be pulled away from the trunk to prevent damage from mice or other rodents. If mildew or fungus problems arise, remove the mulch and allow the sun to shine on the soil for a couple of days. This will kill the disease spores. Then mulch with fresh material.\
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