Practical Permaculture – The Art Of Planting A Fruit Tree


“perfectly Plum” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans… Three of the most abundant cultivars are not found in the wild… Only around human settlements… Plums have even been found in Neolithic age archeological sites along with olives, grapes and figs…

 I have touched on the subject of planting fruit trees before…

That is the article if you are interested in reading it. This post is meant to be a detailed description of all of the steps involved on the actual day that your tree will be put in the ground. Given the popularity of my last couple of tree related posts, I figured a new post about trees would be a suiting 20,000 views celebration.

So when is the right time to plant a tree? I typically answer with 10 years ago… But the second best time is right now… That statement is surprisingly accurate… Though there are “best”, or recommended times to plant trees, it is always best to put a tree in the ground instead of letting it sit in the pot. I am a realist, I recognize that not everyone is able to purchase, yet alone plant a fruit tree in February. I want to be very clear here, you can plant a tree anytime of the year… There are times of the year that are better than others though… But regardless of season… You can plant trees…

Trees come from the nursery in three common forms, bare root, balled and burlapped (B&B), and potted.

Bare root trees are commonly purchased through the mail to facilitate cheap shipping. I have found that when you order a bare root tree, they will only ship it early in the spring in accordance with the proper planting time. If you happen to receive your bare root trees before you can plant… You can put it in a bucket of water for a short period of time… Like a week or two… Any longer than that and I would recommend potting it up… Or burying the roots in a temporary mound of soil… Don’t leave it to long though as it will take root and become very difficult to remove…

Balled and burlapped trees are dug from a field taking care to not damage the roots, afterwards the roots and soil are wrapped in burlap for transport. As long as the rootball is kept moist they can be held for a year or two… Though I don’t recommend that, it is possible. Balled and burlapped trees can be planted anytime of the year, anytime you plant a tree with leaves on it you can expect some stress… Every effort should be made to ease the trees transition when planting off-season… Or anytime other than spring before the tree has leaved out…

Potted plants are probably the easiest way for the home gardener to buy trees, when the roots slip out of the pot easily, stress to the tree is at a minimum. Often times, nurseries will run sales on trees during the middle or end of the summer. For me to tell you to hold that tree in the pot for the entire winter would be a joke… No matter what form you buy your trees in, just plant the thing.

Choosing the proper location for your fruit tree is a relatively easy process, though much of the literature available tends to convolute the shit out of it. If you follow a few general rules, you will plant it in the right spot each and every time.

Start your observations early in the morning, pay attention to where the sun rises in your specific location. In urban environments, all day sunshine is at a premium, the choice is almost always between sunshine in the morning or sunshine in the afternoon. Morning sunshine is always better as the heat has a chance to accumulate all morning, then slowly dissipate in the afternoon and night. Afternoon sunshine on the other hand only starts heating the surface around lunchtime, this results in solar warmth affecting the tree for the latter half of the day, this energy is then quickly zapped from the earth after the sun goes down. Whenever it is an option, always choose morning sun… Always…

A common question I am asked is whether or not a tree can be planted in shade, and as always my answer is yes. But it is extremely important to remember that a tree intended for sun, will never produce as much fruit as that same tree would produce had it been planted in full sun. Some permaculturist would argue with me until the cows come home, but many old-timer farmers would agree with me 100%… In my own personal experiences with gardening and farming… When given the choice between “old-world” and “new-age”… Always go with the old-world… They knew their shit…

I was at one time going to write an article about how to dig a hole, believe it or not, people google it all the time. Well, you start with a shovel, and you end with a shovel… Depending on location, you may need an axe for roots, or a pick mattock to remove stones and bricks. Either way, you just stick a shovel in the ground and move dirt… Remember… Manual Labor is not the president of Mexico… A little old-timer advice for yah…

Tree planting depth is another common question, although the answer is simple… There are a few variables to consider. Seed grown trees will develop a root flare where the trunk meets the soil. Regardless of how deep you think you should plant that tree, if a flare is present, that needs to be at the surface of the soil.


“DogLeg” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – This is a photo of the graft union on a pear tree… The bottom is the root-stock and the top is the scion… This union needs to stay exposed for the life of the tree… As this tree grows… This union will eventually look like a straight trunk… But it will still need to remain exposed…

Grafted trees are a little different though, they have a special requirement that is absolutely detrimental to the overall survival of the specific tree. A grafted tree is made up of two distinct parts, a rootstock and the scion, or top of the tree. The rootstock is an entirely different tree than the top part on a grafted specimen, typically a tree that does not produce good fruit… But instead is dwarfing, disease resistance, or a combination of the two.

Where the rootstock joins the tree is known as a graft union, it will look like the knee of a dog. It is absolutely imperative that the graft union be planted a few inches above the soil line, and do not mulch above this line a few years down the road. The top of a grafted tree does not necessarily enjoy having to suck its water and nutrients through a foreign body, when given the opportunity, the top of a grafted tree will almost always attempt to root itself… If it happens to be successful… The tree will ultimately reject the rootstock… And all of the traits of the rootstock will be lost… An example would be a dwarf apple tree that is only supposed to get 11 feet tall… Could possibly grow to 40 feet… I have seen it happen on more than one occasion…

A common permaculture practice is to plant stuff under trees, a fine practice though I do have a caution to consider when planting under your fruit tree. Any plant that gets close enough to the trunk to touch it has the ability to cause great damage. Not only does the shade and moisture created heighten the possibility of fungus, disease or rot, it also greatly raises the possibility of your tree sending roots out from above the graft union. groundcover and thick vegetation will act the same as if you simply mulched over your graft union, this will almost always cause your scionwood to root… Ultimately rejecting your dwarfing root-stock…

If you are having issues sighting your tree planting depth, place a branch or board across the hole, then place your tree accordingly. Take into consideration mulches that will be applied in the future, you can never cover the graft union… ever… It is important to remember that a rootstock is just a rooted cutting, there is no root flare. As long as the roots are underground on a grafted tree, it will grow fine… You could technically plant a bare-root grafted tree with the union 12 inches above the soil line… As long as the roots are buried… Also a grafted tree does not send out a tap-root… So temporarily take that word out of your vocabulary…

When you put your tree in the hole, do your best to spread the root out around the inside of the hole. If all of your roots grow to one side of the tree, and that side takes on a heavy load of fruit, the tree will probably topple. I personally like to fill my hole with as much original material as possible, I may amend slightly, but never more than 20%… And I really wouldn’t do more than this unless it was completely stone.

My thinking behind this is simple… Lets say you are planting in 100% clay and stone… Extremely lifeless stuff… If you refill your hole with black gold… When the tree hits the clay it will go no further… Would you?.. I feel it is much better to only mix in a little bit of organic material to your fill, and let the tree get used to the conditions at hand. In the long-term, work on your soil with organic mulches and phytoremediation…

A young tree should not be overly nursed, it should be allowed to settle into your location. If your soil is clay, then replacing the soil in the small hole you are planting it in is really doing your tree no favors.

Another scenario worth mentioning, I actually observed recently. A local nonprofit planted 500 trees in Wilkinsburg, many of which are planted in the hell strip next to the road. They actually brought in heavy equipment and excavated these areas, replacing the soil with what I believe to be the 40% manure to 60% topsoil mix available at Ag-Recycle in Pittsburgh… At first I thought this was absurd, then I remembered I could only manage to dig about 9″ into our local hellstrip… Then I hit solid slag gravel… Or fill… I then realized they had absolutely no choice but to do this… Moral of the story… If you can excavate and replace a large portion of the soil with an ideal replacement, then by all means… Dig away…

But for the rest of us, replace with what you have, and slowly add to the soil… occasional leaf mulching during the summer… Comfrey and other legumes… Yarrow… Hell… I already made a list…

When you have finished planting your tree, water it immediately, and thoroughly. The tree will be entering into a period of stress, the simple act of moving a tree is enough to put it into shock. You see… Conditions in your yard are rarely the same as at the nursery, wind speed, temperature, sunlight and humidity changes will affect your tree negatively… Every attempt should be made to ease the transition from nursery to yard… A good rule of thumb is to consider your tree extremely vulnerable until it resumes active growth… When you see new leaves… You can expect equal root growth… A good sign that your tree is beyond the stress phase of its eventual journey to a pie on your table… Or as I like to call it… Fruit tree Nirvana…

To sum this post up briefly… Plant your trees when you can… Spring is best… But any time will do… Likewise… Sun is best… But shade will do… Just expect to alter your approach a bit… Dig your hole twice the size of the roots you intend to stick in it… And fill it with as much of the original soil as you can… Remember to keep the graft union exposed… And water immediately after planting… And until you notice fresh growth… Fertilizers should never be applied… If a tree or plant is absorbing high levels of nutrients during a time it cannot process them… They will build up and could eventually cause damage or death due to toxicity… And that is really all there is to it… Until next time…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Practical Permaculture – Planting and Early Care of Fruit Trees

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 prunersUse 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 prunersThese 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.

2nd Year

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.

3rd Year

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.

4th Year

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.”

Succeeding Years

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

1st year

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.

2nd year

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.

3rd year

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.\

peace chriscondello

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.