Once you’ve invested in new fruit trees, you want to make sure you get them off to a good start. Every step from digging, planting, mulching, watering, staking and pruning is important to their long-term health and survival. You’ll be able to do a good job with your fruit trees by following these steps:
New fruit trees that arrive by mail are best left in their box, in a cool place, until you have time to plant them. Before planting, soak their roots in water at least an hour to overnight.
The best holes for fruit trees are dug to fit the diameter and shape of the individual tree’s roots. Never prune roots to fit the hole! The depth of each hole is determined by the graft line. This line is recognized by a change in bark color or by a diagonal scar in the bark. This graft line must remain just above soil level to prevent “suckers” that will continually need removing.
When digging the hole, mix the topsoil with deeper soil. The cardboard your tree arrived in can serve as a surface on which you place and mix soil. This mixture is then placed around the new fruit tree’s roots. Using just topsoil or lighter soil in a hole whose walls are made of clay allows water to sit around the roots and drown the new tree. Scoring the sides of the hole with the edge of a shovel will also help to keep water from collecting around the roots.
Hold your new fruit tree upright as you place soil around its roots, and then step on the ground around the fruit tree’s trunk to remove all air pockets. Fruit trees can be planted by one person, but it does help to have a helper holding the trunk to assure it stays upright and the graft line remains just above-ground.
Immediate care of your newly-planted tree includes pruning, staking and watering. A newly planted fruit tree should be pruned to about three-feet in height. This will help to balance its new growth to the tiny roots it lost when transplanted. Begin training its branches to angles of ten and two-o’clock by bracing them away from the trunk with wooden, spring-type clothespins.
Staking is done through a fruit tree’s first year until it expands its roots. Dwarf trees, however, need to be staked long-term. Use a firm rope attached to a sturdy stake which is braced at a slight angle away from the tree. The stake is placed on the windward side—the direction from which the wind usually comes. Protect the tree trunk from damage by running the rope through a short piece of hose where it will touch the tree’s bark.
Make sure your tree gets about one-inch of water each week for its first year. Dwarf trees will need this attention long term.
Mulching the ground around fruit trees is essential to protect their roots and to gradually change the soil into what will allow fruit trees to thrive. Grass growing around fruit trees doesn’t support their roots, so mulching heavily out to the “drip line” is important. Imagine your tree as an open umbrella and make sure to keep it mulched as far out as its outer branches reach.
Wild fruit trees thrive at the edge of forests, and that’s is the type soil you want for your fruit trees. Although vegetables do best in soil with a high number of bacteria and a slightly basic pH, fruit trees thrive where the soil has a high number of fungi and a slightly acidic pH. To achieve this, use high-carbon mulch like leaves, straw and shredded branches. Garden compost can also be used if it is mixed with a lot of similar brown material.
Protect the trunk of your fruit trees as soon as you plant them. Rabbits, voles and mice use the young fruit trees’ bark as food. Even a small bite to the bark provides an entry-point for pathogens, and if a fruit tree’s trunk is girded, it will die. Sun can also damages tree trunks in the winter when heating and then cooling results in the bark cracking. These cracks provide an entry point for pathogens.
A six-inch drainage tile around a new fruit tree’s trunk can keep small animals from damaging the bark. Alternatively, vinyl spiral tree guards come in two-foot lengths and can be used for years. Because the vinyl is white, it also prevents “sunscald” by reflecting the sun.
Another method of preventing sunscald is to simply paint the trunks of your fruit trees with white latex paint. Either one-half strength with water or full-strength white paint prevents the trunk’s bark from heating and then contracting with cooling. Some people find that full-strength latex paint is also effective for discouraging damage from mammals.
The original care you take with new fruit trees will translate not only into protecting your investment but also having healthy trees and fruit for decades to come. It pays to dig their holes well, provide the right mulch and protect their trunks’ bark. In the next two blogs, I will explain further methods of having healthy fruit trees without the use of chemicals.
Mary Lou, a retired physician, homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.
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