Planting an Orchard in Fall

Rather than shocking young trees awake during the spring or summer, planting an orchard during the fall more naturally simulates the seasonal cycle.

| October/November 1995

Most trees begin to emerge from dormancy in late winter-sometimes as early as late January even in the North — when there is still snow on the ground. Nurseries couldn't dream of getting their digging equipment onto the land before then, which means that near-convenient time in mid-spring, most are held in artificial dormancy many weeks (or even months) longer than they would remain somnolent in nature. That’s why planting an orchard in fall is much more natural: it permits rain and snow melt to compact soil around the roots and have your trees awaken slowly in their new home, rather than all at once, months late, and in much warmer weather than is natural.

 No matter when planted, a little bareroot tree has been ripped from its nursery, leaving behind its original feeder roots — the microscopic hairs that grow from rootlets and make the actual connection between plant and soil. It must grow an all new set, and if given the chance, will get started underground long before any top growth is visible. A fall-set tree can have as much as a year's head start on a spring-planted counterpart if it is set in right.

First of all, don't treat a newly acquired bare root tree tenderly by "heeling it in" moistening the roots, packing them in damp soil or moss, and leaning the tree in a shady spot as you would in spring. This could break dormancy, initiate growth, and severely set back or even kill the tree. Keep it as dry as it came, in the dark, and as cold as possible while you prepare a planting hole.

The Hundred Dollar Hole

As the old saying goes, you oughta "dig a hundred dollar hole for a ten dollar tree." Of course, top-quality fruit or ornamental lawn trees cost more than $10 these days, so the hundred dollar hole is worth more. In truth, it costs nothing like a hundred bucks, though. It is the work that you put into preparing a planting hole for a new tree that gives it value, offering a good start and firm foundation for decades of growth and production.

Most bare-rooted specimens, from a foot-tall slip to a 24-inch sapling or a yard-high two- to five-year-old, will come with a root mass no bigger than your two hands formed into a fingertip-to-fingertip basket. Small as it may be, dig it a hole the size of a bushel basket, about 18 inches around and deep. For a larger tree, or any specimen that comes with roots baled in soil, make the hole two feet around and two feet deep.

First, cut out sod and set to one side. Remove dark, loamy topsoil and put in a pile. Then, dig out and discard light-colored subsoil down to planting depth. If any tree roots are growing through the hole, grub them out mercilessly. Though if the roots are so big they require an ax or saw, you may want to spare their parent tree... and you are probably planting too close to an adult tree anyway. (Many trees, poplars and nut trees in particular, actually secrete plant poisons in the soil within their drip lines to deter competition.)

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