Twelve Steps to Successfully Planting Fruit Trees

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
"Heel in" your new tree—if you can't plant it right away—by placing it in a 45 degree angle trough. Cover the roots with soil to prevent them from drying out.  

Following these steps when planting fruit trees and with any luck your labors will bear fruit.

1. HEELING IN: If you aren’t able to plant
your tree as soon as you buy or receive it, you should
“heel in” the newcomer. To do so, dig a trough–at a
45° angle–that’s deep enough at its lower end to
completely contain the tree’s roots. Put the
fruit-bearer-to-be in the trench, and cover its roots with
soil. (This step isn’t necessary if your tree has a wrapped
soil ball around its roots when purchased.) The important
thing is not to let the roots dry out!

2. PREWATERING: A full day prior to
planting, thoroughly soak the area where the tree’s hole is
to be dug.

3. DIGGING: Measure the depth and width of
the root cluster, then–separating the top soil and
subsoil as you go–dig a hole that exceeds (slightly)
those dimensions. When the pit is dug, rough up its sides
with your shovel or fork (to give the plant places to grip
as it spreads underground … if this isn’t done, the new
growth may simply circle in the hole causing the plant to
become rootbound).

4. VERTEBRATE PEST CONTROL: If gophers,
moles, or the like are a problem in your area, you can line
the pit–on its sides and bottom–with a “basket”
made from chicken wire.

5. PLACING THE TREE: Build a small mound
of loose topsoil in the bottom of the pit, and drape the
spreading root structure over the hill. Turn the tree so
that the bud union (if your tree has been grafted to a
different, usually dwarf, rootstock) will be facing toward
your area’s prevailing winds … and–if your locale
is often visited by really hearty gusts–position the
trunk to lean slightly into the wind.

6. FILLING THE HOLE: Then, making sure the
graft (if your tree has one) will be above the ground after
planting, put the rest of the topsoil in the bottom of the
hole and fill the pit–to about the three-quarter mark–with subsoil. (The purpose of this “earth reversal”,
of course, is to place the richer topsoil where the roots
can reach it right away.) With that done, flood the
remainder of the hole with water, wait until the liquid
soaks in, and tamp the earth down well.

7. PAINTING THE TRUNK: Apply a coat of
white latex interior paint, covering the trunk from the
ground level (in the three-quarter-full hole) to point just
below the first branch or–where
appropriate–about two inches above graft. (This will
discourage borers and prevent premature leafing and winter
sunscald.)

8. FILLING: Finish placing the subsoil in
the hole, and–while doing so–build the earth up
to form a mound in the center around the tree’s trunk and
a shallow trench along the perimeter of the dug-up area.

9. STAKING: If your tree has been grafted
to dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock, you’ll want to stake it … as its shallow roots could be ripped from the ground in
a heavy wind. To do so, simply position a sturdy support
stick–which, after it’s driven into the ground,
should stand at least as high as the tree’s first
limb–at a point just beyond the outer edges of the
root ball. (Don’t, however, use a newly creosoted stake.)
Then fasten the tree to the support with strips of cloth or
lengths of rubber hose, looping them around the plant about
two-thirds of the way up its trunk.

10. ABOVE GROUND VERTEBRATE PROTECTION:
Protect the tree’s trunk from nibbling rabbits, hungry
deer, scratching cats, playful puppies, and so forth by
giving it a 24″ (approximately) collar of hardware cloth,
chicken wire, or the prefabricated tubing available at
nurseries.

11. PRUNING: MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ tree culturists feel
that it’s not usually necessary to prune fall-planted trees
… unless limbs have been damaged. In that case, the
branches should be cut off below (that is, to the “tree”
side of) the break.

12. MULCHING: Now surround the newly
planted fruit producer with a water-conserving layer of
crushed rock, leaf mold, wood chips, or even freshly cut
grass clippings (use the latter only if no herbicides have
been sprayed on the lawn … and even then, spread the
material no deeper than two inches) … and give your new
friend another good soaking. (You might, at this time, want
to sit down next to the tree and give it a few words of
encouragement. After all, you’re asking it to spend its
life with you!)