How to buy a good fruit tree

If you’re going to plant fruit trees this winter (and haven’t ordered any from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery), then it’s time to be either getting your order in (they close on June 30), or thinking about buying trees from a nursery.

To give you an idea of the average size of a new tree, this is what a bare-rooted tree will usually look like when you buy it (these are plum trees we’ve grown in our on-farm nursery):

A plum tree that's just been dug up out of the nursery
A plum tree that’s just been dug up out of the nursery

There’s a number of things you can do to give your fruit trees the best possible start in life, and choosing a good tree at the nursery is the first step.

Most nurseries are reputable, and most trees you buy are in excellent condition, however there are still things to look for to help you choose the healthiest trees available.

If you buy fruit trees at a market, make sure the roots haven't been allowed to dry out

If you buy fruit trees at a market, make sure the roots haven’t been allowed to dry out
  1. Check the roots – they should look moist, and not dry. Be careful buying bare-rooted trees at markets for example, which may have had their roots exposed for long periods. Even if the roots look wet when you buy them, it’s worth asking how long they’ve been out of the ground, and how they’ve been looked after between markets (because the trees may be going to multiple markets before they’re bought).
  2. Check the age of the tree – trees that have been at the nursery for more than 1 or 2 years are at increased risk of transplant shock when moved. Be cautious with trees in pots, as this is often what happens to left-over trees from previous years.
  3. Are the buds healthy?
  4. How much did the tree grow last year? This is a good indication of health.
  5. Does the bark look healthy and free of disease?
Trees waiting for collection with their roots wrapped to prevent them drying out
Trees waiting for collection with their roots wrapped to prevent them drying out

When you get your trees home, ensure the roots are kept moist and covered until you plant them.

If you don’t have time to plant your trees straight away, you can also use a method called ‘heeling in’ to keep them in good condition.

You’ll find guidance on the next step towards a healthy mature tree, which is how to plant your tree correctly (including a video), in our Plant New Fruit Trees the Right Way online short course.

Fancy a cup of compost tea?

Having our morning cuppa - of tea, not compost!
Having our morning cuppa – of tea, not compost!

We’re always banging on about soil being the foundation of your entire food growing system, and how important it is to be constantly improving it.

So one of the common questions we’re asked, is “how?”

There are lots of techniques available to help you improve soil, like adding aged chicken manure, and compost (and we’re big fans of them). However one of the most useful (though least understood) is brewing your own compost tea.

We brew it on a big scale (as you can see in the photo below), but it’s also easy to make on a home garden scale.

Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop
Our 1,000 L compost tea brewer set up for demonstration at a workshop

So, what is it? It’s probably easiest to start with what it’s NOT, which is compost extract.

Compost extract is made by putting compost in water and swishing it around or leaving it to soak. You can do a similar thing with weeds to make a weed tea or weed extract. They’re both fantastic things to do, but all they do is to put the nutrients and any microbes present into solution.

This method doesn’t increase the number of microbes in the brew, and that’s the point of compost tea.

Hugh showing off his bathtub full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea
Hugh showing off his bathtub full of rich worm castings, which will be used to make compost tea

To brew compost tea we start with a small amount of something that’s rich in microbes, e.g., good compost, worm castings, or leaf litter from under a mature gum tree are all perfect for this. Then we put the source material in water, agitate it to knock the microbes off, then add microbe food and oxygen for 24-48 hours and voila! The microbes breed like…well, like microbes (that is, REALLY fast when conditions are right).

Components for the compost tea brewer
Components for the compost tea brewer

This turns a small amount of healthy microbes (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa) into a huge number in a very short time.

On the farm we always check the brew to make sure we’ve actually got the right kind of microbes, but that’s not necessary in a home-brew situation, as long as you follow the guidelines.

Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it's full of microbes (and not just brown water!)
Hugh checking the compost tea to make sure it’s full of microbes (and not just brown water!)

Then we just put the tea on the soil under our fruit trees, and let the microbes go to work. 

If you want to know more about this simple and very effective method of quickly building healthy soil, we’ve designed a short course just for you! It’s called The Art of Compost Tea, it includes plans for making a home-sized brewer, and you can download it here.

Winter pruning fruit trees

Beppe pruning plum trees in winter
Beppe pruning plum trees in winter

Have you started your winter pruning? If the leaves have fallen off your apple, pear, plum, peach or nectarine trees, now’s the time to get started. 

We talk a lot about pruning (it’s one of the main things that worries home growers), so we thought we’d share some basic pruning terminology.

Here’s how we label various parts of the tree:

A two year old plum tree that's had it's winter pruning
A two year old plum tree – still in the establishment pruning phase – that’s had it’s winter pruning

Limbs/branches, sometimes called ‘scaffold’ branches: these are the permanent, structural parts of your fruit tree. We usually recommend pruning your trees into a ‘vase’ shape, with between 6 and 10 limbs, starting from a central point about knee height above the ground.

The photo above is a young plum tree that only has 4 limbs, but has been pruned back hard to encourage more limbs down low in the tree (‘establishment’ pruning). We explain this technique, and the principles behind how a fruit tree likes to grow, in much more detail in Pruning Young Fruit Trees.

Of course your tree may have a different shape, e.g., espalier, central leader, or more of a wild and possibly completely unpruned shape (those last ones are pretty common!).

Laterals: these are shorter pieces of wood, also called small branches, side branches, shoots or twigs, that grow from the limbs. These are the main fruit-bearing parts of the tree. Strictly speaking a lateral just refers to one-year-old wood, i.e., the shoots that grew in the summer just gone, but to keep things simple we use laterals to refer to any growth coming from a limb.

Spur: this is a collection of buds, mainly fruit buds but also leaf buds, on a lateral, some of which may also turn into new shoots. The older a spur is, the less likely it is to generate new shoots.

Some fruit trees are much more prone to developing spurs than others, e.g., pears, some apples, and some plums. Apricots can also form spurs. The spurs can keep bearing fruit for years and require little pruning. If they are getting too crowded it’s OK to do some ‘spur pruning’ to thin them out a bit.

Buds – fruit trees have fruit buds (which turn into flowers), leaf buds (which turn into leaves and shoots), and multiple buds that are a combination of the two.

Fruit buds tend to be fatter and a little furrier looking, and leaf buds tend to be flatter and less significant.

Understanding which part of the tree we’re talking about makes learning how to prune much easier, so next time you’re gazing lovingly at your fruit tree, make sure you can identify all its different bits!