How to Plant a Fruit Tree

It’s nitty gritty time! Time to get on the end of a shovel, dig a hole, and plant your fruit tree.

Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree
Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree

We often see fruit trees tied to elaborate staking arrangements, but if you plant them the right way, there’s no need for stakes at all, your tree should be totally self-supporting.

Let’s assume you’ve already chosen the right site for your trees, and have done some earlier soil preparation e.g., planted a green manure crop, dug in some compost or manure, or even deep ripped the site.

If you planted a green manure crop, ideally you will have dug it back into the soil a week or two before you plan to plant your trees. If not, it’s best to just cut and drop the plants on the surface of the ground, rather than dig in the green manure just prior to planting your tree, as the green manure will often decompose quickly in the ground, and can create quite a bit of heat, which is not good for your young tree’s roots. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t done any soil prep at all – it’s best to get the tree in the ground asap, and then work on the soil later.

It’s great if you can dip the tree’s roots in an inoculant of some sort to populate the roots with lots of good microbes (e.g., bacteria and fungi) that will help the tree get its nutrition as it grows.

Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew
Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew

We often use compost tea, or it’s also possible to buy ready-made inoculants, but unfortunately they usually come in industrial quantities.

Next, dig a hole! If you’ve done any soil prep before, the hole only needs to be big enough to accommodate the roots of your tree (and it’s fine to cut the roots back a bit to fit the hole, or to remove any damaged roots). The hole should be deep enough that when the tree is planted it will be at the level it was in the nursery.

A tree in the hole waiting to plant
A tree in the hole waiting to plant

If drainage is an issue, mound the soil up a bit and plant into this, to make sure that any heavy rainfall will be able to drain away from the roots, especially if you’re planting your tree in heavy clay. 

Add any amendments that you’re using, and mix a bit of soil back in.

Now position the tree in the hole so it’s upright, and hold it while you back-fill a few shovels of soil over the roots. Make sure the soil fills the gaps between the roots, and then carefully but firmly tamp the soil down around the roots. Now finish back-filling the hole.

In most situations you don’t need to water the tree in, unless you’re experiencing very dry soil conditions when you plant.

And finally, prune your tree!

A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree
A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree

Planting is a pretty simple process, though there are a few extra things to consider if you haven’t done any prior soil prep, you’re planting into heavy clay or very sandy soil, or are planting into a heavily weeded or pastured area without doing any soil prep, so we do go into quite a bit more detail about tree planting in the Planting Young Fruit Trees short course.

New fruit trees are a great investment in your garden and your future food security, and will be the beginning of a journey of exploration as you get to know your new tree, and learn how it performs in the location, your climate, and of course the level of care you give it!

Happy planting!

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!