This article describes how to plant a new pot-grown or bare-root fruit tree in open ground. If you are planting in a patio pot or against a wall or trellis, you will still find some of this information useful.
Don't dig holes in advance, they will just fill with water. Dig them on the day you intend to plant the trees if possible.
Planting is best done on a dry day. Do not try to plant your trees if the ground is either frozen or water-logged.
Planting fruit trees is a 2-person task, so the first step is to find a willing helper. At least one of you should be fit enough to shift a bit of soil with a large fork.
You will need:
- Large fork and/or spade.
- Either a permanent tree post or a temporary tree post.
- A hammer big enough to bang the post in.
- Rubber tree ties.
You may also want to wear protective clothing, the biggest risk is a poke in the eye from a stray branch.
Quick advice on planting apple trees for those in a hurry
If you don't have time to read the full article please note the following points:
- Most new trees need a stake or post to support them while they get established. A proper tree stake (wood or metal) is best, but a heavy-duty bamboo cane will suffice for smaller trees if you are in a hurry.
- Do NOT add compost or fertilizer to the planting hole (unless you are planting on re-claimed building land or have exceptionally poor soil).
- Apply a bucket of water after planting.
- ALWAYS apply a mulch around the base of the tree after planting.
- If you have rabbits or deer in the area, you MUST protect the trees immediately - otherwise they will be eaten, usually the night after you have planted them.
- NEVER keep fruit trees indoors. If the weather is too cold to plant, keep them in an un-heated garage and contact us.
You are welcome to contact us for further advice.
Step 1. What type of support?
Most - but not all - new fruit trees will require supporting with a post or stake. See our article on supporting a new fruit tree.
Step 2. Digging the hole
As noted above, do not dig the holes too far in advance, as they will inevitably fill with rainwater. Fruit trees do not like to be planted in standing water.
Now dig a hole for the tree to a depth of about 2ft / 0.5m. (For container-grown trees another way to guage the size of the hole is to make it 3 times the diameter of the container, and dig down the depth of the container plus 5cm). The hole should be a bit wider and deeper than the size of the roots. If possible, break up the sides and base of the hole further with a fork, so that the tree roots can grow out easily.
If you are planting beside a permanent stake, dig the hole for the tree on the south side of the stake (more sunlight). However if your site is exposed to a strong wind prevailing wind, put the hole on the downwind side of the post. If in doubt, avoiding a prevailing wind is more important than planting on the sunny side of the post.
It is best to dig the hole on the day you intend to plant the tree - this ensures it is not full of water if it rains beforehand.
Unless your soil condition is extremely bad it is not necessary to add fertilizer to the planting hole, in fact it is a bad idea. You want to encourage the tree roots to grow outwards, not stay within an artificially nutrient-rich area within the hole. If the soil is sandy or has a lot of clay, improve the structure by mixing in well-rotted farmyard manure or compost.
If you believe your soil is poor and you are planting a lot of trees then it might be better to dig over a larger area before planting, and mix in a quantity of top soil or compost. Most fruit trees like the top soil to be at least 2ft / 60cm deep, and 3ft is preferable for vigorous rootstocks. However do not dig holes in advance, as they will fill with water, which is not helpful for tree establishment.
Step 3. Planting the tree
If your tree is in a container, make sure it is well-watered (add water and leave for an hour or so if necessary). Then remove it from the container (see notes below).
If it is a bare-root tree, remove any protective packaging from the roots and soak the roots in a bucket of water for 2-3 hours. It is very important with bare-root trees not to let the roots dry out.
Make sure that the tree is planted to the same depth as it was in its container or at the nursery - an easy way to do this is to lie a plank or bamboo cane temporarily across the top of the hole to indicate the soil level. The first person should then hold the tree dangling into the hole so that the soil line on the stem of the tree is level with the plank. The second person should then start to refill the hole by mounding soil up under the tree until it rests at the correct height.
The soil should be firmed down as you go but not compacted - this process removes air-pockets from around the roots. Once the tree is positioned correctly the rest of the soil can be moved back in, again taking care to firm rather than compact.
It is generally a good idea to shape the soil into a slight bowl around the tree - this will help with watering as the water will be retained in the area around the tree.
Note that some trees may have the remains of a plastic-like wrapping near the base of the tree (above the roots). This should be left as it is - it is grafting wax and will decay naturally as the tree grows.
For 1-year bare-root dwarf trees (i.e. with a dwarf root system) an alternative planting method is worth considering, known as "notch planting". Make two notches in the ground with a spade (in a 'L' or 'T' configuration), lever the soil out slightly, drop the tree into the gap (making sure the roots are spread out into the gap), and lever the soil back and firm down. This method may seem almost too quick and casual, but it has the great advantage of minimising damage to the soil structure, and provides much better anchorage for the tree than is possible with a conventional planting hole. However it only really works with maiden dwarf trees, and the ground needs to be light (or cultivated earlier in the year in readiness).
Step 4. Supporting the tree
If you have used a permanent tree post, you can now tie the tree on to it.
If you needed a temporary stake, now is the time to plant it. Again this requires 2 people. The stake should be banged in past the tree at an angle of 45 degrees - this means that the stake goes into the ground well outside the root circle. Whereas a permanent stake is designed to take the "weight" of the tree for its entire life, the purpose of a temporary stake is just to help the tree as it gets established, and after 2-4 years it will be able to support itself. Thus the temporary stake should be attached to the tree fairly low down, perhaps 1m / 3ft or so. The action of the wind on the growing tree is what encourages it to thicken its trunk and eventually become self-supporting.
Step 5. Mulch and Watering
The last step, and also one of the most important, is mulching and watering. Start by watering the tree with a large bucket of water. Apply the water slowly so that it has time to sink in. It might help to firm down the soil again at this point.
Next apply a mulch. A mulch is a layer of organic material which will suppress grass and weeds, which provide far too much competition for water and nutrients for a young fruit tree and will stop it establishing properly. The best mulch material is well-rotted farmyard manure or compost but decorative gravel also works. Lay it or spread it on the ground, out from the trunk to a distance of about 3ft / 1m. The mulch layer should be just deep enough to prevent light penetration, so about 1" / 3cm. Unless you are in an area prone to water-logging, it is a good idea to build the mulch up at the edges so that water naturally flows into the tree. Leave a gap of about 1" / 3cm around the stem.
Mulching is almost always beneficial for new fruit trees, but in very hot dry climates the mulch layer can act as a home for various undesirable insect bugs and pests. This is perhaps the one situation where mulching becomes counter-productive, and bare-soil (and good irrigation) may be preferable.
The day after planting you should water the tree again with another bucket of water. Water it once a week (more frequently if it is hot and dry), but try to avoid over-watering as most fruit tree roots are unable to survive in flooded soil.
Step 6. Your tree's first spring
The first spring is the key time for your new fruit tree, as it establishes itself in its new surroundings.
Weeds will stop your new tree establishing, and must be removed. However do not apply herbicides around a young tree. Instead make sure your mulch is dense and preventing weeds from growing near it.
Apply a general fertilizer in early spring before the tree starts to produce shoots. Young fruit trees mainly need Nitrogen but a Nitrogen / Phosphorus / Potassium mix is useful. This is important for bare-root trees, but optional for container-grown trees (since they already have adequate nutrients from the compost we supplied them in).
Check your tree regularly to monitor the growth during the first spring and summer whilst it is getting established. Container-grown trees are prone to drying out if there is a prolonged dry spell, so please make sure you tree is watered (but not drowning). This is particularly an issue with young plum and cherry trees, where new shoots can easily grow more than 3ft / 1m in a few months, placing considerable demand on the root system. After the first year the roots will have settled in and you don't need to be quite as attentive, although for the first 3-5 years when the tree is still growing it is a good idea to keep an eye on it.
Dwarf trees always benefit from regular watering in spring and summer whereas those on more vigorous rootstocks will increasingly be able to manage for themselves as they get older unless you have a prolonged period without rain. In general it is better to apply a bucket of water once a week than a small amount daily.
We will now comment on some aspects of planting which are specific to container-grown or bare-root trees.
Planting pot-grown fruit trees
Pot-grown trees are not designed to remain in the containers they are delivered in permanently, and should be planted out as soon as it is convenient. This is particularly important for container-grown plum trees, which should ideally be planted as soon as possible after delivery. Even if you intend to grow the tree on a patio, you must still transfer it to a proper pot or tub. However unlike bare-root trees, you can leave container-grown trees in their containers for a few weeks before finally planting them out (provided you look after them of course), giving you more opportunities to get your garden or orchard plan just right. However make sure that the trees are planted out by the end of spring, and avoid planting in the period May-August as it is very difficult to transplant fruit trees over the summer.
If you decide not to plant your container-grown tree immediately, place it in a sheltered part of your garden, and make sure it cannot be accidentally blown over. Do not under any circumstances keep the tree indoors. If the weather is exceptionally cold then store it in an unheated garage, but move it outside as soon as the weather improves.
Before planting the tree, water the container thoroughly and leave it to soak for an hour or so.
Some authorities recommend teasing out the roots from the compost a bit but this is not necessarily good advice. It is certainly a good idea if the tree is dormant (i.e. you are planting during the winter and the tree has no leaves) and in fact you can remove all the compost if you wish, so that the tree is effectively a bare-root tree. However if the tree has leaves or buds on it (i.e. you are planting during autumn or spring), do not disturb the root system within the compost.
Planting bare-root fruit trees
In the UK and Europe bare-root trees are supplied during the winter, in the USA they are supplied in fall or early spring. In either case they will be dormant.
Bare-root trees must be planted as soon as they arrive, preferably the same day - but do not attempt to plant them if the ground is frozen.
If you cannot plant the tree in its final position straightaway, you can keep the tree for up to 3 days in a frost-free shed or garage, but do not uncover the roots, and make sure the tree is not exposed to frost. Do not keep the tree in a heated house. If you think the roots look dry, you can stand the tree in a bucket of cold water for 4-6 hours, which will help to re-hydrate it - but only do this immediately before planting. This is not always necessary if you plant the tree as soon as your receive it, but it is helpful if the tree has been left for several days.
If you need to store the tree for longer before planting, you should dig a shallow hole, remove the covering from the roots, and lie the tree on the ground so that the roots are in the hole. Then cover the roots with soil or sawdust and press firmly - this removes the air and prevents frost damaging the roots. This method is known as "heeling-in".
Initial pruning of newly-planted fruit trees
After planting in many cases it is advisable to carry out an initial pruning of your newly-planted fruit tree. This initial pruning, where required, is a very important step in getting your fruit tree off to a good start.
Note on animal protection - PLEASE READ
If you have rabbits or other rodents or deer in the vicinity you must protect your new trees. These animals will certainly eat them, so if you have any suspicion that these animals might be around you should assume the worst. The trees will need protecting from the first night they are in the ground - don't think this is a job you can put off until a more convenient time!
Rabbits and hares are the most serious problem, as they will eat the bark, and a bad attack can be fatal to the tree. These attacks can happen at any time of year, but mostly in winter. Apple trees seem to be particularly attractive to rabbits, whereas pears and plums and cherries are often left alone. If you have rabbits in the vicinity, the best protection is a plastic bio-degradeable spiral tree guard or something similar which will physically stop the rabbits getting at the trunk of the tree. Wire-mesh is also effective.
Once the tree is a few years old rabbits become less of an issue - they don't like tougher older bark.
It is not a good idea to keep spiral guards on a fruit tree for more than a few years because they can start to harbour insects and infections which can damage the tree at the rootstock union - but when the tree is young the risk of rabbit damage is by far the greater concern. The tree protectors sometimes used for forestry trees are not suitable for fruit trees because they interfere with the formation of the branch framework (which is usually much lower on a fruit tree than on an ornamental tree).
Deer are also a very serious threat to both new and established fruit trees, especially in winter, when they will eat large quantities of bark. They must be kept well away from the tree with proper fencing.
Cattle and other livestock do not necessarily eat fruit trees since they are usually being fed by their owners, but they will blunder into them out of curiousity, so proper fencing is also needed.
Chickens can be beneficial, as they are excellent for keeping the area around the tree free of undesirable insect pests. Keep an eye on them at first, just to make sure they are not developing a taste for leaf buds or scratching the soil too near to the new tree, but once the tree is a couple of years old this is not an issue and chickens are useful partners for fruit trees.
If your tree has already been attacked you can often diagnose the culprit as follows: If the bark has been nibbled low down on the stem it is rabbits. If the stem and lower branches have been nibbled in many places, it is probably deer. If the bark has been stripped off rather than nibbled, it is probably hares.
If you suffer the misfortune of an animal attack on your fruit trees send us photographs of the damage as we can sometimes advise if the tree will recover. Rabbits tend to strip the bark low down near the graft union, which is usually fatal. However other animals may attack higher up, and on a young tree it is sometimes possible to cut the stem back to to a bud, allowing the tree to re-grow.
The threat from rabbits and deer is not a lesson you want to learn from bitter experience, so protect your trees!