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How to Plant Fruit Trees

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There is nothing better than picking and eating fresh fruit right off the tree. Whether you long for a childhood memory of eating succulent fruit from a backyard tree or just want to try something new, here’s what you need to know about planting fruit trees.

apple tree with red fruit

Why Plant Fruit Trees?

As with all gardening, one of the goals is to have the freshest food possible at your fingertips. The same is true for planting fruit trees. The ability to have fresh fruit growing in your very own backyard is appealing to those people who may remember their grandparents growing fruit at home, or for those who want to know where their fruit comes from. Many of us are becoming much more aware of how far our food has to travel in order to get to our kitchens. Why not consider growing your own fruit trees at home to help cut back the footprint your family is making in worldwide food shipping?

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Fresh flavor is also another reason to grow your own fruit at home. Especially with tender fruits, such as peaches, grapes, and berries, shipping can be hard, and the quality can decrease greatly with travel. Berries are especially susceptible to being mushed in transit or going bad from sitting in the grocery store cooler case. The best decision we ever made was planting a few raspberry canes and blueberry bushes a few years ago. Fresh raspberries and blueberries are delicious and so easy to grow!

When to Plant Fruit Trees

Though most trees arrive at hardware stores in late winter/early spring , and spring catalogs are chock full of fruit trees of all kinds, growers can choose to plant most fruit trees whenever the ground is not frozen and daytime temperatures are above freezing and below 90 degrees. 

However, bare root trees need to be planted while the plant is still dormant, usually late winter or early spring. (Bare root trees literally arrive with roots bare, no soil.)

Fall planting has some advantages: the roots are given time to establish in the native soil, the cooler temperatures can be less stressful on a newly planted tree, and there are lower water requirements since the tree is not actively growing.

Choosing a Planting Site

Once you’ve decided on the type of tree to grow and have ordered it from the company or purchased it from a local, reputable nursery, you’re ready to plant. Start by choosing a site, then test drainage, and finally dig your hole! To choose your site:

  1. Find a spot in your yard that gets as much sun as possible. Unless you are in an area where your temperatures get over 110 degrees fahrenheit, plant your tree in full sun. Start at the south facing side of your yard for areas that may get the most sun.
  2. Consider any potential obstacles nearby, as fruit trees can grow very large if you don’t prune them to maintain size. (see backyard orchard culture for information about keeping fruit trees small, even if they’re not labeled “dwarf.)
  3. Don’t forget the roots need space to grow as well, so avoid planting too close to pavement, septic systems, or buildings.
backyard space with green grass, shed with white doors and a covered patio

Test Your Planting Site’s Drainage

It is very important to test your proposed planting site for how well it drains. One sure fire way to kill a young fruit tree is to plant in an area of poor drainage where its roots will sit in water.

To test your drainage:

  • dig a hole about 1 foot deep and fill it with water.
  • Wait 3-4 hours.
  • If the water drains out, fill it again.
  • If it takes longer than 3 or 4 hours for the water to drain on the first or second try, then you should consider a different planting site. If you don’t have another option, consider planting on a mound or in a raised bed.

Should you amend soil before planting a fruit tree?

This is a very common question, and the short answer is no. For fruit trees it is not recommended to amend the soil when planting.

Your goal is for the roots to grow deep and wide to find water and nutrients. If you add nutritional amendments to your planting hole, the roots are not going to want to venture out of their comfortable little home. If you want to add compost, it is best to place it around the tree after planting and not into the soil you use to backfill the hole. Avoid adding any conventional fertilizer when planting, since it can burn the delicate roots. No one wants to waste their precious time and money by damaging a tree before it’s had a chance to grow.

Digging a hole for a fruit tree

Another common question about planting fruit trees is how deep and large should the planting hole be? When planted, the tree should be the same height it was growing at the nursery. So dig your hole a bit deeper than the root system will need and backfill some for looser soil.

For bare root trees you should see a slight change in bark color indicating where the soil level was. Dig the hole a little deeper than the root is tall, and wider than the roots when they are spread out. Use a pitchfork or shovel to loosen the sides of the hole to make it easier for the roots to penetrate outwards.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree

Placing the fruit tree

Fruit trees will have a graft union where the tree is grafted onto the rootstock. When you plant, position the bulge so it is facing south to protect the grafting scar from potential sunburn.

Depth

As mentioned earlier, it is important not to plant the tree too deep, being extra careful to leave a 2-3 inches between the graft union and the soil. If you have fast draining soil, you may even want to plant an inch or two higher to allow for settling when you water it in.

Root Care

Try to be gentle with exposed roots and never allow them to dry out. For bare root trees, soak the roots prior to planting for about 30-60 minutes, but don’t let them soak for more than a couple hours. Simply place them in a bucket of water while you are busy digging the hole.

Inspect the roots before planting and prune off any broken, rotted, or twisted roots with a good pair of pruning shears. It is also important to fan the roots out when placing them into the hole, not allowing them to circle back on themselves. Sometimes it helps to make a small cone of soil in the middle of the hole to support the roots as you fan them out. 

Filling in and Mulching

Once you have situated your tree in the hole, backfill it with native soil, gently tamping the dirt down around the roots to eliminate air pockets.

Mulching around your tree after planting has many benefits such as water conservation, weed control, and soil improvement. Apply 2-4 inches of mulch at least to the width of the drip line (where the water drips off the leaves). For best results, don’t allow the mulch to touch the trunk of the tree. And definitely do NOT volcano mulch around your trees (excessive mound of mulch that looks like a volcano.)

Avoid bagged mulches that are dyed, as thick layers of this chunky mulch can actually prevent water from reaching the roots of your newly planted fruit tree. Instead, opt for a pine straw mulch if possible.

Watering Newly Planted Fruit Trees

When you first plant your tree it is important to water thoroughly to allow the soil to settle in around the roots, and to give it a good drink. This can be done over several days if you are dealing with slow draining soil.

It is recommended to provide at least one inch of water weekly to the tree during the first-year growing season. Trees, unlike our lawns, require deep watering on a less frequent basis. Drip irrigation with a timer, like this DIY kit from Rain Bird, is a good way to keep your fruit trees happy.

Pruning a New Fruit Tree

  • Why Prune? Pruning after planting is important to establish a stronger tree that will mature earlier. For bare root trees, make a heading cut at knee height just after planting. This will encourage lower branching for easy training, spraying, pruning, and of course harvesting delicious fruit. (Need some pruning basics? Check out this article from Penn State University.)
  • How to Prune Fruit Trees: See full article on how to prune fruit trees, but remember that the goal in the first 3 years is not fruit production. Instead, focus on establishing the shape and size of the tree that will easily support a bountiful harvest. (Also check out our article on How to Prune Blueberry Bushes.)

Fruit Tree Planting FAQ’s

Which fruit trees can be planted together? 

Before purchasing a tree, make sure it is compatible with your USDA plant hardiness zone. Just because they sell a tree to you at the store doesn’t mean that it will grow or produce fruit when you get it home and plant it. Another thing to look into are the required chill hours for the tree you want to purchase. It’s a good idea to plant more than one fruit tree, making sure that there is a suitable pollinizer nearby. Check to see what other variety would be a suitable match for the one you want to plant and plant them no more than 100 ft apart. Even trees that are self-fertile can benefit from cross pollination.

How far apart should fruit trees be planted?

  • Peach, plum, and apricot trees are not grown on dwarfing rootstock and should be planted about 18-20 feet apart.
  • Some trees that are grafted onto dwarfing rootstock can be planted as close as 5 feet apart. (Check the tag from the nursery.)
  • Follow the recommendations from the nursery that supplied your tree, or plant closer together and prune to keep your trees a manageable size.
  • If you don’t have a lot of space, I would recommend high density planting, and the backyard orchard culture.

Fruit Growing Guide

Want to grow fruit in your home or backyard? Here's what you need to know to grow blueberries, raspberries, tree fruits, and more!

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