How to Plant a Fruit Tree

Nurseries are stocked with bare root and potted fruit trees, so now is the time to plant! Late fall and winter are the best times to plant fruit trees in our climate. Trees planted during the rainy months are more likely to adjust to the shock of planting. As long as you faithfully water your trees throughout summer’s dry months, your trees should survive and thrive for many years to come.

Here are the steps to successfully planting your new fruit tree:

  1. Choose the tree’s location. Sun exposure is crucial to growing healthy, productive fruit trees. The tree should receive at least 6 hours of sun per day, but full sun is best. The soil should have good drainage; fruit trees do not like “wet feet.”
  2. Prepare the tree.
    1. If bare root, soak in water for at least 12 hours, then plant as soon as possible. If you can’t plant right away, cover the roots with moist mulch or soil and keep protected.
    2.  If potted tree or burlapped, uncover the roots, then untangle any circling roots.
    3. Spread the roots so they can grow out and away from the center of the tree. Prune any broken or dead roots, plus any roots that are unusually long. Remove any wire, twine, or other wrapping materials.
  3. Prepare the site. Dig a hole as deep of the root ball so that the root flare is level with or just above the ground. The width of the hole should be at least twice as wide as the spread-out roots. Remove any grass and weeds from the soil. Break up the sides and bottom of the hole so that the roots can easily grow through all sides of the hole.
  4. Place the tree.
    1. Bare-root: Pack a mound of soil in the planting hole to support the spread roots and the tree. Set the tree upright on top of the mound and space the roots so they fan away from the tree. The root flare should be at or just above the level of the surrounding soil.
    2. Potted or burlapped trees: Place your tree in the hole. Ensure that the root flare is at or just above the level of the surrounding soil. Position the tree upright and facing the desired position.
  5. Fill the hole with soil that was removed from hole. Do not add any soil amendments or fertilizer, though City Fruit has had good results introducing beneficial mycorrhizal fungi by scattering a few Myco Paks around the roots. Tamp and pack the soil with hands or lightly with feet to eliminate large air pockets.
  6. Watering. Make a small berm of soil around the circumference of the planting hole to help hold surface water. Water the tree slowly and deeply to thoroughly soak the roots and the surrounding soil. After the water recedes, add more soil to fill up the hole to the soil line. When finished, ensure that the root flare is still above the surrounding level soil.
  7. Stake. Staking is not necessary for trees that are moderately stable, but may be necessary for very young trees or trees planted on sites that are sloped, windy, or in planting strips. Drive two strong stakes  into the ground one to two feet away from the trunk. Tie the tree loosely to the stakes no higher than 2/3 of the way up the trunk. Use a non-abrasive material such as old bicycle tubes or rope routed through a piece of old garden hose.  The tree should be able to move freely in some wind, which encourages growth of stabilizing roots, but still be supported so it isn’t blown over in a storm. Monitor the ties periodically and remove them after one year.
  8. Mulch. Add 3-4 inches of wood chips over the planting area of the tree. Be sure to pull the chips a few inches away from contact with the trunk, contact with the trunk will lead to decay. Wood chips moderate soil temperature and reduce competition from weeds.
  9. Prune. At planting time, only prune dead or broken branches. Any non-essential pruning should be left until the following year.
  10. Next two to three years.
    1.  Keep weeds at least 1-2 feet away from the trunk.
    2. Water weekly from May to September. In extremely dry weather twice weekly watering may be necessary.
    3. During the dry summer months, give young trees 15 gallons of water twice a week. Use a watering bag or set a garden hose to a slow trickle and leave for 30 minutes.

Sources: Master Fruit Tree Steward curriculum; Seattle ReLeaf “Young Tree Care.” Also see City Fruit’s quick resource sheet


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