Most important: know your site’s drainage.

Most fruit trees will not survive in soil that drains so slowly it remains water-saturated for extended periods. Before planting, be sure you are familiar with how well your soil drains.

Test your drainage.

  • Dig a hole about l foot deep and fill it with water.
  • If the water drains within 3 or 4 hours, fill the hole again.
  • If it takes longer than 3 or 4 hours to drain on the 1st or 2nd filling, you have problems!

If your intended planting site drains poorly your options are:

  • Don’t plant there.
  • Plant the tree above the present soil line by constructing a berm, mound or raised bed.
  • Install a French Drain (a trench filled with gravel or rock that allows water to drain away from the planting area – see How To Install French Drains For Yard Drainage).

Berms and Mounds

The root crown, the upper part of the root system to just below the soil line, is the most vulnerable part of a tree. In many instances, a 6-12” high raised planting area (mound or berm) is sufficient to raise tree root crowns above wet soil. A 6-inch high mound should be at least 2 ½ feet in diameter, a 10- to 12-inch mound or berm at least 3-4 feet wide. Mounds should have as gentle a slope as possible to minimize erosion.

Raised Bed

A good way to plant trees higher than the surrounding soil is to make a bottomless box using 2×12 redwood or cedar or other material such as rock, concrete block, railroad ties, etc. (See How To Build a Raised Bed.)

Sun

For the healthiest trees and tastiest fruit choose the sunniest available planting location. The main exception is a low desert climate where summer temperatures reach 110°+; fruit trees there benefit from some afternoon shade.

Layout and Spacing

Spacing depends on your objectives, your plan – how much fruit you want from each tree, how many trees are wanted in the total space available and how you intend to control tree size. (Remember, small trees maintained by summer pruning are much easier to spray, thin, prune and harvest than large trees.)

If planting high density, plant as close as 18 inches apart for 2, 3 or 4 trees in one hole and 2 or 3 feet apart for hedgerow. (See What Is Backyard Orchard Culture? and High-Density Planting – Simple Examples.)

If you have plenty of space and want larger trees, plant at wider spacings. It’s up to you.

And! Please read our articles Multi-Planting Strategies and The Art of Successive Ripening for multi-planting suggestions.

Reminder – if multi-planting, plant similar rootstocks together and trees with simliar spray requirements together. Contact your local fruit tree nursery or a Master Gardener in your area for spray recommendations.

About Planting Fruit Trees

Fertilizer

No fertilizer is needed at the time of planting a bare root tree. Furthermore, fertilizers in contact with tender young feeder roots can kill them and set back or kill the tree.

Soil Amendments

Ultimately, trees must grow in the surrounding soil. Don’t make a hole of amended soil surrounded by slow-draining native soil – the tree hole will just fill with water, killing the tree. The only remedy for poorly draining soil is some sort of raised bed or planting in containers. Adding organic matter to sandy soil, however, can help retain moisture in the root zone of newly planted trees. Check with your local fruit tree nursery regarding recommended soil amendments.

Planting Depth

When planted, the tree should be at the height it was in the nursery; the nursery soil line is visible on the trunk as a slight change in bark color. It’s very important not to plant the tree too low. If you will be watering-in the tree after planting (as you should when planting in fast-draining soil), plant an inch or two high to allow for settling.

Caring For Bare Root Trees

Bare root trees should be planted as soon as possible after purchasing. If buying trees before planting day, keep the roots wrapped or covered to maintain moisture and high humidity; store in a cool location. Bareroot trees may be held before planting by heeling in: cover the roots well with a moist (not soggy) medium such as sawdust (but not redwood or cedar), sand or porous soil. Do not let the roots dry out or freeze.

How to Plant A Fruit Tree

  • Dig the hole a little deeper than the root is tall — and make it wide enough to accommodate the longest roots without bending.

  • Loosen the sides of the hole. Roots sometimes do not readily penetrate a slick interface.
  • Backfill with native or slightly amended soil until the bottom of the hole is at the right planting depth for the tree. If multi-planting in one hole, backfill to correct planting depth for each tree.
  • Prune off any broken, rotted or twisted roots, making a clean cut.
  • Position the tree, spread the roots and refill the hole, tamping the soil around the roots as you go.
  • If planting in fast-draining soil, water thoroughly in order to finish settling the soil around the roots. In slower-draining soils, water a little at a time – over several days if necessary.
  • Usually, no further water is necessary until there is new growth of several inches.

Note: If there is a prevailing wind in your area that reaches your site, compensate by leaning the tree slightly into the upwind direction when you plant. The side of the tree where the scion emerges from the rootstock should be pointing upwind.

Planting in A Raised Box (See How To Build A Raised Bed)

  • Construct a 3 to 4 foot square box for a single tree, 5 ft. x 5 ft. for four trees in one hole.
  • Place the box on the poorly draining spot.
  • Dig a shallow hole only if necessary to allow for proper planting depth (see above). In any viable garden soil tree roots will find their own way to anchorage.
  • Place the tree in the box, spread the roots and fill the box with soil (slightly amended if necessary), tamping the soil around the roots as you go.
  • Water as needed to maintain soil moisture around the roots.

Last Steps

Pruning

If you want the fruiting wood to begin low, smaller trees may be cut back at planting time to a height as low as the knee (15-20 inches). Any remaining side limbs should be cut back to one or two buds. Larger trees may be cut above existing well-placed low limbs, or they too may be cut back low to force new, lower limbs. (See “What Is Backyard Orchard Culture?”, including the caution regarding cutting back larger sizes of peach and nectarine.)

Paint the Trunk

Sunburn can damage newly planted trees, especially in the climates of the southwestern U.S. An interior white latex, diluted 50% with water, can help protect trees from this problem. Paint your newly-planted trees from the ground all the way to the top.

Mulch!

Mulch applied as a top dressing is beneficial to plants and the soil; as mulch decomposes it provides a steady source of nutrients to plants and organic matter to the soil. And, it helps to stabilize and conserve soil moisture. (See Water and Mulch.)

Related Content

Last edit 12-19-18

Watch how to properly plant fruit trees: apples, pears, plums, and more! Our video will show you when and how to plant bare-rooted trees successfully.

Fruit trees are some of the most productive plants you can grow, & home grown varieties taste so much better than those available in supermarkets.

For more techniques and support for a successful garden, we suggest the Almanac Garden Planner. Try free for 7-days!

How to Plant Fruit Trees

Growing fruit is one of the most efficient forms of gardening. Once the trees are established you can expect an abundant supply for decades with only a little pruning and mulching to keep them happy.

Without doubt, the cheapest way to start a mini-orchard is to buy bare-rooted plants: those sold without a pot and delivered to tree nurseries. As well as saving money, you will often find a much wider selection of varieties and sizes available as bare-rooted trees. Many wonderful types of apples, pears, plums, etc., can be grown by the home gardener that are never available in supermarkets and the trees can be trained to fit the area you have.

Bare-rooted trees need to be planted correctly and given careful treatment during the first year in order to establish healthy root systems and give a reliable harvest.

When to Plant Fruit Trees

Getting sufficient water and nutrients in the first few months after planting is essential and that’s why the timing is crucial. The number one priority is helping your new tree establish a healthy root system. The best time to plant bare-rooted trees is towards the end of winter or the first half of spring, once the ground is no longer frozen so it can be easily dug but before new growth starts.

It’s worth consulting a tree nursery that knows your area and can advise on the window of time when they lift the young plants and deliver them and when conditions are right for your area. In mind climates, trees can be planted from November onwards and this gives them a few extra weeks for the roots to establish but in colder regions, you’ll want to wait until spring. You will need to plant them quickly once they arrive—usually within a couple of days, though it’s possible to pack the roots with moist earth to extend this period if conditions outside aren’t favorable.

If you miss the ideal window of time for your area but still want to plant this year, it’s worth paying more for container-grown plants. These will already have roots that have grown into the soil around them and as long as you don’t disturb these too much when planting, they’ll be ready to draw up moisture and nutrients during warmer weather.

Where to Plant a Fruit Tree

Fruit trees don’t like to be moved so it is important to get the location right first time. Things to consider are:

  • Sun or Partial Shade: Nearly all fruit trees require plenty of sun but by carefully scouring catalogs you’ll find there are some less well-know varieties that are tolerant of partial shade. Don’t just consider the ground; it’s the leaves that need sun and this often opens up possibilities for otherwise unproductive areas.
  • Soil: Check our Fruit Growing Guides to better understand which soil the fruit tree requires. Most will want free-draining soil, enriched with compost. Avoid areas that regularly flood or higher ground that dries out quickly.
  • Wind and Snow: Be aware of the direction of prevailing wind and any large buildings nearby. A wall or fence may create a sheltered environment perfect for heat-loving fruits, or it could funnel icy winds during winter. Roofs can dump a ton of snow on an unsuspecting tree below, snapping its branches. Observe your garden closely to choose the best spot.
  • Other Plants: Trees are remarkably good at drawing up nutrients and water from the surrounding area. Unless you’re using raised beds, remember that a nearby fruit tree or bush may compete with your other plants.

Tree Planting Tips

Many good fruit-tree suppliers will sell reasonably priced kits that include a stake, tie, mulch mat, etc. and it’s a false economy to skip these items.

Follow these simple steps to give your tree the best start:

  1. Dig a hole about a spade’s depth and around 3 feet wide. A square hole is better than a round one as it encourages the roots to push out into the surrounding ground. Keep the soil you have removed in a wheelbarrow or on a large plastic sheet.
  2. Add a few inches of good garden compost and work it into the base of the hole using a garden fork. Mixing is important so that the tree’s roots don’t meet a sudden boundary between compost and regular soil. Also mix some compost into the soil you removed.
  3. Look for the slightly darker ‘watermark’ on the tree’s trunk that indicates where the soil level was when it was first grown. Place the bare-rooted tree in the center of the hole and a cane across the hole so you can check that this line is level with the soil around your hole as trees shouldn’t be planted deeper or shallower than they were first grown. If necessary, add or remove soil to achieve this. Most fruit trees will be grafted onto a rootstock and the join should always be above ground.
  4. Remove the tree and put in a thick wooden stake a couple of inches from the center of the hole and on the side where the prevailing wind comes from. Hammer this firmly into the ground using a mallet.
  5. Place the tree back in the hole close to the stake and start to shovel the soil-and-compost mix back around the roots. Gently firm this in with your boots, being careful not to damage the roots. When it’s half full, pull the tree up an inch and then let it drop again as this helps the soil to fill in around the roots.
  6. Once all the soil has been added and firmed, fix the tree to the stake with the tie, leaving enough room for the tree trunk to grow but not so much that it wobbles about. Also add a protective tube around the trunk if animals are a problem. At this stage I also sprinkle a little seaweed meal fertilizer around and cover it with a bio-degradable hemp mat to suppress weeds.
  7. Water the soil well to stop the roots drying out and to further settle the soil around them.

See our complete Apple Tree Growing Guide.
See our complete Plum Tree Growing Guide.
See our complete Pear Tree Growing Guide.

The First Year for Fruit Trees

Until the root system is at least as large as the tree it supports, the tree is particularly vulnerable to environmental stress. During the first year, the tree can easily die from not getting enough water or nutrients. Keep the tree well watered, especially during dry weather. A good soaking once or twice a week is much better than surface watering daily, though during very hot weather it can be worth doing both. It’s also vital to keep the area around the tree completely free of weeds and grass as they will compete with the young tree, which is why mulch mats are very effective.

Finally, don’t forget to remove all blossom from the tree in the first year. Although it’s tempting to let some fruit develop, doing so will again place more stress on the tree as it establishes and forgoing the first year’s fruit will result in a much healthier tree and better harvest in years to come.

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner (for PC & Mac) or learn about our mobile app.

Fruit Tree Care: Planting Fruit Trees

Few things in life bring the same satisfaction as planting fruit trees. Learn to avoid future problems by following simple planning steps before you plant.

When it comes to planting fruit trees, we can never stress enough the importance of the planning stage. This includes choosing the best spot for your new planting above the ground and below the ground. We highly recommend that you contact your local utility department before digging to prevent damage to cables, pipes, and other underground structures. Too often we encounter troubles because we act first and think later. That’s why, when planting an orchard or even a few trees in the back yard, it’s a good idea to take a step back and visualize how our efforts will look 10 years from now. Remember, the time difference between a vegetable garden and productive fruit trees can be years! It’s also well worth the wait, so, to start things off right, let’s avoid future problems by considering a few key things before planting.

I. The Planting Site

Have you chosen a place free of interference? Is it far enough from power lines, sewer lines, sidewalks, etc.? Visualize your tree 10 years from now in the location you’ve chosen, and ask yourself those questions.

If your tree could talk, it would ask for a well-drained, fertile location with plenty of sunlight. While a full day’s sun is great, trees can still thrive and produce on a half-day’s light; and most trees are forgiving of imperfect soil conditions. If your ground is a little heavy, consider using our coco-fiber medium. Just drop the brick into 1 1/3 gallons of warm/hot water, 30 minutes before planting. When refilling the hole, work the coco-fiber into the soil and finish planting. This will give the root system air and allow for water absorption as the roots develop.

II. Digging the Hole

When digging the hole, a good rule of thumb is to remove a space nearly twice the width and depth of the roots. You don’t want the roots cramped or circled. The area you loosen is the area the roots will quickly grow into to anchor and sustain the tree’s top. This simple task helps determine both how good the foundation will be years later and how well the plant utilizes two much-needed ingredients: air and water.

III. Planting the Tree

The Soil

You know the soil you dug up first, right underneath the grass? When refilling your planting hole, it’s always best to place that soil in first. It’s usually more fertile, as well as more porous, and when placed down near the roots, it will help the tree grow better. The remaining soil (from the bottom of the dug hole) is heavier and works well when mixed with the Coco-Fiber Medium. From top to bottom, work the soil with your hands to avoid large clods that create air pockets.

Graft Placement

When you refill your planting hole, hold the tree up a bit to allow loose soil to fall beneath, as well as around the sides of, the roots. Center its position so there is adequate space on all sides for the root system to grow out. If you are planting a dwarf or semi-dwarf apple tree, hold the bud union up above the refill line – this is the “bump” above the root system of the tree where the rootstock was grafted to the varietal top. If given the opportunity, grafted apple trees will self-root; if the variety self-roots, you’ll lose the size-restrictive nature of the rootstock. (Did you know the rootstock is responsible for the mature size of your tree, i.e. dwarf, semi-dwarf, standard? We don’t want to lose that sizing characteristic — it would definitely throw a rock in your long-term plan!)

Finishing Touches

Through the process, keep the tree straight (perpendicular) and, upon finishing, tamp the tree in with your foot to remove air spaces and seal it in. If the tree is planted on a slope, create a slight berm on the lower side to utilize water throughout the summer. If it’s not pre-pruned before you plant it, be sure to prune your tree, and water it well.

There are few things in life that have the sustainability and bring the same satisfaction as growing a fruit tree. The years following will be spent measuring the tree’s progress and reaping its rewards. That’s a “10-year” vision – yep! I saw the future before I began; how about you? — Elmer Kidd, Stark Bro’s Chief Production Officer (retired)

Shop All Fruit Trees “

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  • Fruit Tree Care

The onset of winter weather signals the beginning of one of gardening’s most enjoyable past times: dreaming! If you dream of providing your family with healthy, organic fruits as well as vegetables, if you’re craving to grow your own apples, pears, or peaches, if your desire for sustainability means buying less and less conventionally-grown produce from grocery stores, then now’s the time to begin planning a backyard orchard.

Most fruit tree growers, especially in northern climes, prefer spring planting (though fall can be a possibility where conditions and the availability of nursery stock make it practical… some actually prefer it). Whenever you start your orchard, the time to think it through is today.

The first thing to do is consider the space you have available. This will help you determine what it is you’ll plant: full-sized trees, dwarf or semi-dwarf trees? Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser warn in their book Grow Organic that its a common mistake to underestimate the space that little sapling you’re sticking in the ground will need when its full-grown. They recommend some 30 feet of space between full-sized trees, at least eight feet between dwarf and semi-dwarf trees.

PROTECTS FRUITS & BERRIES

Backyard trees and shrubs are important components of your landscape. With our selection of tree care products you can give them the attention needed for strong growth, maximum blooming and resistance to pests and disease, not only at planting, but for a life-time.

Remember that trees don’t have to go side-by -side in your home orchard. You may have room for a full-sized apple in the corner of the backyard, a dwarf cherry on the side of the house, and a couple of plum trees in the front yard. You might even consider starting some fruit trees, such as figs, in pots. Think creatively with your space. But keep in mind the conditions that trees need ahead of when you’re planting. Best is an area with full sun and good drainage. Not only does this encourage growth, it helps prevent the common fungi that can scar fruit and damage trees. Low lying areas, where frost can gather, should be avoided. Nothing does more to harm fruit production than a spring frost while fruit trees are blossoming.

Another important consideration — and the one responsible for the best dreams — is to analyze what you’re hoping to get from your fruit trees. Do you want apples for fresh eating? Or for cooking, canning, and making pies? Do you want early season cherries? Peaches to put up? Plums to make jam? All these desires suggest specific varieties of the fruits you intend to grow.

But that’s not the only consideration when choosing which variety of fruit tree to grow. Talk to friends, neighbors, your local nursery folks, and the nearby university extension service if you’re lucky enough to have one about which trees do best in your locale. They can recommend ones best suited for your conditions, which have the best resistance to disease and other problems common to your area, as well as which ones will give you the kind of fruit you crave. You may have to make some compromises between your wants and needs. But as my grandmother used to say, there’s no such thing as a bad piece of fruit (which explains that worm we once found in a jar of her canned peaches).

The other thing to consider is the work you’ll need to do. As in all organic growing, soil is the key to success. And, once you’ve done your layout, that’s something you can get started on now, well ahead of planting, if the ground hasn’t frozen. It’s not enough to dig a hole out of your clay soil and fill it with compost. The tree roots will just circle around in the hole and eventually strangle the tree. Dig a wide hole after you’ve spent time conditioning the soil around it with cover crops, compost and other soil-condition amendments as required. Remember: good drainage means good rooting conditions. And the healthier your soil, the more nutrients and organic matter it contains, the better your tree will be able to resist disease, fungus, and insect invasion.

Tips on planning a fruit garden

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 20, 2009.)

Several years ago my interest in growing fruit began, and I started with some berries. I didn’t begin with a fruit garden in mind of course, just a few fruits I wanted. However, growing fruit is like growing anything else. You discover you really like something you grow, and it quickly becomes an obsession that requires adding more, and more… and before you know it, the cart is ahead of the horse and the garden may need restructuring. I’ve already had to move my strawberry and raspberry patches because they were too close to where I plant potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Plus it was so dry the last two years that I didn’t realize how wet the soil stays in one corner after heavy rains, which is where I should have planted the elderberry and not the cherry.

Tree farm Kiwi grove U-Pick home orchard

With some experience under my belt, I now know to PLAN first and not just plant willy-nilly. Fortunately I started very small and I didn’t make many expensive mistakes. Even choosing what to plant is no easy job; start with what you think you’d like, then study what it actually needs to produce, such as chill hours, zone, and pollination. Look at other growing aspects, too, before drawing your plan.

Temperature affects choice
Two important considerations in choosing fruit trees are chill hour requirements, and your zone. First, look at your zone information for the average times for the last freeze in spring and the first freeze in fall. Note that with current climate changes, some zone information has changed recently. Ideally, you will select varieties that will bloom after the last freeze, and have mature fruit ready before the first freeze in fall. As spring temperatures begin to warm the trees, the buds start to collect growth-stimulating hormones stored in the roots. When enough hormone has been collected, the buds bloom, and growth takes off (assuming a late freeze hasn’t killed the buds).
Keep in mind this thing called “microclimates” (which can be just a small section of your entire yard, or larger than your neighborhood) when determining trees for your yard. No matter what the tree growers say about zones for certain trees, if you have a microclimate (as I have with a creek in front and a hill behind the house), trees suggested for your zone may fail. Remember, the pretty catalogs are meant to entice you with something, and there is a big difference in a fruit tree growing, and a fruit tree producing.
Chill hours
Raintree Nursery displays the chill hour map developed by the University of Maryland, along with a list of chill hour requirements for a number of varieties of fruits and nuts. “The idea is that a deciduous plant goes dormant in the cold winter to protect itself from the cold. The plant needs to stay dormant while the weather is freezing and then know how soon after it gets above freezing it can safely start growing. It must do it late enough so it doesn’t get frozen back by a late frost but early enough so it can get a full season of growth and fruiting in before it must go dormant for the next year.”
Ask about the rootstock used if they are grafted trees (most are). Many fruits are now grafted on rootstocks that prevent root-knot nematode damage, and many are available on various heights of dwarfing rootstock as well. Dwarfing rootstocks will tend to keep the trees smaller than full size trees, but to remain a manageable size, dwarf trees must still be pruned.

Tree size by rootstock Weed-free drip zone Varying heights by size

Pollination
Some fruits like pears, plums and apples will need more than one variety for pollination. Most cane fruits and peaches do not, but blueberries usually do. Even some that are self-pollinating or self-fertile usually fruit better with two varieties. Some fruits require a specific pollinator, and some will need just one male for several female trees. Check with your supplier; if he/she doesn’t know, buy elsewhere because they probably don’t grow their own stock and are less familiar except for what their books say. Your county extension agent should have a list of varieties that do well in your area, including their pollinators.

Bee hives in orchard Peach pickers 1912

Where to plant
Study your terrain for composition and drainage (both air and water drainage). Get up really early and watch where the frost dissipates first, and where it lingers. If you have a light fog, see where it lingers longest. Do you have an elevation where cold rolls down and accumulates at the bottom? Sometimes a mere five feet can make a difference in the survival and fruiting of a tree. I have a hill behind my house, and the 30-foot-wide area between the house and slope captures cold. However, up the rise just ten feet, I have good air movement and water drainage.
Have your soil tested
Highly acidic soils often have a calcium shortage. Calcium is very important to fruit production. Read up on calcium, and add one that provides readily available calcium. High alkaline soils often have zinc and iron deficiencies and the tree leaves can develop chlorosis. Study the recommendations that came back with your soil test results and amend appropriately. During the planning phase is a good time to incorporate a lot of composted organic material into your future fruit garden, especially if you have clay soil. Add some now and work it in, then add more in a few months. Consider adding some beneficial microbes; they play a critical role in converting fertilizers into useable forms for plant uptake.

B&B trees CCC Preparing holes Moving soil & compost

Drainage is very important for most fruits. If your soil drains poorly, consider building some raised areas for fruits. My intentions this summer are to dig some planting holes and amend with compost and humus now for next year’s fruit tree additions. Organic matter is important in the soil because helps hold moisture and nutrients which will eventually become available to the plants. Generally, fruit trees should not be fertilized for the first two years but the soil can be well prepared in advance for balance and drainage.
Layout and Spacing of trees and bushes
Fruit trees, bushes and fruiting canes are easier to maintain if laid out in a grid. If you have grass between the rows, mowing is easier, and access for pruning, spraying and harvesting is also easier with a grid. Determine the mature width of a tree, and plant it and the next one in the row so the two have some space between their branch tips when fully grown. Dense plantings still need adequate spacing for air movement. Plant smaller bushes and canes where the larger trees will not block the sunlight. Doing this planning on paper saves a lot of headaches that could eventually become heartaches.
See also Planning a home orchard: Cross-pollination and spacing trees for best fruit production by Jill Nicolaus
Water
A 2-year-old tree will need about 2 gallons of water a week; 3-year-old trees may need 4 gallons. Over the course of a year, 30 to 50 gallons of water per tree are needed by most fruit trees. Try to keep watering on an even-basis. There isn’t much you can do about extended rainfall, but dry spells can be combated by watering. Some fruit trees like pecans, apples, peaches and grapes can have cracking after 2 to 3 weeks of drought followed by rain. Figs, persimmons and navel oranges tend to drop fruit when water-stressed (too much or too little). Consider installing a drip irrigation system before planting your fruit trees. It’s much easier now than when the trees are established.
In windy areas, install drip irrigation with the emitters downwind from the trees, and plant the tree rows parallel to the wind direction. Otherwise, plant your rows north to south for best sunlight exposure.
Planting
Keep all roots moist (not soaking) until planted. Heel them in if necessary until you have time to plant. Trim all damaged or broken roots just before planting. Dig your planting hole large enough so the roots are not bunched or cramped. In clay soil DO NOT dig a large hole. This creates a water-holding well that can drown the trees. (Roots need oxygen.) Loamy soils are good because they allow good root penetration, and drain well. Some trees like apple, persimmon and pecans develop a long taproot. For these trees, be sure and loosen the soil deeper in the center of the hole when planting.
Winter temperatures can still affect dormant fruit trees. As a youngster, I would often see orchards, or even single trees, with the lower portion of their trunks painted white. I thought they looked pretty all in a row, but of course I had no idea of actually why they painted them. This whitewash protects the trees from winter sun warming (thawing) the cells in the trunk on the sunny side during the day, leaving the thawed cells to freeze again at night, killing the cells. This is called “sunscald”.

I have seen advertising recommending products to wrap the trunks, especially for young trees. However, many experienced growers are now finding this “protecton” allows the trunk to stay moist, creating a haven for pests. Anchoring a new tree with guy wires can cause the tree to rely on “crutches” instead of growing a strong supportive root system. Unless you are in a very windy area, consider not staking your trees.
Weeds
Weeds (and grass) around newly planted trees will compete heavily for nutrition and moisture. Keeping the area out to the drip-line weed-free around young trees will allow them to get the nutrition they need without competition. Mulching will help conserve moisture. Once the trees are mature, plant a low-growing cover crop that does not need mowing.

Almond orchard with grass rows Fruit trellis & espaliered walls

Pests
Cold winters kill the over-wintering grubs and eggs of many pests. Even so, fruit trees historically need spraying for pests. Your county extension agent can advise you on what is recommended for your area. For small scale organic growers, there is an interesting product called Surround™ which is a kaolin clay spray that becomes a breathable film on plants. It was developed by the USDA. The only precaution I have seen is the suggestion not to apply it when bees are actively foraging. It can be applied up to the day of harvest. I intend to try it this year on my raspberries that had a heavy infestation of Japanese beetles last year. (I am also going to apply milky spore to the lawn for their grubs.)

Fruit gardens can be a joy for children and adults alike. I hope you have success with the planning tips offered here!

End Notes
http://www.raintreenursery.com/chill_hours.htm
Photo credits
Forest Garden (canopy sizes), GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Apple Rootstock, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Apple pommier.jpg, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version
Field of potted trees, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Kiwi Fruit Orchard n.jpg, © James Shook, This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
Orchard in fruita licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.
CCC/Beltsville farm, Public domain
B&B Trees, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Moving soil, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0
Keizelboomgaard (thumbnail drawing), Public domain
Peach pickers 1912, Public domain
Rosicrucian Park Peace Garden trellis, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Almond orchard, released under the GNU Free Documentation License

Legend for sketch above of varying heights by size:

1. A ‘canopy’ layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
2. A ‘low-tree’ layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
3. A ‘shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4. A ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
5. A ‘ground cover’ layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
6. A ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
7. A vertical ‘layer’ of vines and climbers.

Why do some people – including some garden designers – presume without any evidence to the contrary that growing fruit and vegetables is not possible in small gardens and city gardens?

This may start out as a minor rant, but it develops into ideas and practical suggestions for fruit trees and small gardens. There may be a bit of a tirade, but hopefully the questions posed make you reconsider some of your presumptions about what we can grow in small gardens.

I don’t watch a lot of TV, I’m more of a film person. But, in relation to fruit trees and small gardens, this next bit is what really makes me shout at the TV when I am watching. Especially it seems, if it’s a garden makeover show.

Having pushed aside or ignored altogether a useful fruit tree, the aboricultural choice is made. The aforesaid garden designer suggests planting a silver birch or ornamental fruit tree. Usually the tree is to be planted right on the boundary line. Where it will potentially create shade in what was a sunny neighbouring garden and possibly even damage the neighbours’ fence.

Naturally, the clients’ needs and expectations, ie their brief to the TV designer, is the driving force for the new garden design; limited by the framework of garden boundaries and available budget. But if garden designers are the experts in designing gardens, then they should be ensuring that their clients are benefiting from that expertise. It is up to us to suggest options to our clients that they couldn’t think of (not having the relevant knowledge) or didn’t consider possible.

Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – a Bad Idea?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with planting fruit trees for purely ornamental purposes. If the humans do not want the fruit, the garden birds and small mammals will certainly enjoy it! It is the presumption that growing edible fruit, and fruit trees in particular, is not possible or worthwhile in a small garden. And yet it is thought that even larger ornamental trees can be grown?

Or perhaps it is not merely the size of the tree, but the perceived amount of time required to care for the tree that is of concern? Larger trees will need a diligent pruning routine, anything from annual to every three years, depending on the species and cultivar. And possibly the services of a tree surgeon will be required to carry out this work.

Yes, fruit trees will need more attention than this. But not as much as many people think they do. Likely chores include: –

  • Annual pruning,
  • Feeding and mulching,
  • Checking for pests and diseases,
  • Leaf picking up in autumn

So, just like they would be for any tree. What extra gardening chores are needed for a fruit tree?

  • The obvious one is picking the fruit when its ripe
  • Extra diligence on feeding and watering at the correct times
  • Purchasing a disease resistant variety reduces maintenance
  • Planting two complimentary trees that will pollinate each other, or growing a self-fertile cultivar resolves the need to hand pollinate

If you hate cherries but love cherry blossom, an ornamental cherry tree may be the answer. But do remember that it still bears fruit, and what the birds don’t eat will fall on your lawn and squish!

Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – a Good Idea?

Well planned out and designed, fruit trees and small gardens can be a marriage made in heaven. They tick lots of the boxes that appear in many clients’ desire lists. For example: –

  • Seasonal interest – flowers, fruit, autumn leaf colour
  • Pretty flowers – spring blossom
  • Wildlife friendly
  • Short bursts of maintenance rather than an hour or two every week
  • Safe and non-toxic for the children / grandchildren
  • Fruit for humans to eat / grow your own
  • Give shade, depending on size and type of fruit tree
  • Minimum space taken up
  • Client’s childhood memories

You’re unlikely to be self-sufficient in fruit if you only have a small garden. But there is the satisfaction of picking your own fruit and eating it straight from the tree. Sun warmed peaches…

What you will have is the ability to grow the fruit you like, heritage varieties and decorative forms of fruit trees. You could choose your fruit tree mainly for its decorative features. For example: –

  • Spring apple blossom may be pure white, in bud and open. Or it may be deep pink in bud, opening to pale pink.
  • Later in the summer, the furry fruit of quince and stripey pears add a talking point for visitors at your BBQ.
  • Autumn leaf colour may not be as spectacular as the acers can provide, but many fruit trees will carry warm yellow foliage for a while. For spectacular show, you could grow a persimmon in a warm, sheltered garden. The yellow fruit picked in October is a glorious sight against rich red leaves.

Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – Cultivars, Heritage Varieties, Decorative Forms and Rootstocks

Fruits that can be grown on smaller trees include apples, crab apples, pears, plums, damsons, greengages, cherries, peach, nectarines, apricot, quince, medlar, orange, lemon, grapefruit. So a reasonable list to choose from! You could also consider nut trees such as hazel and sweet almond. And if you garden in a warm, sheltered location then growing persimmon and pomegranate outdoors should be possible.

Once you’ve decided on the fruit (apple, cherry, etc), you then need to choose a cultivar. Which heritage variety or modern cultivar you choose will depend partly on where in the UK you live. For example, heritage Cumbrian apples such as are grown at Acorn Bank will not necessarily thrive in the warmer, drier region of Sussex. Other fruits like peaches and citrus fruits will need frost protection. It is possible to grow them in northern areas. Dwarfing root stock means they can be grown in pots which can then be taken in to the greenhouse over winter.

Cultivars, Heritage Varieties

If you’re after heritage fruit for as interesting plant to grow and eat, it’s best to grow local. Visit local gardens that have orchards to see a selection. Online, search for a county and a fruit. For example, Black Worcester is an old variety of pear, which may even date back to Roman times. Early Rivers is a C19 Kent variety.

Of course, you could have a modern cultivar. Apple Greensleeves dates from the 1960s and grows well in containers.

Fruit Trees – Decorative forms

This is a whole blog in itself. Suffice to say, do not feel confused by the difference between cordon, espalier, fan, step-over and so on. They will all need some form of support – a fence, wall or framework.

What is helpful to know here, is that single cordon trees take up the least space. They can be grown vertically – sometimes called minarette, or at a 45-degree angle, which gives a better harvest. They can be grown as close as 2 – 3 feet apart and in containers.

The majority of fruit and nuts can be grown as cordon trees. However, they are better suited to those which fruit along the branch (spur fruiting) rather than at the tip only.

Fruit Trees – Rootstocks

Many fruit trees are grafted onto a rootstock. This enables the eventual size of the tree to be determined. The naming of the rootstocks varies between the types of fruit.

For example, apples use M numbers. M9 is the best known dwarfing rootstock, (6 – 8 ft). M27 is smaller (5 ft) and M26 larger (8 -10 ft) All are suitable for container growing.

Dwarfing rootstock for cherries is Gisela 5; for pears, Quince C, for plums, damsons and gages, you need Pixy.

Of course, you don t have to have a heritage variety apple tree in a double U cordon just because you have a small garden and decide to grow fruit! A modern disease resistant cultivar as a straight forward spindle bush fruit tree on a dwarfing rootstock is more than acceptable.

And what if, after reading this, you decide fruit trees and small gardens are not the combination for you? Have a look at the blog links below, where I recommend some ornamental trees for small gardens. Or you could always drop us an email.

Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Quince Trees
Apple Trees – Designing the Garden of Eden?
Bare Root Fruit Trees
5 Trees for Small Gardens
Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens

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