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Care on Arrival
Fruit trees may be kept in a cool dark place out of the box with the roots in the bag for a week. Check that the roots are moist. If the soil is too sloppy or frozen, “heel” in the plants (cover the roots) with moist soil or sand in a shady place to protect the roots from freezing. It is particularly important to keep fig, persimmons and pomegranate roots moist, but not soggy! If the roots seem dry, soak them for a few hours before healing them in. Trees must be planted before they leaf out.
Where to Plant
Most fruit trees and vines require a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day during the growing season; stone fruits do better with even more. In the hottest climates, partial shade during the warmest part of the day can improve texture of apples; pruning for a denser canopy can achieve the same result. Fruit trees to be espaliered (trained two dimensions) will give the best fruit if planted on the east or north facing walls in hot climates while in cooler climates a west or south facing wall is preferred. If fruit trees are planted in a lawn, be sure not to sprinkle the trunks and plant high to provide good drainage for the crown.
The ultimate height of the fruit tree will dictate your spacing requirement. The great majority of our fruit trees ultimate height will reach 12-16 ft. If you decide to only winter prune for corrective measures, 12-16 ft. would be adequate spacing. The trees can be spaced much closer if you decide to summer prune for height control. Previous generations pruned fruit trees in winter because it was the one farming activity available during the frozen weather. Once spring rolled around, the chores on the farm never allowed us time to prune our trees. So it was left for the winter, but today that routine has begun to shift. Simply summer prune when the trees grow taller than desired. We often summer prune lightly in July. Pruning in the winter will stimulate more growth, summer pruning reduces the vigor and keeps the trees manageable.
Experts advise not to add amendments to the native soil in the planting hole. This will avoid creating a “clay pot” in heavy soil that will impede root growth into the surrounding soil. If your soil is poor, fertilize on the soil surface. High quality compost is recommended. Chemical fertilizers or fresh manure in the hole can burn the roots. Apply a moderate amount of fertilizer such as fish meal or blood meal to the soil surface and water in before the growing season. Another light application in late June is desirable if growth is not vigorous. Fertilizing late in the season can delay dormancy.
Planting in Ground
Dig a hole slightly larger than the root system of the tree. For maximum growth, do not prune the roots. Plant the trees so that the graft line sits 2" or 3" above the soil surface. It is best to plant on a slight mound in high rainfall areas. This will prevent water standing around the trunk which can lead to collar or root rot. Avoid air pockets around the roots by slightly tamping down the soil (see planting illustration on back). Water trees thoroughly after planting and then not again until the tree leafs out, unless soil is extremely dry as in winter drought conditions. One common mistake first-time orchardists make is drowning trees in the first season, especially apricots, cherries, figs and pomegranates. Use stakes to keep trees upright in windy areas, to anchor dwarf trees or to protect from weeding equipment. Staking a semi–dwarf or standard tree is often not necessary.
Planting in Containers
Fruit trees in containers require much more frequent watering and feeding. Porous walled pots will lose moisture too rapidly compared to thick walled tub or whiskey barrel. Suggested soil mix for pot: equal parts compost, perlite and peat moss. Containerized trees can get root bound after two or three years. Replant into larger container or planter after trimming back some of the large woody roots. If returning to the same container, trim back more of the roots and add some new soil. To minimize the problem, choose dwarf rootstock when available.
Except in cool climates, paint the trunk of your newly planted fruit tree before hot weather begins, starting just below the soil line and paint up to the first prominent side branches. If it’s a whip paint the whole tree. We use an interior white latex paint diluted 25% with water. This will protect the tender bark from sunburn and discourage the apple borers. If borers are a particular problem, diatomaceous earth around the trunk can discourage them.
First Year Pruning
Generally cut back untrained fruit trees before planting to balance the trunk with the roots that were lost when the trees were dug out in the nursery. This will also encourage strong side branching. Cut back to about 3 feet above the ground for trees with a trunk at ½” diameter (measure just above the graft, 4 feet for trees 5/8” diameter and 5 feet for ¾” trees. Many of our heirloom fruit trees have substantial side branches already. Choose a few of the strongest and best placed for permanent branches and cut those back to three or four buds. Then remove the remaining side branches. Too many small little side shoots will divide the energy of the tree so that strong side branches will not form.
Once leafed out, fruit and nut trees in the ground need regular watering, twice a week or more in hot weather, throughout the first season. Mature trees on standard rootstock can be dry farmed in deep soils, but semi-dwarf and dwarf rootstock will need regular deep watering unless it rains throughout the summer. Trees in containers need to be checked almost daily during warm weather. The soil should feel moist 4 or five inches below the soil surface. Curled leaves are probably a sign of insufficient water or nutrient deficiency. Lastly, if you have clay soils it's very important to add calcium multiple times a year around your fruit trees. The irrigation or rain will leach this critical nutrient into the root zone. Typically you'll find calcium in two forms lime (if soil is acidic) or gypsum (if soil is alkaline).
Deer prefer to browse the new growth on most fruit trees. The deterrents with noxious solutions to spray on leaves is often a temporary fix, but once new growth emerges reapplication is required. Fencing is often best. A few affordable and temporary fencing options for deer are using 5' concrete mesh ( 6" squares, 5' tall, a 150' roll goes for about $100 at home improvement center) formed into an 8' circular cage. Two or three 5' pieces of 1/2" re-bar are driven into the ground and used to anchor the cages so the deer can't push them over. Alternatively, we'll place four stakes in a four 4 ft. square enclosure with 4' to 5' fencing. Deer are unwilling to hop into this tight of an enclosure so trees are protected. Once trees grow beyond the enclosure the deer become your summer pruning experts or they'll have moved on to greener pasture.
Image provided by Robert Kourik