Have you been dreaming of picking your very own fresh fruit right off the tree? Planting an at-home orchard is one of the easiest ways to maximize your yearly harvest, whether you have room for one tree or many! With minimal annual care, you can enhance your landscape and enjoy Spring blossoms, crisp Summer or Fall fruit, and striking Winter silhouettes.
Bare root fruit trees offer an affordable, easy way to reap the benefits of fresh fruit right out of the garden. Bare root trees are generally available January-March, during the dormant season, and will establish themselves quickly as the weather warms. Read on for some essential tips for success when planting your new tree.
When selecting your orchard trees, choose your favorite fruit in varieties that are easy to care for in your area! There are many factors to consider, including pollination requirements, difficulty in care, size, and cold-hour requirements.
Some fruit trees are self-fruitful, meaning they pollinate all on their own. Others are self-unfruitful and require pollination by another variety. Some sweet cherries and many types of apples, European plums, and pears are self-unfruitful. Not only do these varieties need more space because you must plant a complementary variety, but they often need specific varieties. For example, Bing cherries can not be pollinated by Lambert or Royal cherries, the other two most commonly grown varieties. Instead, they require a variety like Stella or Ranier. Selecting complementary types, each with their own needs, can be a daunting task for a beginner gardener. If you are dead set on one of these varieties, you can save space and difficulty by getting a multi-grafted tree.
Nearly all fruit trees are grafted. This means that the fruit-bearing parts of the tree are grafted onto different rootstocks. The rootstocks are selected for various traits like increased drought tolerance. When you choose a variety based on flavor, seasonality, aesthetics, or disease resistance, you are selecting for the grafted variety, not the rootstock. Some trees are multi-grafted, meaning multiple fruit varieties are grafted onto a single rootstock. When the tree matures, it will produce numerous types of fruit! Sometimes these varieties are selected to pollinate each other, such as a cherry tree that bears Bing, Ranier, and Stella cherries. A multi-grafted tree could be more challenging to care for than multiple individual trees. For example, the pruning requirements for each variety may be different. However, they can be a great saver on space if you want a type that requires a pollinator.
The vigor of both the rootstock and grafted variety will be the determiner of how large your tree will get. When selecting for size, the smaller, the better. Dwarf size trees will be much easier to care for and are more accessible for most household spaces. You should be able to find information on the vigor of your grafted variety and rootstock online or through your local extension service or nursery. There are hundreds of types of apples alone, so you are sure to find the right one for you!
You can even find varieties suitable for growing in containers, such as the Meyers lemon or apples with an M.27 rootstock! Dwarf rootstocks should be supported by stakes, poles, or wires. They are great for training to grow along a wall or trellis.
Another factor you can select for is pest management! Some fruits and their varieties will be resistant to certain pests and diseases. Selecting these traits based on known issues in your region will increase your harvest and ease of care in the long run! In wetter areas, apple scab and powdery mildew might be big contenders against your apple trees. At the same time, they might not be a consideration at all in drier regions! You can also select for this factor in rootstocks, which may have specific disease resistances.
All of this information should be available to you on the product information tag of your fruit tree. If you buy your fruit trees from a local nursery, they will have the best varieties for your area. If you are ordering your trees from another location, you will need to be careful to select the right tree for your climate. One of the most important factors is the cold-hour requirement.
Generally, the cold-hour requirement for a tree is calculated by how many hours below 45° F a tree needs to end its dormancy, bloom, and set fruit. For the best chance of success, choose a variety with chilling requirements that match the chilling time typical of your area. Don’t choose a high-chill type if you live in a warm winter climate.
There are many different varieties of fruit trees for each climate and geographic region, so consult your local extension service for specific recommendations on varieties. You are sure to find a type that is suitable for you! And remember that dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties are best for home orchards.
Choosing a site for your new tree is as important a step as the planting itself. Orchard trees grow best in deep, well-drained soils. For best results, they need at least 4 feet of soil above an impenetrable soil layer. You can use raised beds if your soil conditions are poor. Always choose a full sun location. Certain rootstock types may have increased tolerance for poorly drained soil or other less than ideal conditions, so look into these if you have poor soil.
Since most of the trees sold today are either semi-dwarf or dwarf varieties, spacing is not as big an issue as planting large standard-type trees. Semi-dwarf trees require much less space. Planting your fruit trees 15-20 feet apart is a good rule of thumb to allow easy access for pruning and maintenance, as well as air circulation and light. Apples are commonly spaced anywhere from 5-20 feet, and of course, true genetic dwarf trees can be planted much closer. Dwarf trees that are trained on trellises can have the tightest spacing.
Spacing trees closer together can cause them to produce much earlier. Still, they will also require more pruning to keep them productive. Before purchasing your trees, decide on the space you will plant them and how closely you will space them first. That way you can buy the exact amount of trees you need!
To guarantee transplant success, keep the roots damp until planting. If some time is going to pass before you can plant, then be sure to heel in the tree. This is done by digging a hole and covering the roots with sawdust, mulch, or soil. If your area will experience freezing temperatures or wind before you are ready to plant, try to keep the tree in a sheltered spot or put extra mulch around the rootball.
You may soak your rootball in water for up to 24 hours before planting. Having fully hydrated roots can help give your tree a headstart in getting established. Still, this isn’t a requirement, so don’t sweat it if you miss this step! Mother nature is on your side!
The hole you dig should be large enough to accommodate the root system comfortably. A good recommendation is twice the size of the root spread. Make sure to break up the sides of the hole a bit so the roots can grow outward quickly. Then mound soil in the bottom of the hole and place the roots on top until the tree is sitting at the right level. It is essential to plant the tree near the same level that it was growing in the nursery and that the graft union is about 2′ above ground.
Otherwise, the rootstock will produce shoots that can overpower the grafted fruit tree. Or the grafted tree may produce roots and grow larger than you anticipated!
The tree’s fertilizer needs will vary depending on the health of your soil. Still, all fruit trees benefit from added nitrogen. Add 1 part compost to 1 part existing soil, and mix in Down To Earth Starter Mix or Bio-Live fertilizer to ensure a good start. Refill the hole around the planted tree with this mix of compost, soil, and fertilizer, firming it in to be sure there are no air pockets.
Finally, prune the tree so that the branches above are roughly equal in size to the root ball below! Leaving the tree with more above-ground growth than the rootball will make it that much harder for it to establish itself.
Some gardeners suggest painting the trunk with white, water-based indoor latex paint to help prevent sunburn. You can dilute the paint with an equal or greater part of water. Protection from deer and small animals is also important, so using a cage or fence around the tree is recommended. If you live in an area with strong winds, you can apply a tarp or another barrier to the fencing to help prevent the young trees from breaking.
Once the tree is planted, water it deeply at least once or twice a week, depending on the weather. Remember that young trees have a very undeveloped root system and cannot absorb very much water at one time. If you are experiencing frequent rainfall, you may not need water. But in warm weather, watering more often can be beneficial. You can check that your tree has enough water by squeezing a clump of soil together. If the soil drips, there is more than enough water. The tree has adequate water if the soil sticks together but does not feel soggy. Take extra care not to overwater, and avoid getting the base of the trunk wet, as this can cause crown rot.
For maximum productivity, the tree should then be fertilized at least twice per year with a good all-purpose organic fruit tree food such as Down To Earth Tree & Shrub or Fruit Tree Mix. In the first year of planting, fertilize with your organic fertilizer in late Fall so that your tree can store the energy for its emergence from dormancy in early Spring. In subsequent years, fertilize in both the late Fall and late Winter/Early Spring.
In no time at all, you will be enjoying the fresh fruit that you grew yourself! Whether you are a beginner growing out of containers, or a home-owner and seasoned gardener, there is a fruit tree variety out there for you! For more helpful information on growing your fruit trees and everything in between, follow our social media below! We make informative posts with timely gardening information, and will remind you when to fertilize your orchard or anything else in the garden!