Fruit Tree Planting & Selection Guide
Planting Fruit Trees
Planting fruit trees is one of the easiest and funnest ways to start growing food at home. Fruit trees take little maintenance compared to vegetable gardening, and can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit every year. Maintaining a fruit tree is relatively easy. Most trees just need to have the soil around them taken care of, to be given slow and deep watering, and an annual pruning. Don’t forget the most important step of taking care of a fruit tree: picking and eating the fruit!
This guide will help you along the process of selecting, preparing space for, and planting most fruit trees.
Selecting Trees for Your Garden
Fruit trees can be grown in every region of the world, however, not all regions can grow all types of fruit. Depending on your local micro-climate and soil conditions, certain trees will do better for you than others. I am a big fan of exploring the diversity of fruits that can grow in your region: there are so many more amazing and delicious fruits available to us in the garden than the unripe and overall terrible fruits available in the grocery store (or even the farmer’s market).
Finding out what you can grow
The easiest way to find out what fruits will grow in your region is to talk to other gardeners in your neighborhood or even just take a walk around and see what fruits you see growing. Local gardeners are your best bet for accurate knowledge about types of fruit and varieties that will grow well for you.
Your other option for finding out what you can grow is to visit your local nursery, though you should be a bit cautious with information from nurseries. Sales people aren’t always the most knowledgeable and some unscrupulous nurseries will carry varieties unsuited to your region. Again, ask around amongst gardeners to find out which nurseries are the most trustworthy.
When asking about what grows well, be sure to ask about exact varieties as well as the species. For example, apricots come in multiple varieties such as “Goldkist”, “Blenheim”, and “Moorpark”. Each variety will do well in different growing conditions and could have significantly different texture and flavor.
Choosing trees for your garden
Once you find out what types and varieties of fruit grow well (for example: Royal Lee Cherry, Sweet Mary’s Peaches, and Gold Nugget Apples), you’ll need to think about what fruits your household will actually enjoy and eat!
Remember that a healthy fruit tree can often give hundreds of pounds of fruit, so you really don’t want to grow a fruit that no one likes or everyone just likes a little bit. Choose the fruits that everyone really enjoys and will be happy to devour.
Another consideration is the storability of the fruit. Some fruits (like citrus and avocado) will stay on the tree just fine for months after they are ripe, while others (peaches, plums, apricots, etc.) will need to be frozen, dehydrated or canned to keep. Other fruits can stay fresh in a refrigerator for months (apples, persimmons, pomegranates).
Where to Purchase Trees
In most cases, your best bet for purchasing a tree is to find one at a local nursery. I really prefer to be able to examine a tree before bringing her home, just so I can make sure she is in good shape. However, local nurseries may not carry the exact trees you want, so online ordering is also possible.
Organically grown trees are almost impossible to find (outside of our nursery at Sarvodaya Farms). You may be able to find some if you really dig around and find small backyard growers who are selling trees on Craigslist or something similar. If you can find an organically grown tree, awesome! Organically grown trees will usually establish and grow a bit more quickly at first.
If organic trees are not available (which will be the case most of the time), please don’t worry. The pesticides used on the trees will break down well before you are eating fruit from the tree.
When to Plant a Tree
When planting a tree, there are certain times of the year that are better for planting than others. The first and most important rule of planting timing is:
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is this year.
After that there are a few more helpful guidelines to follow:
- Don’t plant trees right before or during your region's extreme weather seasons such as the coldest or very hottest part of the year. For example, in Southern California, it’s best not to plant trees in July/August, when temperatures are well above 100 degrees F.
- Plant deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in winter) during winter. These trees are dormant during winter and are less shocked when transplanted at this time.
- Plant evergreen/subtropical trees during spring when temperatures are warming up but still not hot.
Nurseries will often try to sell you any tree at any time of the year. Know before you go - research the trees you want to buy so you don’t get pressured into buying the wrong tree.
Examining Trees at the Nursery
At the nursery, you can examine the trees that are available to find the healthiest one. Here are my suggestions for what to look for.
Buy the smallest tree you can find. Trees go through a lot of trauma at commercial nurseries, especially from up-potting where roots are often mangled. The smaller the tree, the less time she has spent in that traumatizing environment and the more time she can grow in your nourishing garden. The largest size tree I like to buy is a 5 gallon size, and I’ll get a smaller size if it’s available.
Examine the Root Ball. Take the root ball out of the pot yourself or ask a staff person to. Is there a mass of tangled roots at the bottom? Not a good sign. Or did all the soil fall off when the tree was removed from the pot? The tree hasn’t rooted into the pot yet. Ideally, roots should hold the soil together and just be visible at the edges of the pot.
Girth Matters. Don’t look at the height of the tree, as you will probably have to remove several feet of height on planting. Instead, look at the girth of the trunk. Choose a tree with a thicker trunk if there is one.
Staking. Is the tree tied tightly to a stake? This could mean the trunk could be weak (nurseries tie trees to stakes so the tree puts more energy into growing taller). Does the trunk resemble a pencil, with the same thickness at the bottom and top? Again, look for a trunk that looks strong and that has a taper (thicker at the bottom).
Disease. Look for any signs of major disease. Trees will often be yellow from being stuck in a pot. Look for other signs of disease like spotted leaves, dead limbs, or splits in the bark on the trunk.
That all being said, don’t worry about finding a “perfect” tree. Just choose the one that looks the best based on what you see and trust your gut.
Planting a Tree!
Once you’ve selected your trees, then it’s time to get planting! Tree planting can be as easy as digging a hole and planting your seedling, but if you take a few extra steps you can ensure the tree will have a good start to life in your garden.
Step 1 - Irrigation. Have whatever irrigation you are planning for the tree setup before you plant. You don’t want to go through all the effort of finding and planting a tree and then have it die because it never gets watered.
Step 2 - Dig a Hole just a bit deeper than the tree's pot and about twice as wide. Don’t make a perfectly round hole with a perfectly smooth bottom and sides, do the opposite of that. Rough up the bottom and sides.
Step 3 - Water the Hole. Using your hose, water the hole slowly for 30 minutes. Allow the water to completely absorb into the hole before proceeding.
Step 4 - Get the Tree Ready. Take the tree out of the pot. Loosen and detangle any bound up roots. If roots are really bound up, you may even need to cut off some of them. Be less gentle than you think you need to be, trees are much more resilient than you think.
Remove soil from the top of the root ball until you see a major root. In the up-potting process, trees are sometimes buried into their pots. The first major root you see will be the point you bury the root ball up to.
Step 5 - Put the Tree in the Hole. With 2 people working together, have one person hold the tree so that the first major root is about 1 inch above the level of the soil you are planting into. The other person will fill back the soil you previously dug out. DO NOT mix any compost with this soil.
Step 6 - Feed the Soil! As shown in the diagram above, cover the soil around the tree with 3 inches of compost and then 3 inches of mulch. Keep this layering about 1 foot away from the tree’s trunk as indicated above.
Step 7 - Deep, Slow Water - Turn on a hose to a very low stream, more like a steady trickle. Run the hose for 5-6 hours.
Step 8 - Remove stakes and prune. Remove any stakes attached to the tree and do any necessary pruning (see box below)
Step 9 - Record the tree variety name and planting dates on a tag attached to the tree, in a journal, or your Instagram.
Congratulations on planting your tree! This is just like birthing a child. Now you must learn how to take care of your child until she can take care of herself.
With trees planted from commercial nursery stock, aggressive pruning is usually needed at the time of planting to correct some of the techniques used by commercial growers. Commercial growers will tie trees tightly to stakes so they grow tall and straight, but this means tree trunks grow weak and unable to support themselves.
In most cases, to correct these issues, we will need to remove most of the top growth of the tree at planting to allow the trunk to regrow strong.
For deciduous trees
(best planted in winter while dormant)
Remove any stake. If planting a fruit tree, first identify the graft point on the tree’s trunk, which looks like a V-shaped joint in the trunk. Below the graft point, the tree's bark will look one texture and above the point it will have another texture. Prune the tree above the graft point, to a height where the trunk feels strong and sturdy. For a fruit tree that will be kept short, pruning to about knee-height is a good idea.
For evergreen/subtropical trees
(best planted in spring)
Remove any stake. Wiggle the tree’s trunk and see how strong and sturdy she feels. If she feels wobbly and floppy, pruning is required. Prune the tree’s upper branches until the trunk feels like she is able to hold herself up well. Ideally, some foliage is left on the tree so she can photosynthesize, but in extreme cases (a pencil thin very floppy trunk) all branches with foliage can be removed.
Caring for Young Trees
As with most lifeforms, trees require most care when they are young. At this stage, trees are still learning about their home and can require some guidance.
Feeding Young Trees
First, you must feed and water your young tree regularly. Feeding a tree can be done in a multitude of ways, the most obvious of which is to feed the soil the tree is growing in. You can feed your tree by feeding the soil compost and wood chip mulch. I recommend an annual dressing of compost and mulch for young trees in immature soil. You can also feed a tree more directly by applying supplements such as fish emulsion or seaweed emulsion to the tree's foliage (known as liquid foliar feeding). Finally, you can regularly offer the tree a more personal gift: urination. Pee on a young tree once or twice a week, though not more as you will risk overfeeding it.
Watering Young Trees
When a tree is newly planted, her roots are shallow and undeveloped. She is, at this time, unable to access the soil’s deeper waters, especially because she lacks relationships with fungi initially. Consequently, young trees need regular watering so the surface of the soil where the tree roots are stays moist. Check the moisture in the surface of the soil by sticking your index finger into the soil. If you can’t feel moisture, it is a good time to water.
For a newly planted tree, watering should be done about 6 inches from the tree trunk, where her roots are. As the tree grows bigger, watering should be done further and further away from the trunk.
Pruning Young Trees
Young trees generally don’t need too much pruning. Simply remove any branches that are growing in odd directions, any branches that die, and any branches that are crossing each other.
Recommended Fertilizers for Fruit Trees
Neptune’s Harvest Fish and Seaweed Fertilizer
Dilute 1 tbsp in 1 gallon of water in a pump sprayer. Spray the tree's foliage and the soil around the tree.
Sea-Crop Ocean Mineral Concentrate
Dilute 1 tbsp in 1 gallon of water in a pump sprayer. Spray the tree's foliage and the soil around the tree.
Recommended Tools for Fruit Tree Care
ARS LPB-30L 30” Lopper
Loppers are used for cutting 1-inch or larger diameter branches on more mature trees. If you have trees that are 3 years old or more, you’ll need one of these. ARS is a made in Japan company with excellent quality blades that are super sharp and hold their edge for years. Highly recommended..
Hand pruners are easily the most used gardening tool on our farm. We have tried many different brands, and settled on two as our favorite. We highly recommend purchasing a high quality pair of hand pruners.
Tobisho SR-1 Pruners (extremely high quality)
The best pruners we’ve ever used, these pruners are DROP FORGED, meaning they are made from a single piece of steel that’s been hammered and purified thoroughly, resulting in an extremely hard and sharp blade that keeps its edge for years on end.
ARS VSX Pruners (high quality)
Japanese-made pruners at an amazing price. Super sharp, easy to use, and sturdy. Blades stay really sharp after many uses and when they wear down replacement blades are available.