Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

The “Oh My Gosh” Moment — Planting the Fruit Garden

For many gar­den­ers, plant­ing a first fruit gar­den is much like the day new par­ents bring their baby home from the hos­pi­tal. Months of excit­ing prepa­ra­tion are behind you and now, all of a sud­den, near panic… oh my gosh, what am I sup­posed to DO with this? How do I plant it? How much do I feed and water it? How do I prune it? The ques­tions go on.…

Relax, you can do this! Just keep a few basics in mind. Spring plant­ing is by far the most com­mon for fruit trees and berry bushes. Fall plant­ing is also an option in areas with mild win­ter cli­mates and may be prefer­able where sum­mers are very hot and dry. In either case, it is best to plant when the tree, bush or vine is dor­mant. Here is a step-by-step guide to get­ting your fruit gar­den safely planted and set­tled in the ground:

  • Plant on a cool over­cast day, prefer­ably with as lit­tle wind as possible.
  • Keep roots pro­tected from dry­ing wind and sun while you dig each hole. Wrap­ping roots in damp burlap or news­pa­per works well.
  • Your plant­ing hole should be large enough to eas­ily accom­mo­date the roots. A good rule of thumb is dig it twice as wide as the rootball.
  • A hole about 18 inches deep is usu­ally suf­fi­cient for all but the largest fruit tree. For smaller berry bushes a shal­lower hole may suffice.
  • Break up the sides of the hole a bit with a shovel so that the roots can grow out­ward later.
  • Spread roots out uni­formly around the hole. If there are any exces­sively long side roots, it is best to trim them back a bit to fit the hole. This will stim­u­late new root growth once the plant is set­tled in.
  • Do not wrap roots around the hole or they will con­tinue to grow that way; per­ma­nently stunt­ing the plant.
  • Try to avoid plant­ing in very wet soil. Wet soil will pack too tightly around the roots and suf­fo­cate them by not allow­ing enough air spaces in the soil.
Specif­i­cally for Fruit Trees

In the cen­ter of the hole, leave a small mound of dirt on which to posi­tion the tree. At this point, an assis­tant is help­ful to hold the tree in place.

If the tree is not grafted, set it in the hole so that it will be about two inches higher than it grew in the nurs­ery. You can usu­ally see the old soil line on the trunk.

Trees that are grafted on seedling root­stocks are nor­mally planted with the graft at or just below the ground.

If you pur­chased a tree that is grafted onto dwarf­ing root­stock, take care to plant the graft union two to three inches above the ground level. If the graft union is planted at or below ground level, the scion vari­ety of the tree will take root and you will loose the dwarf­ing characteristics.

Ori­ent the low­est branch toward the south­west to shield the trunk from win­ter sunscald.

On a windy site, tip the tree into the pre­vail­ing wind three to five degrees. It will grow upright over time and be less likely to be pushed over by strong winds.

Espe­cially for Berry Bushes, Plants, and Vine

The crown of most berry bushes can be planted level with or just above the soil line.

If berry bushes are pot­ted and grow­ing, it is impor­tant that the soil ball be fully buried. Oth­er­wise it may wick water to the sur­face and dry out.

Refill the hole with soil, gen­tly bounc­ing the tree or bush up and down a bit to fully set­tle the soil around the roots. Once the hole is full, firm the soil with the heel of your foot so that no large air pock­ets remain to dry the roots. About two feet out from the cen­ter of the bush or tree trunk, build a shal­low soil dike to retain water. Mulch the dike with com­post, leaves or straw. Gen­tly water until the soil is well soaked and set­tled. Add addi­tional dirt if the soil has set­tled below the sur­round­ing ground level. Water deeply once a week until the tree is established.

©2013. Adapted from the Back­yard Berry Book: A hands-on guide to grow­ing berries, bram­bles, and vine fruit in the home gar­den and the Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home gar­den by Stella Otto.