You have a site picked out for your fruit tree and you know what you want to grow. However, you still need to figure out a time frame for planting.
So, when do you plant a fruit tree? Plant a fruit tree in early spring after soil is thawed out enough to dig. The fruit tree should still be dormant at planting time. If the soil is wet due to rain or melted snow, dig after it dries to avoid compacted soil. If you plant too late, the tree will not grow enough roots to survive winter.
Of course, you might get your fruit tree shipped to you a little earlier than you can plant it. In that case, you can store it in a cool place away from sun and wind, with damp sawdust or peat moss to keep the roots from drying out.
In this article, we’ll talk about when to plant a fruit tree and what to avoid. We’ll also go over some best practices for planting fruit trees, straight from the experts.
Let’s get started.
When To Plant A Fruit Tree
The consensus is to plant fruit trees in early spring (possibly late winter in milder climates, such as Florida, Texas, or southern California). Ideally, fruit trees should still be dormant at planting time.
Also, wait until after the soil has thawed out to plant fruit trees. This allows you to dig and work the soil easily.
According to the Penn State University Extension, root growth starts when soil temperatures are 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) or higher. So, the soil doesn’t need to be as warm to plant fruit trees as it does for warm-weather garden plants (like tomatoes, squash, etc.)
If your soil is very wet due to heavy rains or melting snow, wait until it dries out a bit before planting fruit trees. If you try to dig too early in wet soil, you risk soil compaction, which can take some work to reverse.
According to the Michigan State University Extension, planting a fruit tree too late in the spring can have negative effects. For example, the tree will have less time to grow a strong root system before it starts to bud, flower, and fruit.
This means it will be behind other fruit trees planted sooner that have a more established root system. Planting in spring also gives young fruit trees more time to grow and prepare for winter (as compared to trees planted in summer or fall).
What Fruit Trees To Plant
When choosing what fruit trees to buy, think about what is “native” or grows well in your area. You should also consider what varieties can resist common diseases (often, a seed or tree catalog will indicated disease resistance).
A good way to find out is to ask your local agricultural extension. You can find a list of agricultural extension offices by state from the USDA here.
Start thinking about what fruit trees you want to buy in late fall or early winter, and make your decision early. Order your fruit trees in winter, and the fruit tree company should ship them around planting time in your area.
When you place your order for fruit trees, try to find ones that are 1 or 2 years old. When the fruit trees arrive, make sure the roots are healthy and that the plant looks disease-free.
Fruit Tree Storage (After Delivery)
If your fruit tree comes too early to plant right away, don’t worry. You just need to take a few steps to keep them healthy until you can plant:
- Put damp sawdust, peat moss, or shredded newspaper around the tree’s roots to keep the roots from drying out.
- Store the tree in a cool place (above freezing) that is away from sun and wind.
For example, apples give off ethylene, and if you store a fruit tree in the same room, it might start to bud way too early in the year, leaving them vulnerable to damage.
If you don’t have a place to store fruit trees long-term, you can use a process called “heeling in”. Here are the steps for this method:
- Find a temporary planting spot that is shaded and protected from wind and sun.
- Put moist soil in a trench (or even a container).
- Plant your tree in the moist soil.
You can leave the tree in this temporary planting spot until the soil thaws or you are ready to transplant. (If you wait too long, the tree may break dormancy and eventually become root-bound in its pot!)
Where & How To Plant Fruit Trees (Hole Location, Depth & Width)
The permanent planting spot for your fruit tree should have well-drained soil. It should also be in an area with full sun.
Prior to transplant, soak the roots of your fruit tree in a container of water for 12 hours before planting. Also, get your planting hole ready ahead of time – it can take a while to dig a hole, and you don’t want the tree sitting out too long with unprotected roots.
Dig the hole wider than you think you will need. Keep the soil from the hole nearby (in a pile or wheelbarrow) to make it easier to refill the hole later after you are done transplanting.
The hold should be wide enough to put all of the tree’s roots in the hole without bending or curling them around. As far as depth: it is better to plant your fruit tree a little too shallow than a little too deep.
However, you should make sure that there are at least 18 inches of depth between the soil surface and any ledge or rocks below. Otherwise, the tree’s root system may be limited as it grows, leading to a smaller tree and reduced fruit yield.
Generally, if the tree is planted too shallow, it will lean over right away. This will indicate that you need to plant deeper.
If you plant too deep, you may not find out right away. For one thing, the soil at a deeper level has less oxygen, which roots need to survive (but you may not see immediate consequences).
Also, you may see scion rooting if you plant a grafted fruit tree too deep.
A grafted fruit tree has two parts merged into one tree:
- the rootstock is the bottom part (roots and lower part of the trunk).
- the scion is the top part (the upper part of the trunk, along with branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit).
For example, the scion (top part) of a grafted apple tree may root in the soil on its own if the tree is planted too deep. This defeats the whole purpose of grafting, which is to have a rootstock that is different from the scion.
According to the Michigan State University Extension, you should aim for the graft union (where the rootstock and scion meet) to be 4 to 6 inches above soil level. If the hole is too deep, take the tree out carefully, backfill some of the soil, and replace the tree until you get it at the right height.
Once the tree is in its proper place, fill the soil back in around the roots. Tamp down the soil a bit (do not pack it down too hard) to avoid air pockets. Then, water the soil around the tree.
Fruit Tree Care After Planting
As the tree grows, water all around the tree, out as far the ends of the branches reach (this is called the tree’s root zone).
You can also add a layer of mulch around the tree to help retain moisture in the soil. The University of Maryland Extension suggests a tapered layer of mulch that is 3 inches deep at the branch edges/root zone, to almost no mulch near the trunk.
This tapering prevents rot of the bark and wood of the base of the tree). You can learn more about mulching around trees (and also what to avoid) here.
If a soil test reveals the need for fertilizer, do not apply it until later in the spring, when trees are established. Use a balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) in small amounts to prevent over fertilizing (which can burn roots).
According to the University of Maine Extension, you should fertilize before early summer arrives. Otherwise, you may get late growth, which can prevent the tree from hardening off before winter frost arrives.
The University of Illinois Extension suggests using stakes to provide support for young fruit trees, along with wire or twine to train the branches into the shape you want (this is called espalier). Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees may need permanent support.
Now you know when to plant fruit trees for best results. You also know what to do and what you should avoid to improve the odds of success when you plant a new fruit tree.
I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.
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