How to Plant a Fruit Tree: An In-Depth Guide

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Nothing is quite like picking an apple or pear right from the tree and biting into its ripe, juicy flesh. Plus, partaking from your own land is even better! Growing a fruit tree — or a variety of fruit trees — is a brilliant idea if you love to have fresh, organic goodies on hand. While doing so does require a certain level of knowledge and commitment, the fruits of your labor — pun intended — will be well worth the work.

Pick Your Tree

The first step to planting a fruit tree is, of course, to choose one. However, with so many delicious options available, how are you supposed to pick? The decision involves more than merely favoring oranges over cherries. 

Years to Fruit 

When you purchase a young tree at a nursery, it’s usually one to two years old. Even so, you likely won’t be harvesting from it anytime soon. Depending on the variety, your tree can take an additional one to 10 years to produce. If you don’t have the patience to wait around, consider planting citrus, which takes one to two years to grow fruit. If you have time to spare, plant an apple tree that’ll produce in four to five years. 

pear blossoms

Bare-Root vs. Container-Grown

Regardless of the type of fruit tree you decide to purchase, you must choose between a bare-root or container-grown option. A bare-root tree is cheaper, easier to carry and plant and can grow larger and produce more fruit, as a post doesn’t restrain their root system. Container-grown trees, however, can withstand a longer wait period between purchasing and planting. They’re also ideal for indoor growth. Keep these pros and cons in mind when picking out your tree.

Paired Pollination 

Most fruit trees depend on other plants of the same variety to pollinate, which is essential to fruit production, and every tree has different pollination requirements. For instance, if you decide on an apple tree, you must plant at least two. One should also be a different variety of the same fruit. If you plant sweet cherry trees, however, they must blossom at the same time so that honeybees can cross-pollinate them. Other options, like peach and nectarine, are self-pollinating, so you’ll only need one. 

Cost 

Of course, it’s also essential to consider the price of one — or two — fruit trees. Most choices cost about $25, although they certainly can be pricier depending on where you purchase them. Although the cost may be low, the upkeep can get a bit expensive. Watering, pruning, spraying insecticides and warding off pests can cost $200 to $300 per year. The good news is, you pay in small increments, so the routine won’t affect your wallet dramatically. 

Orange tree with ripe fruits in sunlight. Horizontal shot

Choose a Planting Site 

Once you’ve chosen the perfect tree, it’s time to find the ideal place to plant it. Finding a spot with the proper amount of space, nutrient-rich soil, sunlight and shade will be instrumental in helping the tree produce fruit.

Space 

Since pollination is such an essential part of fruit production, you must plant trees close enough together for them to cross-pollinate. Yet, you still want to give them enough room to grow and spread their roots. Some standard options, like apple trees, grow to be 30 to 40 feet wide. However, dwarf versions only grow to 10 to 12 feet. Therefore, you must research how large your tree will become to ensure proper room for healthy growth.

Soil Type

You’ll also want to take soil drainage and nutrients into account when choosing a place to plant your tree. Most types grow best in soil with a sandy, loamy texture that drains easily. The soil must also be deep enough to support extensive root systems. You should test your yard’s pH levels by sending a sample to your local nursery or by using at-home test strips. Most thrive in soil with a pH between six and six and a half. 

Climate

Temperature also plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of your fruit trees. Many require a chill period where they sit in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually, this occurs during the winter season. However, if your climate is warm year-round, you may need to consider a different option. To figure out how cold your specific location gets during the winter, consult the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

Row of blooming peach trees in a spring orchard

Sunlight 

The vast majority of trees need at least six hours of sunshine per day to flourish and produce fruit of supreme color and flavor. However, even the ones most desperate for sun can get sunburnt. Thus, you may have to paint the trunks and any large limbs white to reflect the light. Use a mixture of one part water and one part latex paint. You can also use a tree wrap if you find it to be more aesthetically pleasing. 

Dig and Prep the Hole

Once you have your tree and the perfect spot, it’s time to get your hands dirty. One day before digging, water the spot where the hole will be until it is completely soaked. The following day, prep your tree by placing its roots in a bucket of water in the shade for one to two hours. If you purchased a container-grown tree, carefully remove it from the pot, shake off the dirt, and splay the roots out.

Next, measure the depth and width of the roots and dig a hole that’s slightly larger than those dimensions. Once you’re satisfied with your work, loosen the soil in the bottom of the pit to create a small mound. Then, puncture the sides of the hole with your shovel or tiller. This trick will allow the roots a place to grab hold and grow. Skipping this step may cause roots to circle within the hole, stunting and eventually killing the tree. 

If you regularly battle gophers, moles, rabbits or other pesky critters in your yard, do yourself — and the tree — a favor, and line the inside of the hole with chicken wire. While moles themselves won’t eat tree roots, their tunnels invite other pests in, like voles, which can and will eat your fruit tree’s roots. Plus, if these tunnel systems are extensive enough, they will begin to erode the soil surrounding your tree and prevent water from reaching the roots. 

Spring garden. Beautiful trees in bloom on a sunny day.

Place the Tree and Fill the Hole

After you’ve finished preparing and protecting the hole, remove your tree from the bucket of water and place it in the pit, taking extra care to fan its roots out over the small mound you made. Take a careful look at your tree’s trunk as well to make sure the hole isn’t so deep it will cover the graft. This spot often looks like a swollen bump on the bark and marks the place where the rooting portion and fruiting portion of two trees joined one another.

Planting the graft below the soil may cause the tree to develop a growth on top of the ground called scion roots, resulting in a weaker root system which can affect growth and fruit production as the tree grows. Therefore, make sure the graft is slightly above the soil by placing a wooden beam or other long, straight object across the surface of the hole. If the graft sits above the beam, you’re good to go.

Now, begin filling the hole, compacting the soil with your feet as you go to prevent air pockets. As you near the top of the opening, avoid mounding soil around the trunk. Instead, create a slight depression at the base of the trunk to allow water to settle there easily and nourish the tree. Water the area well well, wait until the liquid soaks into the ground and stamp down the dirt around the base one last time. 

Above-Ground Staking and Protection

Your fruit tree is finally resting in its new home, but you haven’t finished your work quite yet. To support proper growth, the trunk will need support, especially if the site experiences strong winds throughout the year. Failing to do so may put your tree at risk of having its roots ripped out — and you obviously don’t want that to happen after all your hard work. 

Hammer a sturdy support stick into the earth so that the top sits at the height of the tree’s first limb. Then, tie the bottom three feet of the tree to the stick using soft material like rubber or nylon. This setup will allow the tree to grow up healthy and tall without causing damage to the trunk. Continue to support your tree for the first two to four years of its life, graduating to longer sticks as it grows. 

You should protect the tree’s developing trunk from hungry rabbits, deer or curious dogs by wrapping it in chicken wire, pre-fabricated tubing or cloth. You might also place a small fence around the tree to keep pesky animals away. For taller animals, like deer, position the barrier a few feet from the tree to prevent them from reaching its branches as it grows. 

Mulch and Prune 

Now it’s time to surround your new friend with mulch, such as leaf mold, wood chips or grass clippings. Adding these materials around your tree will provide a protective boundary between the sun and soil, allowing the earth and the tree’s roots to retain more moisture. Fan this mulch out to a distance of three feet from the base of the trunk, making sure it doesn’t actually touch the bark. 

Pruning is also an essential part of growing a healthy, productive fruit tree. Most kinds yield too much fruit, and overcrowding of limbs can block sunlight from reaching the branches. By pruning the tree, however, you allow the fruit and leaves more access to fresh air and sunshine. It also encourages root growth and side branching in the spring. Plus, if you planted a pair of trees, pruning will prevent them from overcrowding one another. 

Begin the process by removing branches from the bottom 18 inches of the tree. Then, trim the top so that the tree is 30 to 36 inches high. As it continues to grow and eventually produce, snip off some branches with underripe fruit to allow the upper limbs and their fruit to grow bigger. The number you snip off will vary depending on the tree. For instance, you should trim about 70% of green fruits off Asian pear trees when the fruit is dime-sized.

Pick and Enjoy Your Fruit!

The best part of planting a fruit tree is harvesting its delicious product. A few years of waiting may seem like forever, but your patience will see the reward of fresh, organic juiciness for many years to come. With the exception of pears, you should pick the fruit just before it reaches full ripeness. Then, keep it chilled in your fridge — or outside if it’s cold enough — until you’re ready to eat it. 

Wild apples and pears in basket

You can store most hard fruits, like apples and pears, in a cool place for months before they begin to spoil. Plus, apples generally taste better after a few weeks in storage, anyway. However, stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries and peaches don’t last as long. Therefore, it’s best to can, juice, freeze or eat them within a few days of harvesting if you don’t want them to spoil quickly. You can also bake a few tasty pies. Furthermore, use bruised fruit immediately as it tends to go bad the quickest. 

Of course, your tree may yield more fruit than you ever imagined possible. If you aren’t big on canning or juicing, spread the love by sharing produce with your friends, family and neighbors. They’ll be more than happy to take a few baskets off your hands. Just be sure to save a few for yourself so that you can sit down under your tree, bite into a juicy orange or nectarine and thank your backyard friend for growing tall and strong.

Emily Folk, Contributing Author, Change Food – Emily covers agricultural and sustainability topics. You can find more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about our new program Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.  Support us today!  #changefood

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