Fruit trees when planted properly and cared for will give you many years and even decades of harvests. Use these 7 fruit tree planting tips to ensure success.
I value my small fruit orchard so much! It gives our family loads of healthy, fresh organically grown fruit that we can enjoy all year through!
However planting fruit trees incorrectly may stunt their growth and even cause them to die. Which means you would then have to start over again, which costs more money and you need to wait longer to enjoy fruit harvests.
Think of it this way: if you have to move into a completely new environment such as a new house or apartment or even a different city or country, you would need quite a bit of time and self-care to adjust. Trees and plants in general are the same.
You can’t just plop a tree randomly into your garden and not take care of it. It’s not going to have the best start in it’s new location. Maybe some trees will be resilient enough, but most will likely die that first year if you neglect how you plant it or ignore it after planting it.
So let’s look at the most important fruit tree planting tips you need to keep in mind.
Picking the right fruit tree for the right location
Even before planting a fruit tree, you can make a big mistake in what tree you decide to plant.
If you’re like me, you just have a small urban backyard. And as you’ll see below, placing any fruit trees you plant in the right location is going to be crucial for the tree and the rest of your plants in your backyard.
So buying a fruit tree that is going to take over your yard is probably not a good idea!
For instance I have a yellow plum tree that is simply too big for my backyard. Not only is it unable to really stretch its limbs to its fullest extent, but it also has affected the pear tree next to it.
Every year I have to prune it heavily to keep it in check. I didn’t plant it (the previous house owner did) but now I have to live with a tree that simply doesn’t fit in my backyard. It has great harvests so I don’t want to cut it down.
So instead when going to buy a tree, try and pick dwarf varieties. These are varieties that have been specially grafted, which is a way that a normally large tree can be joined to a dwarf tree to keep the tree small.
The other alternative in a small backyard is to grow as an espalier or cordon, both special planting and pruning techniques that keep the tree compact. Some varieties of trees are better suited for these methods than other varieties. So when you pick out your tree at the nursery, let the staff know as they can help you pick the right one.
Espalier is when you plant a tree against a wall or fence and then train the tree to grow flat against the wall.
Cordon essentially reduces the tree to a single main trunk with fruit coming off of it. There are no long horizontal branches so trees can be planted close together in a row.
Once you have your tree picked out and you have brought it home, it’s now time to plant it. But this is where many gardeners make mistakes which can affect the tree’s survival rate. Let’s look at these mistakes and how to avoid them.
Even the right tree can be in the wrong location. It’s then a problem to itself and to the rest of your back or front yard.
The biggest issue with placement is what other plants is it going to shade. If you’re growing veggies as well as fruit trees like I am in a small backyard, your fruit trees have a good chance of shading at least part of your veggie garden for part of the day.
Your trees should ideally be planted on the north side (in the N. Hemisphere – if you’re in the S. Hemisphere, this would be the south side) of any other plants that need lots of sunlight.
Trees should also not be planted in a very low area where you might get frequent standing water after hard rains. Tree roots need to have access to air in the soil to survive and waterlogged soil doesn’t have much air.
And even though you think you may want the shade in summer, try to keep trees away from seating areas unless you’re willing to clean up frequently. In spring fruit trees drop blossoms, in summer fruit (who wants to have an apple land on their head!) and in fall leaves.
Also keep trees away from drainage and water pipes. Their roots can especially cause damage to clay drainage tiles.
Another consideration is deer. I mention more about pest damage below, but deer can decimate a tree as it’s just leafing out in spring. Consider planting your tree in a protected, full-fenced backyard rather than front yard.
Prepare the location for the fruit tree properly
Just digging a hole, plopping the tree in and hoping for the best is probably not going to be successful. The tree will either die or take forever to get established, if it every does.
A newly planted tree has enough struggle to establish itself. The last thing it needs is other plants immediately around it taking nutrients out of the soil it needs.
So be sure to remove all sod/lawn in a circle of at least 2-3 feet around the planting hole.
If you have other plants in the location, move or remove them. If you’re moving mature bushes be sure to do this in spring or fall as they will then have the best chance to recover.
There is no need to rototill the whole area. You may just encourage weed seeds to the surface and destroy soil structure. All you’ll do is dig an appropriate sized hole for the tree.
Planting the tree correctly
There are two important steps to ensure you’ve planted a tree properly in the soil: planting depth and what you put in the planting hole (it’s not what you think)
First off it’s critical for your tree’s survival to have it at the right depth in the soil. The traditional advice is to plant it in the hole to the same depth as it was in the nursery container.
There’s only one problem with that: some nurseries do not have the tree at the right level in the pot!
So how do you know how deep to plant a tree and level the ground around the trunk? You want the trunk flare (where the trunk starts to widen) to be above the surface of the soil. You don’t want the tree to look like a fence post, meaning that where it’s going in the ground has the same diameter as several inches above the soil.
Another way you may be able to determine how deep to plant is an old darker ring on the trunk of the tree below the flare where it may have been potted properly as a very young tree.
Now let’s look at what you need to put in the planting hole. Surprise, it’s nothing!
Traditionally the advice usually given was to amend the planting hole with lots of compost, manure and other amendments. The thought here was to give the tree the best chance to survive and flourish. Kind of like going all out to pamper house guests that come to stay at your home.
However there is one issue with doing this, which is why heavily amending the planting hole is no longer recommended.
Your fruit tree’s main job the first year or two is to grow new roots and extend its existing roots to the surrounding soil. This is mainly to anchor it in place so it can withstand high winds and things bumping into it. And fruit tree branches get very heavy with fruit once they’re in full production. As you’ll see in the next section staking the tree can help, but this is only a temporary solution.
Your fruit tree also needs to be able to absorb moisture and nutrients from the surrounding soil. And the further the roots can expand, the more access they have, especially in drought conditions.
By amending the hole heavily you’re basically giving the roots no reason to expand past the planting hole. They’re going to stay where it’s the best. It’s like pampering that house guest excessively and giving them everything they want. They’re never going to want to leave and you’ll be stuck with them forever!
So don’t both amending the hole (or pamper your house guests too much). Instead follow the other steps here to keep your tree cared for and allow it to naturally adjust to it’s new environment. You also save money on fertilizers, compost and other amendments.
Stake your fruit tree to support it
Your new tree is very vulnerable until its roots have been fully established. It’s like the toddler that is just learning to walk; it’s going to be very unstable and may have a tendency to fall over.
So staking your fruit tree properly is key to keeping it from being damaged during high winds until the roots can anchor it properly into the ground and the trunk has increased in thickness so that it won’t break. That can take a year or more.
It’s easy to think: this tree is small, I can just use some thin sticks of wood to support it. Well, that tree is not going to stay small for very long, plus once it has leaves and fruit, its branches are going to weigh it down.
So go bigger than you think you need. 2×2 wood stakes should probably be the minimum. These can just be square lumber or you can also get round stakes made from thin trees.
Make sure your stakes are pointed for easier driving into the ground. If they’re not, some quick work with an axe or handsaw can put a point on them.
Since you’re growing a food tree and also because you don’t need the stakes to last for many years (see below on when to remove) I would recommend avoiding pressure-treated wood for your stakes. There really is no need and while current pressure-treating uses chemicals that are safer (usually copper-based), natural wood is in my opinion better for your soil and tree health. And when you’re done with them, you can burn them in your wood stove or fireplace which you shouldn’t do with pressure-treated wood.
How many do you need? The average small fruit tree you buy can get away with just one. If you live in an especially windy area, you may want two opposite each other.
Stakes should be placed a foot or so from the trunk. Don’t place too close as that interferes with the trunk and the lower branches. Make sure they’re about 18 inches (45-50cm) deep.
Now you need to tie up the tree.
Ties need to be soft enough not to chafe the tree and cause bark damage. You could use rope or wire, but you run the risk of chafing or cutting into the tree trunk.
Instead use special tree straps which are not that expensive. Here is my recommendation:
Twist the strips loosely at their midpoint around the tree and tie around each stake. Keep the straps loose as you do want the tree to sway in the wind a bit so it can become stronger. You don’t want the straps so tight that the tree doesn’t move. And remember to check the straps regularly to make sure they’re not getting too tight around the tree trunk and raise them up too as the tree grows taller. You may also have to adjust the stakes.
Don’t keep the stakes and straps on too long. Generally you want them on for only one growing season. So if you plant in spring, remove in fall. Plant in fall, remove in spring.
Pruning your newly planted fruit tree
When you first plant your tree, you want it to put all of its energy into developing a healthy root system the first year. So a bit of pruning helps to direct that energy down. And this includes removing any fruit that forms the first year, despite it being hard to do. Most fruit trees anyways won’t develop fruit the first year or even for a few years.
Prune away any damaged, dead or diseased branches. Hopefully there won’t be many as it is a nursery tree that was well taken care of.
Prune away the tall, long straight shoots at the top of the tree. You want to trim away about half. Don’t prune more than 1/4 of the tree. Here is a great video on how to prune a newly planted pear tree:
Then leave the tree to develop a strong root system. In subsequent years, you can follow my fruit tree pruning guide to maintain the tree.
If you are espaliering a tree or growing it as a cordon there are special considerations for pruning.
- For espaliering, check out this article from Garden Therapy
- For cordons, this article has lots of important details
Water your fruit tree enough
The first year of a tree’s growth in the ground is crucial. It has to adapt to its surroundings, survive the first winter and get strong to start producing blossoms and eventually fruit.
There are three areas of care you have to keep on top of, especially the first year.
When trees are first getting established the worst thing that can happen is for the roots to dry out. That almost guarantees the tree’s death. Most newly planted trees are not watered enough nor are they watered long enough.
Unless you live where there are frequent rains, you’ll need to water your trees. There are special bladders that you can fill with water that release the water slowly like a drip irrigation system. You do of course have to remember to fill them back up.
These also have a side benefit of protecting the trunk of the tree from damage by rodents and other mammal pests. More on that later.
Here is my recommendation from Amazon:
Or you can setup a soaker hose or drip irrigation system around the tree and put it on a timer.
Typically a newly planted tree needs about an inch to two inches of water a week. If the weather is extremely hot and dry, you may need to increase this to several inches. To tell if the soil is damp enough, push a stake or other piece of wood or metal inside the trees drip line and see if the soil is damp for at least a foot (30cm) or more.
Protect your fruit tree from pest damage and disease
Once you’ve planted your tree you want to protect it from pest damage and disease to save the tree and maximize fruit yields once the tree starts producing fruit.
First off let’s look at common pests and what you can do to keep them from establishing themselves in your tree and eating the leaves.
In past years, all kinds of synthetic chemicals were spraying on fruit trees to combat disease and insects. Most of these chemicals are quite toxic. If you’re trying to grow everything organically in your garden, you’ll want to avoid spraying these chemicals. And in some areas you’re not allowed to unless you have a special license.
Instead you can spray your trees with a mix of horticultural oil and lime sulphur. These are both naturally occurring and are moderately harmless to anything other than the insects you’re trying to eradicate. It’s most effective against aphids, mealybug, thrips, whiteflies, adelgids, caterpillar eggs, leafhoppers, scale and mites. Get a good kit at your local nursery or garden centre and follow the instructions to the letter to ensure you’re applying it correctly. You need to apply it on a day with no wind and no rain in the forecast for at least a day or two.
Tree banding can stop the winter moth from laying eggs in your fruit trees. I have an in-depth article with video showing how to band your trees.
And keep an eye on your trees in the spring when tent caterpillars make their nests!
I learned the hard way one year. One day my wife mentions to me: I think there is a nest in our apple tree.
When I went to look, I found several nests of tent caterpillars in my small apple tree.
Unfortunately they had already eaten most of the leaves! And this affected production quite a bit. We ended up with probably only 25% of our usual harvest that year.
So it pays to keep an eye on your trees, especially in spring when tent caterpillars are making their nests in your fruit trees. If you see a nest forming, the best way is to prune the branch the nest is on. That way you get all the baby caterpillars inside the nest. Place the branch you pruned into a bucket of water to drown the caterpillars. Then you can dispose of the branch in your municipal green waste.
You might also need to protect your newly planted tree from damage to the trunk by rodents like mice and rats and larger mammals such as beavers (hopefully you don’t have any in an urban neighbourhood!) and deer. There are special tree wraps you can buy, but just a cylinder of fine metal mesh or hardware cloth will help protect the tree.
You may also have to fence in your tree with a high deer fence if deer are a problem in your area. But really the best solution is to plant your tree in a protected area that deer can’t reach otherwise they will eat the leaves and young branches of the tree like it happened to me one year when my backyard was not fully fenced in!
If you have disease problems there are also organic sprays that you can spray to get rid of the disease. Some of these are copper-based so you do have to be careful about spraying too much. And proper pruning and air flow around the tree can help to avoid disease in the first place so that you don’t have to spray.
So is it worth planting fruit trees considering that they generally need a bit more care when planting them than vegetables or other fruits such as strawberries and berry canes? Yes! Having fresh fruit ripe for the picking in late summer is so good.
You can pick a fresh peach to add to your morning smoothie or cereal. Or pick a few apples to put in your kid’s lunches. Or make a freshly baked pie, apple crips or crumble (with ice cream of course)!
And when you have large harvests you can make your own homemade applesauce and jams. Or do as I do and freeze your harvests to use them in wintertime for various recipes.
Good luck with setting up your own orchard!
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC