If you are planning to plant a fruit tree, you have several options. For example, you can buy an established tree, however small, from a local nursery. You can order one from an online nursery. Or you can graft or bud your own tree.
Often the best route is to buy a fruit tree online in a trees sales because you have more options in terms of species and types. Most online sites offer bare-root trees. So, you’re going to have to know how to plant them. It’s not difficult, but you should follow the rules, especially those about the size of the planting hole and the soil used to fill it.
What is a bare-root fruit tree?
Fruit trees are commonly sold as bare-root trees. This is a dormant tree that doesn’t have any soil or planting medium around its roots.
With the soil, the tree literally is a bare root tree. But a bare root fruit tree won’t survive if its roots dry out.
So, if you decide to buy a bare-root fruit tree, you need to plan carefully. As soon as it arrives, the ideal is to plant it immediately.
Benefits of planting a bare-root fruit tree
Many seasoned gardeners prefer to plant bare-root fruit trees because they are dormant. The University of California’s Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County explains that it optimizes strong growth when a fruit tree is still young.
Bearing in mind that the bare root plants are in a dormant state, as soon as they are back in the soil the root system starts taking up water and nutrients. Then they start their spring growth.
These roots are literally bare. They haven’t been growing in a container and they are often more fibrous than roots would otherwise be.
Not only are bare root trees cheaper than trees you would usually find at your local nursery or garden center, but the roots also haven’t suffered from “circle conditions.” These roots are obvious when you tip an established tree out of a container because they have been forced to remain in a pot.
How to plant a bare-root fruit tree?
If you need good advice, a good place to start is with the extension service at a university in your state. While most of them give the same advice, there will be slight deviations depending on local conditions.
Size of the hole
Typically, they will say that you need a location that has well-drained soil that gets 8-10 hours of direct sunlight every day. Then you will need to dig a hole that is at least twice as wide as the diameter of the root spread.
That’s why it’s so much easier to gauge the size of the planting hole required when planting bare-root fruit trees. If there are circle conditions, you won’t be able to see how far the roots naturally spread.
The University of Georgia (UGA) Extension suggests that you examine the trunk of the bare-root fruit tree to see how deeply it was planted initially. You can identify this by an obvious color change on the stem or, if more developed, the tree trunk.
The Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service says that the hole needs to be deep enough to place the roots in the hole but keep the “graft union” visible. When you place the tree in the planting hole, carefully spread its roots out in all directions.
Then make a pyramid of soil at the bottom of the hole to help keep the roots spread out before you backfill with soil. Some other sources refer to this as a soil cone that improves drainage as well as root penetration.
Soil for backfill
Another tip from the OSU Extension Service is to pay attention to the soil you use for backfill. The secret is to make sure that your soil has sufficient phosphorus and potassium. Don’t just replace the soil with another topsoil, manure, or sphagnum moss, check your existing soil first and then amend it.
The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at the University of California in Santa Cruz has more detailed information. They say you should excavate any poor-quality subsoil and discard 40% of it.
Then blend what’s left with good quality topsoil and compost mixed 50-50. The topsoil should be a blend of between 60-70% of the native soil mixed with premixed compost.
After that, you can top-dress with 1-2 inches of compost and half to a pound of concentrated granular organic fertilizer.
What if you can’t plant your bare-root fruit tree straight away?
If you can’t plant your trees at the time they arrive, you can plant them temporarily in a pot or in a mound of soil, compost, or mulch. UGA calls this temporary planting arrangement heeling in.
They strongly warn not to opt for the bucket water choice. This, they say, will cut off essential oxygen to the roots and can damage, or worse still kill the tree.
Also, avoid putting unplanted bare root trees under bushes in the hot sun. The heat is likely to kill them.
You can, though, keep potted and heeled trees temporarily in partial shade under shade cloth, as long as you keep them moist.
Bare root fruit tree care tips
Once you have planted your new bare-root fruit tree, you want to do whatever you can to ensure that it produces fruit. UGA encourages growers to prune and train their newly planted trees before there is any new growth.
This will encourage fruit to grow.
CASFS puts it in a nutshell. Dig your hole and set the roots at the soil line.
Sprinkle the roots with a rooting hormone and fracture the sides of the hole with a garden fork.
Top dress the tree rather than mixing in compost, but do add fertilizer and compost above the root zone.
Apply 2-4 inches of mulch over the compost and fertilizer. Then thin off broken branches and cut healthy branches back by about half.
And OSU adds that you should wait for about a year before you feed with nitrogen. This is because you don’t want to burn the tender roots of your new fruit tree.
When you fertilize, spread it at the drip line of the tree and water at the same time.