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Twelve Top Tips to Fruit Tree Planting Success

Bare root fruit trees are best; they have been field grown and tend to be larger, healthier and stronger than container grown trees and there is no risk of their being pot-bound.  Here are twelve easy to follow tips that will help ensure your fruit trees establish, grow away well and crop heavily.

Autumn is nearly here and with it comes the season for planting fruit trees.  Bare root fruit trees are best; they have been field grown and tend to be larger, healthier and stronger than container grown trees and there is no risk of their being pot-bound.  Here are twelve easy to follow tips that will help ensure your fruit trees establish, grow away well and crop heavily.

Before ordering be aware of fruit tree pollination - make sure the varieties you are buying are either self-fertile or will pollinate one another.  When your plants are delivered check to make sure you have the varieties (and shapes) you ordered.  Inspect each tree for broken or torn roots and branches; damage does happen when plants are lifted and transported and trees do not not seem to mind (unless it is very severe), but trim damaged roots and stems with a sharp pair of secateurs. As with pruning, clean cuts significantly lessen the chance of disease.

Make your planting hole square.  Fruit tree roots sometimes prefer to stay in the comfort of the enriched soil close to the trunk.  If the hole is round, you can get exactly the same effect as if the tree was pot bound – it grows away well, but in a couple of years it starts to go downhill…square planting holes prevent roots from "circling" and so are better for root development.

Dig a planting hole which is comfortably large enough for the roots of the tree – I always advise a hole 1 metre across and just deep enough to plant the tree so it ends up in the soil at the same level as it was growing before it was lifted (you can always see the “high water mark” left by the earth from its previous growing ground. Reserve the topsoil from the hole.  This is best kept back for when you are filling in round the tree’s roots. The stuff that is not so good will end up back in the bottom of the hole...

Now the earth is out of the ground, improve it by mixing it with well rotted manure or good compost. Both improve the structure of your soil which ensures good drainage and moisture retention (the soil stays damp for longer without ever being waterlogged). If you are on clay, mix in grit, sharp horticultural sand or even straw to make the drainage better.  A small handful of bone meal at the same time does not go amiss either.

Use mycorrhizae.  These are the friendly fungi that associate with tree roots and act as an additional root system, exchanging water and nutrients with waste products (mainly starches) from the tree. They really do make a difference and help get your tree off to a flying start.  If you buy mycorrhizae in gel form, the roots should be dipped in it.  If it comes as a powder you can just add it into the planting mixture along with the compost.

Once you have taken the earth out, start putting it back, but slowly.  Always make a small mound in the centre of the planting hole on which to put the roots of your fruit tree. This lifts them off the compacted bottom, prevents them water-logging and so stops them rotting before they have established and started to grow.

Before you put the rest of the planting mix back, but with someone holding the tree upright in the hole, just walk away so you can look at your fruit from a distance.  This way you can see that you have planted it so it looks its best. Fruit trees live a long time and it would be really boring for you to spend the rest of your life looking at it and saying “if only I had planted it so that branch didn’t…..."

No one has had to do much watering this summer but remember that despite the weather doing our work in 2008 one year soon we will see the sun and people and trees will begin to complain at the lack of rain.  When that time comes, fruit trees in particular need water as their fruit cannot swell without. So make provision for watering. A good tip is to bury a bit of drainpipe or drainage hose while you are planting your fruit tree so that it is easy for you to get water to the roots in times of need. Not as pretty, but just as effective is cutting the bottom off a 4 litre milk container, taking the top off and sinking it upside down in the planting hole.

Now put the rest of the improved soil back, making sure you use the best bits closest to the trunk and roots to give your tree the best possible start.  Firm it down with the ball of your foot as you go, but never stamp.

It is a good idea to guard your tree. Not because it will get eaten, but deer and rabbits will try to eat the bark, cats will sharpen their claw on it and strimmers and lawnmowers can take chunks out of it.  Not only do these wounds reduce a fruit tree’s ability to crop, they are also potential points of entry for disease and prevention is always easier and better than cure.

Always use a stake and a good tree tie to keep fruit trees steady while they are establishing.  You can get rid of them after the second year.  The stake should be like an iceberg – most of it under ground and the tie should be used low down – never more than one third up the tree, otherwise if there is a gale, the head can break off because the trunk cannot bend in the wind.

Finally, either put a biodegradable hemp mulch mat on the ground around the trunk, or put down a good thick layer of organic mulch (bark chippingsArticle Search, leaf mould). Either will reduce weed competition (the mat removes it entirely) and both help water retention.

Plant your fruit tree well and every year it will provide you with a tangible reminder of a job well done!

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Julian Bosdari owns and runs a nursery growing and selling soft fruit, hedging and ornamental trees.  He is an acknowledged expert on fruit trees and on their propagation, cultivation and care.

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