I remember watching the Geoff Lawton food forest videos with so many fruit trees and how awesome it was to have all that great food.
Now, to make a food forest, you need to plant trees. But you need to plant them the right way to give them the best chance of surviving.
Done right, you can have all that great food just waiting for harvest.
But what is the right way to plant a fruit tree?
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How to fail
My first tree-planting failures with were with the CSU nursery tree program’s seedling trees.
So I have a confession to make: I have killed…hundreds of trees. I guess that means I’m a serial tree killer?
But I didn’t kill them the easy way, oh no.
I bought them, hand dug a hole for each of them, planted them, and watered them. And killed them.
Huh? That doesn’t make sense. If you took care of them, how did they die?
Basically, improper care and neglect.
The first year’s holes I dug with a hand post-hole digger. These holes were too small for the roots, and the smooth hard side walls were too hard for them to penetrate.
The second year I got a little smarter and rented a powered one-man auger. It was much easier on the back and time conservation, and gave me larger holes, though they were still too small.
In addition to the problem of holes too small, I also failed in other ways:
- No mulch on top of planting hole
- No shade from hot summer sun
- No wind block
- No amendments to hole soil
- No water infrastructure in place
- No pruning
- Late planting date
Without mulch on top of the planting holes, the sun baked the roots, and then winter froze them.
The missing shade and wind block allowed the summer sun and hot winds to scorch and stress the delicate young trees and dry them out.
Lacking good nutrients in the holes, the trees struggled just to survive, much less grow.
And another big issue was the lack of permanent watering system. So to water, I had to drag the hose(s) WAYYYYYYYY out to irrigate by hand. It was tedious and time-consuming, so I didn’t do it consistently. They were either too wet, or too dry.
Another smaller issue was that I didn’t prune the bare-root tree’s tops after planting. This helps to conserve moisture loss and force the tree to grow more roots.
Finally, the CSU trees I ordered didn’t show up until early May. It’s really iffy to plant trees that late, because it gets hot very fast at that time of year.
Compounding that problem, I didn’t get the trees planted when I should have. It went over several weekends, and took much too long for bare-root trees to stay healthy.
Isn’t that an awesome way to fail at planting lots of trees?
A better way to plant fruit trees
So a few years ago I learned about a different tree-planting method from Greg Peterson in Phoenix, AZ. He has an urban farm https://www.urbanfarm.org and a seasonal fruit tree nursery.
I thought, if he can keep fruit trees alive in Phoenix, I can certainly do that here!
So here’s the way to do it. This is mostly from Greg’s ideas, with some of my own changes.
First, planting time is important. Plant trees as soon as possible after the ground thaws, except for citrus planted after last frost. If you’re in Phoenix like Greg he suggests February, but no later than middle of April.
For me, that means around March or April, depending on the year.
I bought from is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (PVFS), at groworganic.com. Ordering in late February, I received my trees in early March.
I couldn’t immediately plant, and PVFS suggests (and I second) keeping the trees dormant by placing them in an unheated room or garage. The temperature should be cool but above freezing, and keep the roots damp and away from air.
The trees that PVFS sells are excellent quality, most with larger than average caliper (diameter). They’re also some of the best prices I’ve seen for online fruit trees. I’m very impressed with the quality and price, and will likely order from them again.
Fall planting is another option, and better than spring planting in some ways. However, you might have trouble getting a nursery to sell you trees for that time of year.
Also, know that nurseries are unlikely to guarantee trees bought in fall.
There’s a hole, there’s a hole
Second, let’s talk about digging hole size. The hole size is dependent on the root configuration and length.
It is a good idea to dig the hole twice as wide as the roots or pot to make sure they can grow into the soil.
Make sure that the sides of the hole are NOT glass smooth. Put in little holes or divots all over the hole so the tree roots can find a way to get into the native soil.
This prevents the tree from becoming root bound. Greg suggest 30 to 50 divots in the hole.
Third, add the basin around the hole.
It should be 6′ (yes, six feet) in diameter. Make sure to dig out any grass.
Dig the basin 6-8″ deep. If you’re concerned about wet soil or flooding, instead of digging down, put in a berm at least 6″ high.
Fourth, make a planting mix of 40% native soil and 60% organic matter in a wheelbarrow:
- Live compost or premium organic potting soil – at least 1 cubic foot or a bag
- Azomite rock dust – about 1 pound
- Worm castings – about 1 pound but the more, the better
- Micorhizae fungi – about 1 ounce
- Coco fiber – half of a block, re-hydrated and loosened
- Sand, if you have lots of clay
Plant it, and it will grow
Fifth, plant your tree. Don’t bend or break the roots. Cut the really long ones off if you need to.
Also, it’s critical that the graft union on the tree be above the ground by several inches. Plant the tree at the same ground level it was in the nursery.
Put your mix into the hole and see how the tree fits. The lowest roots will sit on top of this, so adjust the level until the tree is at the right depth.
Refill the hole with your planting mix gently, and make sure there are no air pockets in the hole. Keep going until filling the hole.
Then put a slight mound around the tree in the basin. The mound makes sure that mulch isn’t up against the tree.
Fifth, fill the basin with wood chips (not sawdust or bark mulch) or leaves/straw at least 6″ deep. I prefer wood chips because they don’t blow away in the wind.
The mulch has several benefits:
- Keeps the grass and weeds down until the tree gets established
- Conserves water
- Keeps the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter
- Helps to build up a healthy soil life, which feeds and supports the tree
Then whitewash the trunk to prevent sun scald or wrap the tree with a guard.
Last, prune the tree. I know, it’s hard! I didn’t really want to chop off half of my tree’s height either.
Because the roots are trimmed for shipment, they can’t support all that top growth. So it’s really for the best to prune it back into balance. This initial pruning will also benefit the tree by preventing stress and wind damage.
Now fill the basin, let it drain, then fill it again. You should always fill the basin when watering.
Note: DO NOT drip irrigate! Only use a hose or bubbler irrigation.
Under- or overwatering symptoms look the same, so get a soil moisture meter to determine precise watering needs.
In the beginning before it gets hot, only water every 4 weeks. This makes sure we aren’t watering too much and rotting the roots. Excessive water kills many trees.
When it gets over 90 degrees, you can water every 2 weeks. If it’s over 100 degrees, test soil moisture and watch the trees for signs of stress.
For example, let’s say you get 8 or 10 days into the cycle and the tree leaves are curling, wilting or falling. Check the soil, and if it’s dry, refill the basin.
Then go back to every 4 weeks in the fall when it’s not over 90 degrees.
Why this works
Digging a properly sized and prepared hole with loosened dirt and the suggested planting mix supports the tree so it can survive and grow well.
The wood chips develop healthy soil life to feed the tree, and act as winter blanket and summer cooling for the roots. Wood chips also soak up water then release it over time.
The watering schedule makes sure the tree gets enough water without the danger of rotting the roots.
I can attest that this is a better way to plant than even most nurseries suggest. I’ve planted this way, and modified existing trees with chip-filled basins.
The trees I have planted in this manner have done better, and grown faster and larger than trees several years older.
Ultimately, it lowers the stress as much as possible to allow the tree to grow as best it can.
Try this method and tell me what you think!
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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about fruit trees, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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