How To: Planting Fruit Trees

Kristy Athens

Kristy Athens › Kristy Athens is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (...


I was recently in Palm Springs to visit family, and couldn’t get enough of the landscape. Palm Springs is in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, an oasis in the middle of the desert. Much of its success—and its excess—is a result of diverted water from the Colorado River, but there are a few natural springs in the valley as well. Many things caught my attention: the bougainvillea, the lizards and hummingbirds, the granite peaks jutting skyward on all sides. But more than anything else, the plethora of citrus fruit trees was mind-boggling to this Northerner.

Grapefruits. Tangelos. Lemons. Oranges. Trees that look fake, they are so laden with fruit. Fat fruits lying on the ground beneath them. My family and I bought some, and were astonished at the amount of juice one could squeeze from them. As much as I love Oregon’s verdant Willamette Valley, I had a hard time leaving the citrus party in SoCal.

In Oregon, small-fruited citrus trees are possible only on dwarf stock in pots that are brought indoors as soon as temperature drops below 50. But we have plenty of stone-fruit (drupe) trees, like cherry and peach, and pomes like apple and pear. The first step in growing fruit trees that will lavish you with healthy fruit for years to come is to select a sapling judiciously and plant it well. Here is an excerpt from my book, Get Your Pitchfork On!:

Because fruit and herb bushes and trees are “permanent” as garden plants go, you need to take extra care when planting them. Choose your young trees carefully—a weak or spindly tomato plant will only set you back for one season; fruit trees can live decades. Look for well-shaped trees that have been pruned to a few main branches with strong, 45-degree crotches. Make sure the tree sits well in its pot or, if bare-root, that the roots are well heeled-in and moist. Check the trunk to see that the graft is healthy, and there are no nicks or cuts. Some trees can self-pollinate; some need another tree of the same species nearby so they can cross-pollinate.

Our 82-year-old neighbor in Portland told Mike once, “No use putting a dollar tree in a ten-cent hole.” Any mistakes or shortcuts you make will stick with the plant as long as it lives (which, depending on the mistake or shortcut, might not be that long).

Hopefully, you’ve already considered the conditions mentioned above, as per the beginning of this section, and have picked the perfect, well-drained site for your bushes and orchard. Mike and I put our trees where we wanted them to be for aesthetic reasons, lining a path away from our gazebo. Aesthetic reasons are not the right choice. We paid for it every spring thereafter by having to dig drainage trenches for them so they wouldn’t drown during the spring thaw. Consider the spacing as well—it seems ridiculous to plant apple trees twelve feet apart when they’re nothing more than sticks. But if they grow to have ten-foot canopies, they will need that much space.

Next, you want to give them that dollar hole. By hand or with a tractor, dig a hole that is three feet deep and three feet wide (for bushes, two by two). Dig through the soil from that hole so that it is light and fluffy, and mix in compost and/or fertilizer, and any amendments signified by a Ph test. If the soil is clay, and there is a defined edge to the hole, rough it up a bit so that the roots have a better chance at penetrating it when they start to grow. Fill the hole back in about one-third, and tamp it in. Water it.

The level at which you build the hole back up depends on the size of the young tree—you want the place at which the trunk (either its own trunk or its rootstock) and its roots meet to be at ground level once you’ve filled in all the dirt. You do not want to bury the rootstock. You can kind of hold the tree in the air at the approximate place it will be, and gauge how much dirt needs to go back in. Create a small mound inside the hole, tamp that in a bit, until you get it so that the tree is resting on the mound at the correct level. Drape the roots evenly over the mound, making sure none of them are out of the hole, or go down a ways and then head up again. Fill the rest of the hole. Tamp in the dirt, leaving the surface in a saucer shape that will direct water toward the tree. Build up the edge of the saucer—if you had to cut sod to plant this tree, you can use strips of upside-down sod. Water thoroughly.

It’s important to meet the tree’s needs carefully for the first few years, until it has established itself. The first year, you might pick off any flowers, so the tree can focus on its root system and not on fruit. After that, thin as you would for a larger tree. You’ll still need to trim your trees back every year as well, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Once your trees are producing, you’ll thank yourself for efforts on the front end!

Are you planning on planting any fruit trees or bushes this year?

Photo Credit: Craig McCord