A New Fruit tree? Dig it in well, dig it in once!
Have you heard the story about the young permie who was asking his grandfather advice about the best time to plant a tree? The grandfather replied, “Twenty years ago!”
This advice is solid when an apple tree can fruit up to 300 years, pears 800 years and olive trees over 1000 years! Those who want to grow avocado in a cool climate, can wait up to 7 years for your first fruit, and macadamias can be over 17 years!
So, the best advice is if you can’t plant a tree 20 years ago; plant one TODAY!
The next best piece of advice was given to me by my mentor:
never put a $20 tree in a $5 hole!!!
Sage advice. When planting your tree, it’s important to realize this is a once off ceremony; an exciting time for liberating your tree from pot to ground so it can begin its growing journey of abundance!
Choosing the right tree
First, let’s look at the trees’ anatomy….
It has a body which everyone is familiar with. This determines the vigor of its growth, what type of fruit it will develop and in what season. An apple tree will obviously grow apples, but a “Pink Lady” apple will only grow this species (unless we graft onto it a new species such as “Jonathon” or “Granny Smith”).
The rootstock – the “legs” of the tree determine the tree height, width, and terrain to grow the tree in.
Hot tip: In Melbourne, a very good rootstock for a dwarf apple 2.5 metres x 2.5 metres is called M26. This rootstock will tolerate fertile conditions with ease, particularly in the eastern suburbs.
On the western side of Melbourne and up north into the gold country where it is dry and rocky you would need a different type of rootstock to cope with those conditions and more tolerant of the lack of water and hard sub surfaces of rocks and gravel.
So, the “legs” of the tree, or rootstock is about the vigour of growth and compatible soil conditions.
The lesson here is …look at what type of tree you want and make sure the “legs” fit the “body” (and your conditions)!
There are great nurseries around to ask advice to what suits your conditions in your local area.
Digging the right hole
Ok, so we have the RIGHT tree for the RIGHT place (conditions). Now we need to look at putting the tree in the ground.
The description below is talking about a bare root fruit tree. These can be bought over the winter months whilst dormant. If you buy your tree while it is still active, ie. outside of winter dormancy, then you will need to soak your tree in a bucket of seaweed or fish solution prior to transplanting to reduce the possibility of transplant shock and transpiration.
Hot tip: If the tree is active, if possible, transplant in the morning or over a cool spell of weather to allow time to adapt to its new home without stressing.
The first thing we need to do is dig the hole. Most of your fruit trees will have deep roots, so we need to dig an appropriate size hole for the job.
I would recommend a one metre deep hole, that is wider than the root-ball.
Next, pour in a bucket of water to test drainage. If the water is still there after fifteen minutes, you will need to mound your tree above the soil level when planted (as in the picture below).
A mounded tree will allow dry roots during wet conditions
At the bottom of the hole place one bag of any manure you can get your hands onto.
Next a good size book of straw/hay straight in the hole on top of the manure.
If you have clay at the bottom and sides of the hole, throw in a couple of handfuls of gypsum.
If you wish to improve your soil never go more than 50/50 of native soil mix. You can add amendments such as mushroom compost or general compost to the soil mix (as it is mostly broken down), gypsum, or wood ash (a handful or two). Mix the soil and any additions in a next to the hole, or in a wheelbarrow, before putting it back into the hole.
I would not recommend adding fertilizer as we want to encourage the tree roots to spread down and out to search for food. If you provide all the nutrients in the hole the tree will grow but the root ball will stay mainly in the hole you’ve dug. A good root system allows the tree to be sturdy during its life against adverse weather conditions – especially when it is loaded with fruit!
Place your tree into the hole allowing the roots to hang down. Backfill the hole with your mixed soil until you are left with a mounded tree (if required). In dry areas and sandy soils you may even concave the hole to capture the water in the concave and soak into the ground slowly around the tree roots.
Make sure you do not bury the tree below the graft site. It is preferable to replant the tree at the same level as it was in the pot/ground. (If you look closely at the trunk, you will see a faint line where it was previously planted. This is the spot!)
With a bucket, water your plant in thoroughly to allow any air bubbles to escape and your soil to rearrange around the roots.
Mulch generously (60-100mm) around the tree root surface area to assist in retaining ground moisture.
Feed your young tree fortnightly with seaweed extract or fish solution as per instructions on the bottle. If you wish, you can also spray with seaweed solution as a foliar spray (best done before 9am).
Pruning your new tree
All new trees need to be pruned by 2/3rds when first put into the ground as one year old trees.
This is usually done in the winter whilst the tree is dormant. At three to four years you should have the framework shape of the tree established and can convert to summer/autumn pruning only.
If your tree is two, three or four years of growth, you need to do your own assessment.
Look for strong branches that will set up the tree to carry a load of fruit. If the branches are long and thin you need to cut them back to encourage growth and strengthen the branch (see diagram above). To help this process, be prepared to sacrifice the first year’s crop to allow the tree to concentrate on growing strong instead of putting all its energy into growing fruit. In the long run, you will be pleased you have set up your tree for health, longevity, and an abundance of fruit for years to come!
Here is a recent planting project of 6 heritage apple trees in Community Gardens.
Further works will go ahead later to espalier trees, remove grass between the trees, mulch and grow companion plants between.