When is the Best Time to Plant Fruit Trees?

When is the Best Time to Plant Fruit Trees?

Your favorite fruit trees are an investment that will pay you back, possibly for decades, with an abundance of fruit. In terms of harvestable food, fruit trees are the most productive of any plants you grow. Once your trees are established, watering when there is inadequate rainfall, and a little pruning and pest control are all you need to do to keep your trees healthy and productive.

Whether you plan on planting just a couple of apple trees or you plan to have an orchard with several types of fruit trees, the success will be greatly impacted by when and how you plant your trees.

Start With a Plan

First, you need to decide what types of fruit you want to grow. Keep in mind the growing zone where you live. If you live in southern California, a tree that is bred to withstand 20 degrees below zero might not be your best choice. On the other hand, if you live in the north, you can grow citrus trees but only in a container and they will have to be moved indoors for the winter. 

Start With a Plan

Fruit trees need full sun to grow and produce lots of fruit. The sunlight must hit the leaves of the tree. It won’t matter if the lower part of the trunk is in shade. In other words, an area that wouldn’t work for low growing vegetables could be a good location for your orchard. 

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Training and Pruning Your Fruit Trees

Another consideration is training and pruning your fruit trees to grow against a fence or wall. Only the lateral branches are allowed to grow. This method of growing your fruit trees is called espalier. There are six basic patterns, including:

  1. Cordon—In this style there is a central trunk with a single lateral branch or several branches, usually three or as many as five.
  2. Palmetto Verrier—In this style, the tree is trained in a U-shaped pattern by allowing lateral branches and then turning the ends upward.
  3. Fan—Here, branches are angled at 45 degrees from the central trunk in the shape of a fan.
  4. Candelabra—In this case, a low lateral branch is allowed to grow from the central trunk. At regular intervals along the lateral branch, a vertical branch is allowed to grow giving the look of a candelabra.
  5. Informal—Here, the tree is more naturally shaped although still flat against a wall or fence. This requires the least amount of pruning compared to the other styles mentioned.
  6. Belgian Fence—This is the most complicated as it requires pruning three or more trees into V-shaped espaliers which then are woven together. This results in a lattice effect.

There are advantages and disadvantages to growing trees in this method. There is a big commitment of time to prune and train the tree in the shape desired, especially until the pattern is achieved. The tree is attached to a frame with ties or wire while it is growing to the completed pattern. 

Once your tree is in the correct shape, pruning will be needed to keep the shape and eliminate any branching that is directed outward from the tree. The advantage of espalier is that you don’t need a large open area to grow your tree. Also, because the tree does not need to expend energy to support a large tree form, the energy is spent on fruit production instead.

Espaliered trees are more productive, and the fruit is much easier to harvest as well. Apple and pear trees are the easiest to grow in this style, but other fruit trees can be as well. There are many decorative trees and shrubs that also work well when espaliered.

Keep in mind when planning your garden that there are two types of fruit trees: self-pollinating and those that require a pollinator. Self-pollinators include most apricots, peaches, nectarines, and sour cherries. Fruit trees that require a pollinator include most apples, pears, plums, and sweet cherries.

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Staggering Your Fruit Tree Harvest Times

Once you decide the type of fruit you want to grow, there is one more consideration when choosing varieties. You will want to stagger the harvest times. This isn’t very important when your trees are young and you are picking a couple dozen apples or pears, but as the trees mature a couple dozen pieces of fruit turns into bushels. 

If you have three or four trees all ripening at the same time, the amount of fruit that needs to be picked and processed can be overwhelming. Make a chart that shows when each tree is expected to be ready to harvest. 

If you see that there is a period that is concerning, see if a different variety would be better. Apples have varieties that are harvestable as early as mid-summer and as late as the very end of fall.

Ordering Container vs Bare Root Fruit Trees

Ordering Container vs Bare Root Fruit Trees

Now that you have decided on what you want to grow and where your orchard will be located, it is time to order your fruit trees. Your trees will be either container grown or bare root. 

  • Container Grown Trees—These trees are sold in large pots containing soil. The tree has been growing in the container for some time and the roots of the tree are incorporated into the soil.Because they will be planted with the soil intact, the tree will already have established a root system and will not be as susceptible to transplant shock. These trees are more expensive as they required more care, and the cost of shipping is considerably more expensive. There is also a much smaller selection of container grown trees.
  • Bareroot Trees—These are trees that have been growing in a nursery field. They are dug out of the ground while the tree is dormant. The soil is removed, and the roots are packed in material like sphagnum moss to keep the roots moist while transported. These trees are significantly less expensive compared to container grown trees and there is a much greater number of varieties available.Once you have purchased a bareroot tree, it is important to get it planted as soon as possible while the tree is still dormant. In northern growing zones, the best time to plant bareroot fruit trees is in the early spring.When the ground is no longer frozen and can easily be dug and the tree is still dormant is ideal. All fruit trees planted in zones 7 and below will do best if planted in spring.

When is the Best Time to Plant Your Fruit Trees?

Fruit trees can be planted in late spring, summer, and early fall if the trees are container grown. Their roots are already developed in the soil of the container. However, the tree has much less time to become acclimated to your conditions and to harden off before winter. 

The trees will also be stressed if there are high temperatures and low moisture. Only consider planting in late fall or early winter if you live in zone 8 or above. 

Once you have your trees, it is important to plant them as soon as possible. If you can’t plant immediately, place the trees in a cool place out of the warming sun. Check the material surrounding the roots for moisture. 

The tree will die if the roots dry out. Add water if necessary. The main focus for this first year is developing strong healthy roots as the roots are critical to the health of your tree. 

Steps to Plant Your Bare Root Fruit Trees

Steps to Plant Your Bare Root Fruit Trees

Planting a fruit tree is straight forward. Here are the 9 basic steps for planting your bare root fruit trees, including:

  1. Dig the Hole—Remove any grass, weeds, or other plant material that might compete with your tree for nutrients. Dig a hole approximately 3 feet wide and a spades depth. Keep the soil you dug out in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp.
  2. Amend the Soil—Add about three inches of compost to the bottom of the hole and mix well into the soil with a garden fork. Also, mix some compost into the soil you set aside in the wheelbarrow.
  3. Check the Tree for a Watermark—The goal is to plant your tree at the same depth it was growing before you purchased the tree. There is usually a darker mark on the tree trunk that indicates how deep it was planted.Planting the tree deeper or shallower can damage or kill your tree. Place a yardstick or a board across the hole so you can match the watermark on the trunk with the level of the sides of the hole. Remove or add soil to the hole to maintain the level. Additionally, remember that most fruit trees are grafted onto rootstock and that join should be above the level of the soil.
  4. Place Support Stakes—Some gardeners prefer to stake their trees to a single stake. Remove the tree from the unfilled hole and pound a sturdy stake into the hole slightly off center. This should be a substantial stake capable of supporting a tree against high winds.
    A stake comparable to a garden rake handle would be ideal. Position the stake on the side that has the prevailing wind in your area. Pound the stake firmly into the ground.An alternative is to use several stakes around the perimeter of your tree and loop covered wire or twine over the branches next to the trunk and attach them to the stakes. This method will only work if your tree is a substantial size.
  5. Fill the Hole—Place the tree back into the ground close to the stake. Gently spread the roots out from the trunk. Shovel the compost and soil mix from the wheelbarrow into the hole. Firm the soil without damaging the roots. When the hole is about half full, move the tree up and down about an inch to encourage the soil to fill in around the roots.
  6. Attach the Tree to the Stake—Once the hole is completely filled and the soil firmed, attach the tree to the stake. Allow enough room for the tree to grow but still hold the tree securely against the wind.
  7. Protection From Pests—Add a protective tube around the trunk of the tree to keep chewing pests from feasting on your tender baby tree. A hungry rabbit or other four-legged pests can kill your tree overnight by chewing all the bark from your tree. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
  8. Add Weed Barrier—Minimize the competition for nutrients by adding a weed barrier of your choice.
  9. Provide Water—Give your tree a good watering to settle the soil and to keep those roots moist. Watch the rainfall amounts during this critical time and supplement as needed.
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Planting a Container Grown Fruit Tree

If you are planting a tree that is container grown, dig a hole that is larger than the container. Mix the soil you dig out with compost as you did with bare root trees. Remove the tree from the container and place it in the hole keeping the roots and the soil they are growing in intact. 

Backfill around the root ball with the soil amended with compost. Make sure the level that the tree is growing in is level with the soil now surrounding the root ball. Water well to settle the soil and to keep the roots moist.

Until the root system has grown to the size of the tree it is supporting, your fruit tree is vulnerable to damage or even death. Water your tree once or twice each week with a deep soaking. Be particularly alert to high temperatures and drought conditions. Keep your weed barrier and mulch to prevent competition from weeds and grass. 

Another way to help your tree through the critical first year is to remove any blossoms from the tree. That means no fruit in the first year but a healthier root system to support a bounty of fruit in subsequent years.

Timing the planting of your fruit trees involves many factors. Grow zones, container vs. bare root trees, and other factors should all be considered.  

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