How to Plant a Fruit Tree

Here is an in-depth article on how to, where to, best time to and why you’d want to plant a fruit tree. This also includes information on companion plants for fruit trees, beneficial insect and animal habitats and what a permaculture orchard looks like. If you need to know how to REALLY plant a fruit tree and why the ones you’ve planted in the past haven’t thrived, this is the article for you! apple tree branches apples in a box apple with a heart shape carved on it

You’ve made the decision to plant some fruit trees – good choice! Perennial plants provide for the gardener year after year and fruit trees are the stars of the self-sufficient backyard. 

Plan the Orchard

Most fruit trees require other fruit trees for pollination, so the odds are that you’re going to plant more than one fruit tree. Even if you only have two to ten trees, in my opinion, this counts as a backyard orchard!

Why Do My Fruit Trees Die?

If you’ve planted fruit trees before and been frustrated that they don’t thrive and even die, don’t give up! The best way to ensure success this time as you plant fruit trees is to consider the foundation of your orchard. Of course, the foundation of any structure is ALWAYS the most important part.

For an orchard, the foundation is two-fold: water and soil.

Water for the Orchard

If you’re unsure about how deep your water table is, dig a hole straight down to at least four feet. Look inside – if you end up with water in your hole, you’ll need to plant somewhere else.

Or, you can use a swale to build up the soil level to keep your roots from drowning. You also may decide you want to dig swales to catch water for your orchard.

To learn to do this, here are some resources:

• The basics of building a swale from Modern Farmer.  
• This is pretty involved, but good for learning and dreaming and pondering from Homestadonomics.
• Here is that same homesteader but a few years later when he adds fruit trees (you can go to about minute 3:50 for the pertinent stuff but the first minute is good, too. 

Planting Guidelines

Follow the planting guidelines for each type and variety of tree you want to plant. This information can be found online at reputable fruit tree nurseries, from local nurseries and in any fruit tree specific book like The Backyard Orchardist.

Spacing is crucial in an orchard so that air, water, and nutrients can be evenly distributed. Each tree will have a specific height and width; this is often referred to as its drip line, which is the circumference of the mature trees branches.

What Size Fruit Tree to Plant?

Most growers will recommend dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees for the backyard grower. Full size trees get so large that they can easily overwhelm a non-professional grower. These smaller trees also come into production sooner than their standard-size counterparts.

Stark Brothers provides a simple explanation of the different size fruit trees and what the benefits and drawbacks of all of them are. 

Healing In – If You’re Not Ready to Plant

If you need just one more day to be ready to plant but your trees have arrived, don’t worry. You can heal them into keep their roots moist, prevent them from freezing and to keep them safe. Healing in only takes a few minutes and is a simple process.

  1. Unpack the shipment from the nursery as soon as possible. If you’ve ordered multiple plants, carefully cut them apart from their shipping bundle. Keep variety labels on until you’ve had a chance to write them down on your site map after planting.
  2. Dig a shallow hole or fill a wheelbarrow full of loose soil – potting soil will work, or a high-quality compost.
  3. Cut any broken roots or branches.
  4. Lay your tree roots in the hole and cover them in the loose soil.
  5. Water them in to keep them moist.
  6. Plant in their permanent site as soon as possible.

Before You Plant Your Fruit Tree – Prepare the Area

Clear your planting site in a three to five-foot radius. Make sure weeds, turf and other plants are removed. Ideally, the fall, spring or summer before planting take a few steps to improve the tree-planting area.

  1. Lay down cardboard all over the area around where the tree will be planted.
  2. Then, lay down layers of leaf mulch, straw, compost, and wood chips in that order; 2-4 inches of all, if possible.
  3. Let this combination sit until the fall when you’re ready to plant. This will have effectually killed all the weeds/turf in the area of planting and make the job of planting a lot easier.

How Do You Prepare Soil for Planting Fruit Trees?

Assuming you’ve followed the instructions for preparing the area beforehand, you really only need to worry about the soil in the immediate area of the hole you’re digging. If you didn’t have time to prepare the planting site, follow the exact same instructions after you’ve planted the fruit tree. This process is beneficial even after planting and will work to make and keep the soil of this area as healthy as it can be.

To learn more about how to dress the soil of the hole for your fruit tree, continue reading in the
Plant and Finish Off the Hole section.

If you feel you’d like to, you can apply a natural nitrogen boosting fertilizer like blood meal or chicken manure in the spring of the following year. For fall plantings, a simple compost will nourish adequately before the tree goes dormant. Protect the soil with a thick mat of straw, leaves, wood chips or other mulched material for the winter.

What is the Best Soil for Fruit Trees?

The best soil for fruit trees is the best soil for most perennials – loamy, friable, rich and full of organic material. Most of us don’t enjoy all of these criteria in our native soils, so we work over time to build them in our home orchards. Regular applications of mulch and compost, spring and fall, along with companion planting  will produce a rich soil for your fruit trees.

See the Make it Sustainable with a Permaculture Guild section below.

The most important thing you can do for your fruit trees moving forward is to grow them the best dirt you possibly can. And you thought you were growing fruit! Nope, the that’s the fruit trees’ job; your job is to grow them the best soil possible so they can accomplish their work.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree

It’s time to plant the fruit trees! Ideally, you’ll plant your fruit trees in the fall. The trees will actually grow stronger root systems after the leaf drop in autumn.

Preparing the Fruit Trees and the Hole

  1. Put some kind of feed bag or tarp to the side of where you’re planting the tree. As you dig, put the dirt on top of the bag to easily save it for filling the hole.
  2. Dig a hole at least twice the size of the pot it comes in. If you’re planting a bare root tree, gently spread out the trees roots and measure a hole about twice that size.
  3. Place the tree inside the hole you’ve dug and be sure the root graft of the tree is above the soil line. The graft site is the place on the fruit tree’s trunk where the fruiting tree was attached onto the root stock. Almost all nursery fruit trees are grown this way to provide vigor and health. Leave about two inches below the graft site (which is usually a small bump at the base of the trunk) to the soil line. This will ensure that the only part growing is the fruiting stock, not the root stock.

Plant the Fruit Tree and Finish Off Hole

  1. Back-fill the hole with the reserved soil.
  2. You can add compost to the hole, or you can add it to the top around the tree after planting.
  3. Add pea gravel around the trunk a few inches below the surface to protect against voles which dig underground and eat the roots of young trees.
  4. Push the soil firmly around the tree trunk to flatten any air pockets and water in the tree.
  5. Give it one last tamp down with your hands to make sure the tree is firmly in place.
  6. Add a layer of cardboard around the newly planted tree and repeat the process of laying down layers of leaf mulch, straw, compost, and wood chips in that order; 2-4 inches of all, if possible.

Protect the Fruit Tree

It’s necessary to protect your newly planted fruit tree from critters that will chew its bark and even roots. To do this:

  1. Cut a 1-2” length of ¼ inch hardware cloth and loosely wrap it around the tree with the cut side down in the soil.
  2. Press the cloth down into the soil a few inches.
  3. This, coupled with the pea gravel planted in the fruit tree hole that we mentioned earlier, should keep your tree protected from voles.

Protect from Winter Sunburn

Talk to your local agricultural extension agent to see what they recommend about painting the trunks of your trees to protect from sunburn in winter. This is a relatively common practice but may not be needed in your area.

Conversely, you can plant a low growing shrub like a highland cranberry, elderberry or currant several feet from your fruit tree on whichever side will be the harshest in the winter. These shrubs are often quite hardy and can help create just enough shade (even without leaves in the winter) to keep you fruit tree trunks from burning or, worse, splitting their trunks (from a cycle of freeze-thaw).

This is a permaculture principle (the shrub being its own specific and important layer of what’s known as a fruit tree guild) and is a good example of how permaculture can help us plant an orchard that will be self-sustaining. More on that later.

Irrigating Fruit Trees

You can use a hose and a sprinkler, but the most common way to irrigate an orchard is with drip line. If you have a high concentration of sand in your soil, you’ll want multiple drip lines because water moves straight down in sand. When you have a high concentration of clay, you should be able to get away with one drip line since water typically moves in an outward direction in clay.

When plants are young, plant along the irrigation line because they’ll need a little extra water that first year. As they age, their roots will be more able to forage water. You may want to add more drip lines as the tree grows, especially if you have sandy soil.

Also, if you’ve planted under-story plants around your fruit trees, you may want irrigation especially for them. What are under-story plants? See below…

Make it Sustainable with a Permaculture Fruit Tree Guild

Instead of planting a single tree in a group of plantings of other single trees, permaculture orchards are planted in what are called guilds. Guilds consist of the main fruit tree in the center with supporting plants placed all around the main tree.

The purpose of these plants is many-fold:

  • Attract beneficial insects
  • Provide fertilize and mulch
  • Attract pollinators and repel pests
  • Suppress grass and non-useful or invasive weeds

For example, with an apple tree you might plant:

  • Currants
  • Comfrey
  • Perennial herbs
  • Fava beans
  • Daffodils
  • Alpine strawberries

What Do These Companion Plants Do?

  • Currants provide food for humans and wildlife.
  • Comfrey produces a lot of biomass in the form of its leaves every year – it’s like a plant that grows compost. Comfrey also happens to be a very useful plant for herbal preparations. Its flowers even attract beneficial insects!
  • Perennial herbs like oregano and thyme also attract beneficial insects, as well as provide food and medicine for humans.
  • Fava beans fix nitrogen in the soil and are a food source for humans and livestock.
  • Daffodils deter deer and are an early source of pollen for bees on warm days. They also bring joy to us!
  • Alpine strawberries are a wonderful ground cover that help suppress unwanted plants and also attract beneficial insects. They ALSO provide food for humans!

All of these plants together living and doing their thing creates a sustainable system that requires minimal input from the grower compared to what has become the established way of planting fruit trees in single plantings.

As one of the many bonuses to this guild-style planting, pollination in a permaculture fruit tree guild is much more efficient than with a single tree. Because of all the diversity in a guild, pollinators have a reason to be in your yard for months of the year, instead of the small few week window when fruit trees bloom. This will positively affect your entire yard!

See below for Pollinator Resources.

Permaculture Resources for Planting Fruit Trees

Permaculture is a big subject, so to keep you focused on just your orchard for now, here are some links and other recommendations.

What Time of Year is Best to Plant Fruit Trees?

Fall, just after the leaf drop, is a perfect time to plant fruit trees. Here are some reasons why:

  • The warming air of spring that leads to the scorching heat of summer can just be too much for a tree trying to establish itself in a new place. Summer is simply too hot!
  • During the autumn, as the air cools, the need to water frequently diminishes. A newly planted fruit tree can enjoy the moderate temperatures of fall as you water it enough to keep the soil soft and moist.
  • Perennials naturally draw in on themselves in the fall leading up to their dormant cycle in winter. Planting a fruit tree in a new space just before it goes to sleep for a few months will give it just enough to time to establish itself and then rest before the next growing cycle of spring.
  • Autumn-planted fruit trees are able to focus their energy solely on growing their root system, which is THE most important step! Spring planted fruit trees must split their growth hormones and their energy between branch/leaf production and root growth. As with anything else, the foundation (or root system) of your fruit tree is vital to its health and success.

So, as the weather has cools to crisp but not freezing, grab your shovel and get started!

How Long Does it Take for a Fruit Tree to Bear Fruit?

Assuming that you’re purchasing nursery stock, which is already around two years old, most fruit trees will begin to produce measurable harvests from three to five years after planting. It’s a long game, to be sure, but so worth it! Here are a few tips:

  •  It can be almost painful, but I recommend you remove any baby fruits the first spring after planting. I usually leave any flowers that appear for the bees to enjoy, but then I’ll pull any fruit starts. The reason for this is that I’m fully committed to allowing my baby fruit trees the time they need to fully develop their root systems. Any fruit produced that first year will be minimal at most, so I just let the tree focus on roots its first year on my property.
  • The next year, I usually let a handful of fruits develop here and there. I do this mostly to see how and when they pollinate in my area, and how the fruit develops where I’ve planted it. However, the branches will still be young and supple, and you don’t want to overwhelm the tree structure with too much heavy fruit. If you’re not sure you want to experiment the second year, simply pull the buds again.
  • Plant soft wood fruiting bushes like blueberry, honeyberry, elder berry, jostaberry, currants and strawberries which all come into production a little quicker than fruit trees. These can often be planted in guilds with the fruit trees and will satisfy your fruit needs until your fruit trees come into production.
  • Along those lines, don’t forget to plant fruiting vines like grape and kiwi which will often fruit the year after they’re planted! Though, it’s good to bear in mind that they need to establish good root systems, too.

Here’s an excellent article by Raintree Nursery on when to expect to harvest fruits and berries from new plants .

Learn to Prune Fruit Trees

Pruning is part art, part science but you don’t need to fear it. Simply study and practice.

  • I use the Backyard Orchardist book to help me prune every year.
  • To learn basic pruning for apples and pears, watch this video from Peaceful Valley. 
  • Here’s how to prune to an open vase style for trees like peaches from Utah State Extension. See how they step back every now and then to look at the tree again? See how they cut and then cut again?

Pruning is an art form, like I said, and it takes practice and time. Start one day, come back the next day with new eyes.

Keep in mind, you want a fruit tree (one that concentrates its energy to produce fruit), not just a tree (that concentrates its energy in growing up and up). You can do this with pruning, but you can save yourself some work by bending or spacing the branches. This is done by pushing the branches off to the side to tell the hormones in the branches that it is time to fruit, instead of continuing to grow upwards.

Here’s an example of tying the branches off to the ground from DaddyKirbs Farm. 

Beneficial Habitat Creation

Consider providing habitats for beneficial insects and birds. This can be done in a number of ways but any permaculture principle you apply will help. Companion planting, “rewilding” your backyard or even simple mason bee houses can all contribute to increasing your beneficial insect population.

Also, remember to encourage pollinators and even frogs!

Here are some helpful articles on that:

Beneficials and Pollinator Resources

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4 thoughts on “How to Plant a Fruit Tree

  1. If one day I have a garden, it would be full of fruit trees. I love their smell and shade they provide. I am bookmarking this article when my day will come…

  2. Hi! Great tutorial! I love that you mentioned planting in autumn as it’s what I’ve always done, in spite of what the tree label recommends. I have briefly experimented with spring plantings of fruit and nut trees, but they’re always MUCH slower than autumn plantings – and I find the fall-planted trees to be healthier, too.

    And the fruit tree guild – I love this idea. I’m breaking ground for some new fruit trees at the moment, and I think I may have a go at creating my own little guild. After all, I already grow currants, and I companion plant my vegetables and herbs already. But I never thought of companion planting my fruit trees.

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