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fruit trees | how to plant a fruit tree

by dig the dirt editor

Raising your own fruit is immensely satisfying. Imagine, for instance, eating a truly ripe peach, one that makes you jut your head forward with each bite just to keep the juice from dripping down your shirt.

The planting directions that follow apply to all fruit trees. Quick root development is important for any newly planted tree, so plant early in the season, as soon as the soil has dried enough to crumble easily in your hand. A tree planted this spring will reward you with bushels of luscious fruit in the years to come, the first crop appearing perhaps as soon as next summer.

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1. PREPARING THE TREE
Fruit trees are traditionally sold bare-root—that is, they are dug when dormant and sold without soil. After you buy a tree, it will need immediate care once it arrives at your home. Unwrap it and soak its roots in a bucketful of water for a few hours. This will plump up the roots in case they have dried out somewhat since having been removed from the ground. If you cannot plant the tree immediately after soaking it, temporarily bury its roots in a shallow hole in a shady, protected spot. This "heeling in" will keep the roots moist and delay bud growth until you are ready to plant.

The tree may need a little pruning before it is planted. If its roots are more than a foot long or frayed, trim them back with clean, sharp pruning shears. If the tree is branched, choose three or four healthy branches to become its permanent limbs. The lowest of these should be about two feet above ground level, and successively higher ones should be a few inches apart and arranged in a spiral around the trunk. Shorten these branches to just a few inches, making sure when you cut that each one ends in an outward-pointing bud. This pruning will induce vigorous, spreading growth.

Once you’ve prepared the main branches, cut away any other branches, and cut off the top of the trunk just above the uppermost branch. If the tree is not branched, simply cut the trunk back to three feet high.

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2. PREPARING THE PLANTING SITE
Peach trees thrive in well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 8. If a soil test shows that your soil isn’t in that range, add the necessary lime or sulfur. If the test also shows that your soil is deficient in phosphorous, add bonemeal or rock phosphate. Phosphorus and lime move down slowly through the soil, so now is an opportune time to get them close to the roots. Do not use synthetic fertilizers, for they can burn tender new roots.  

Spread the amendments over an area as wide as the eventual spread of the tree’s branches—approximately six feet in all directions. In the center of the area, where you will dig the planting hole, mix the amendments into the top foot or so of soil with a shovel or garden fork. This is not necessary farther out from the hole, where the amendments can be allowed to work their way down into the soil gradually.

Next, dig your planting hole. Assuming the site is well drained and the necessary amendments have been added, the hole need only be large enough to accommodate the tree’s roots. After you’ve finished digging the hole, rough up the soil on the sides and bottom to help the roots penetrate the surrounding soil.

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3. POSITIONING THE TREE
Return some of the excavated soil to the bottom of the hole to make a mound on which to set the tree. To allow for settling, adjust the height of the mound so that your tree will stand roughly two inches higher than it previously stood (the level is indicated by the old soil line on the trunk).

Place the tree atop the mound and spread out its roots evenly, taking care to neither bend nor crowd them. If the tree is branched, orient it with the lowest branch facing southwest. As this branch grows, it will shade the trunk and lessen the chance of sunscald. If the site is windy, lean the tree slightly into the wind.

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4. FILLING IN
Hold the tree steady with one hand, and push soil back into the hole around the roots with the other. As you fill the hole, bounce the tree up and down slightly to settle the soil among the roots. Once the tree is self-supporting, shovel in additional soil, tamping it gently with your fingers or a stick as you work.

After you’ve filled in the hole, construct a low dike of soil around the base of the tree to form a catch basin for water—two feet out from the trunk in all directions should be sufficient. Spread compost or manure over the bare soil in the catch basin to provide nutrients for the tree’s shallow feeder roots. Top this layer with a straw or leaf mulch, which will suppress weeds and still allow water to penetrate the soil.

Slowly pour enough water into the catch basin to drench the soil thoroughly and to settle the tree into place. Water generously once a week through August. Be sure to weed the catch basin diligently, as weeds will compete with the tree for nutrients and water.

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planting fruit tree, kitchen gardening

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