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How to Plant a Fruit Tree

Please read the instructions carefully before you start planting so that you understand the full process before you begin. Also see the things to do after your trees are planted.

  1. Your trees have arrived! Open the box(es) and pull out the bundle(s). We usually wrap the roots in plastic, which you can leave on for now. You should remove the trees from the box regardless of whether you are able to plant them immediately.
  2. If you can plant your trees immediately, go to step 3. If you are not able to plant your trees immediately, please do the following:
    • 2a. Never let the roots dry out! If they are still in plastic wrap, you can stick a hose into it to dampen them. If you are planning to plant within 24 hours you can soak the roots in a bucket of water. Do not soak them for more than 24 hours as they will drown.
    • 2b. Do not let your trees freeze or bake. Keep them in a cool, dark place such as a garage.
    • 2c. If you cannot plant for a week or longer, you should “heel in” your trees. This means covering the roots in soil and keeping them moist. It’s like a half-way house for your trees.
  3. Time to plant! Dig a hole the size of a bushel basket. This would be about 18" deep by 18" in diameter. If you have a nice rich, loamy soil then just use the same soil to fill it in. If you have a poor soil, make a 50/50 mix with either potting soil or compost
  4. Bring out just one tree at a time, or drag a bin with water in it to the planting area and put all the trees into it. This is important because you don’t want the roots do not dry out while you are planting
  5. Place the tree in the hole. When you have finished all planting steps , the graft union should be 2-3" above the soil line. For stone fruit at zone 5 or lower, especially peach and cherry, we recommend that you plant the graft union just below the soil line to help protect it from winter damage.
  6. Backfill the hole with your soil mix half way. Do not add raw fertilizers or raw manure to soil mixture. Tamp the soil lightly with your hands to eliminate air pockets. Pour in 1-2 gallons of water. Allow the water to drain. Tamp again with your hands. It is very very important to tamp thoroughly. This gets rid of air pockets. Back fill the rest of the way with soil. Water again. Tamp again with your feet. Come back the next day after it has completely settled and water and tamp yet again. Of all the waterings in a tree’s life this is the most important one! The end result should be a slight mounding of well-packed soil. If the soil sinks down around the tree, water will collect in the depression and drown your tree over time.
  7. If you are going to stake your tree (recommended for dwarf and semidwarf apple trees) then this is the time to do it. A good solid metal T-stake 8' to 10' tall will work. Make sure to pound it well into the ground. You may want to pound it in next to the tree before backfilling. This is an important stake. The weight of future apple crops depends on it, so take you time and pound it in well. The stake should be about 5" from the central leader of the tree.

"Topping" Your Trees

So your trees are planted. What's next? Topping your trees.

This can be a painful process, but please read! Although we sometimes have to prune the trees to fit into the shipping boxes, the pruning that we do at shipping time is usually not enough. BE BRAVE. Cut the tops as we suggest below, and you and your trees will be much happier. Topping promotes strong healthy growth and gives you a well shaped tree.

If you don't top the trees, the chances of it surviving transplant are decreased. This is because topping a vigorous tree encourages it to grow out a root system that will support further growth.

Topping Apples and Pears

  1. For feathered trees, trim the central leader back halfway and all side branches back halfway. This is minimum pruning. It would not be incorrect to prune the central leader back to 38" from the graft union and prune all branches back to 3/4" nubs. Use Dutch cuts!
  2. For whips or trees with one or two branches, trim all branches back to 3/4" inch nubs. Cut the central leader back to 38" from the graft union. Use Dutch cuts!
  3. If the tree is shorter than 38" from the graft union, there is no need to top it.

Topping Stone Fruit

  1. After planting, top the tree at 18-24" from the graft union.
  2. An alternative is to cut the central leader back to 30" from the union and any branches back to 1-2" stubs. Use flush cuts!

Fertilizer and Water

All trees should be watered 1-2 times a week throughout the season with 3-4 gallons of water. We do recommend fertilizer a month after planting:

  • 4 oz of 10-10-10 or 10-20-10 (the extra phosphorous helps root development of young trees) can be scattered around the base and watered in.
  • If using Miracle Grow, follow the label instructions.
  • Organic growers should follow the recommendations for organic cultivation. Please see the links at the bottom of this page.

Too much fertilizer is not a good thing; too little, and you don't get enough growth. Do not fertilize after the 4th of July. This is like giving your three-year old coffee at bedtime.

Weeds and Critters

  • Keep the weeds away as these steal nutrition from your tree and provide a hideout for damaging insects. Use whatever method you prefer: landscape fabric, old magazines, and bark mulch are all great options for weed control. We do not recommend herbicides in the establishment year.
  • Keep the deer, mice and rabbits out! We recommend spiral plastic tree wraps for the rabbits and mice.
  • For deer, the best protection is a fence. Repellents work only if applied every 7-10 days without fail. There is no point in planting a tree if the varmits are going to destroy it. Lots of money and time wasted!

Tree Planting FAQ

Is it too cold for me to plant trees? Too hot?

We try to ship trees to our customers when it is appropriate to plant in their specific growing area, but sometimes nature conspires against us. If you have received your trees and you are worried about the weather, remember that you don’t need to plant them right away. You can keep them in a cool, dark place such as a garage, and if it looks like they are going to have to wait a week or more, heel in the roots with soil. The most important aspect of storing trees before planting is to not let the soil dry out.

When it comes to cold temperatures, a dip below freezing is not a big deal. Newly planted trees will tolerate 28°F. Temperatures below this range within a week of planting can be problematic, especially for less hardy fruits such as peaches.

High heat can shock a plant. Ideally, you would plant on a cloudy day when the temperature is below 80°F. As long as your plants are dormant and temperatures are under 80°F, it is safe to plant them. Growers in warm climates often ask whether they should pot their trees and wait till next season to plant them. Our answer is always that it is better to plant in the ground than to pot a tree.

Do I have the right kind of soil?

The ideal soil for fruit trees is well-drained and loamy. If your soil is heavy, we recommend that you choose tolerant rootstocks. For apple, some good options are MM.111, P.18, G.30, and G.16.

If you dig a hole and fill it with water, and that water drains within a few hours, your soil is sufficiently well draining. If you dig a hole and find standing water already in the hole, this is a very bad location for a fruit tree.

Can I plant a tree in the same place where another tree used to be?

This can be somewhat dangerous. First, if you are going to do this, you should remove all the dead material from the previous tree, including the roots. Unless you deliberately destroyed the tree, there was probably a reason that it died, and this reason will often be a disease that you should be careful not to pass on to your new tree.

Second, you will want to take replant disease into consideration. If the previous tree was mature, and it had been in the ground for 10 years or longer, there is a good chance that pathogens accumulated in the soil at that planting site. The deleterious effect that such pathogens can have on new plantings is called replant disease. Fortunately, there are two ways to avoid replant disease: The traditional route is to alternate plantings between pome (apple and pear) and stone fruits. The modern, new-fangled approach is to plant using replant disease resistant rootstocks. These are any of the Geneva series except G.222.

How far apart should I plant my trees?

Please check out our guide to Tree Height and Spacing.

Can I mix apples, pears, and stonefruit?

Yes! Just make sure that all the trees that need one have a suitable pollenizer nearby.

Should I plant more than one tree in a hole?


My trees are starting to leaf out but I haven’t had time to plant them. What should I do?

This is not ideal, but there is no special action to take. Please plant them as soon as possible!

More About Planting Fruit Trees

For detailed discussion of site selection, planting, pruning, and disease management:

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