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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 below basic recommended care for trees after planting.

Many customers worry that cold temperatures around the time of planting will damage the tree. If your tree is well planted, you do not need to be concerned by any temperatures above 20°F.

  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 or not 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:
    1. Never let the roots dry out! If they are still in plastic wrap, you can stick a hose inside 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.
    2. Do not let your trees freeze or bake. Keep them in a cool, dark place such as a garage.
    3. 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 16" deep by 16" in diameter (or as wide as the root system). If you have a nice rich, loamy soil then just use the same soil for backfill. If you have poor soil, make a 50/50 mix with either potting soil or compost. Your soil should be crumbly, if it is soggy enough that you can form mud balls, you need to amend it or simply replace the backfill with fresh soil. 
  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 to 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. 
  6. Backfill the hole with your soil mix half way. Do not add raw fertilizers or raw manure to soil mixture. Tamp the soil thoroughly with your heel to eliminate air pockets. Pour in ½ gallon of water. Allow the water to drain. Tamp again with your heel. It is very very important to tamp thoroughly. This gets rid of air pockets. Backfill the rest of the hole 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 these are the most important! The end result should be a slight bowl surrounding the tree to aid in water retention. 
  7. If you are going to stake your tree (recommended for dwarf and semi dwarf 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. Ideally, you should 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 your time and pound it in well. The stake should be about 5" from the central leader (trunk) 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 do it! 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 are decreased. 

To top your trees, trim the central leader back to 38" from the graft union and all side branches back to 3/4" nubs. This will give your trees their greatest chance of survival and vibrant growth. If the tree is shorter than 38" from the graft union, there is no need to top it.

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 phosphorus helps root development of young trees) can be scattered around the base and watered in.
  • If using Miracle Grow, follow the label instructions.

Too much fertilizer is not a good thing; too little, and you don't get enough growth. Do not fertilize after August 1. This is like giving a toddler 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 and cardboard are popular choices, but growers should be aware that these materials make great homes for voles and mice, which are likely to girdle your tree over winter. We do not recommend herbicides in the establishment year.
  • Keep the deer and rodents out!
  • 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 20°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.

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.

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: