How to Plant Fruit Trees

beautiful apples on a tree

Do you dream of having an orchard? Does the idea of filling baskets with fresh fruit get you excited? Or do you just want one fruit tree to provide apples, or pears, or cherries for your family for years to come?

Whether your vision is big or small, planting a fruit tree can be a wonderful addition to a small backyard, or as an added friend among an orchard. This article will go over the basics of how to plant common fruit trees.

Planning Stage

As with any planting project, you need to do your due diligence before you even think about purchasing a fruit tree. Not only will you have to carve out a space for the young tree, you’ll also have to imagine it at its most mature height and width, in order to dictate what space requirements you need.

Consider whether you have any obstructions like power, gas, and sewer lines, as well as any physical structures like your home, garage, or pavement areas. Remember that the tree will eventually take away some nearby sunny areas, creating a shaded spot. This could be a beneficial thing, but it’s something to consider for the future of your space.

orange trees creating a shady area

Choosing the Variety

There are a few things to consider when deciding on variety and type of fruit tree. The first is fairly simple: what do you want to eventually eat? Are you getting just one, or multiple? Those are personal decisions you can make based on the particular tree’s specifications, your space limitations, time allowance, and budget. Next, do you go to a store and buy a tree that comes in a pot, or do you order a dormant tree that gets sent in the mail without a pot or soil?

Some things to consider—dormant varieties from reputable vendors will give you the most options and heirloom varieties, whereas store bought trees may have a limited selection. You never know, though. Some big box stores are bringing in more interesting varieties these days. Dormant trees will require more soil and may need their roots trimmed, whereas potted trees usually become root bound. Either can grow into healthy trees with the proper transplanting procedure.

small trees in pots with dirt

When to Plant

Generally speaking, there are two times when you should plant a tree: either early spring as they are just coming out of dormancy, or late in the fall or winter, just as they are entering back into their dormant stage. Planting in the middle of winter or summer is not recommended for basic reasons—in the winter (depending on your zone, of course) the ground will be impenetrable due to frost, and in the summer, it’s usually too hot for transplanting to be successful. Either will put undo stress on the tree, which is something you want to avoid as much as possible.

Where to Plant

The majority of common fruit trees require full sun, so choose your spot wisely. Soil requirements are also important so make sure you have well-draining soil—fruit trees do not like to have wet feet! Soil that doesn’t drain well will affect the root system and bring about fungal diseases. If your soil is lacking, you can always add compost or nutrient dense soil to amend it, especially if you only have one spot to work with.

lemons in bright sunlight

How to Plant

If you are planting a dormant tree you want to dig a hole big enough so that the roots hit the ground. Trim any roots so that they are even all the way around, which will promote uniform distribution of the root system, thus supporting your tree over the years. When digging the hole for a potted tree, you want to make it twice the size of the pot.

Most horticulturists agree that digging a square hole is the best way to prevent roots from circling around each other and becoming root bound, even in the ground. Try to loosen the area around the hole as well, add fertilizer or compost if you like, and mix it all in really well with a fork shovel. Loosening the soil will help the tree’s root system access air and water as it anchors itself.

tree with root ball next to square hole

Soil Requirements

You can use the same soil that you dug up in the first place to fill back around the tree, especially since it is already acclimatized with the rest of the soil around it. Use the top soil around the bottom of the hole, if possible, because it tends to be more nutrient dense, and porous, which helps the tree absorb water and drain properly.

The heavier soil usually found at the bottom can be mixed in with organic material like compost, other loamy soil, or coco fiber. Mix it all really well to alleviate air pockets, and water heavily after the transplanting is complete: watering will also help tamp the soil and get rid of trapped air.

Setting the Tree

As you are filling the hole around the tree, remember to keep the tree straight. This is extremely important to keep on top of, because it sets up your tree for a healthy, perpendicular growth pattern. Once it is set, you can tamp the ground, but again, watering thoroughly should be enough to settle the soil and remove trapped air.

Take a step back and consider whether you need to prune your new tree. It’s a good idea to strengthen the “leader” branch, which is the main branch that extends all the way to the top. If there are competing side branches, shorten them so that the leader stands higher and becomes dominant. This will promote healthy top growth, and give your tree a good head start.

couple planting and watering a small fruit tree

After Planting

Some planters like to dig a basin around the tree to help bring rainwater to the root system. You can do this, but you don’t have to, just make sure water isn’t going to run away from the tree. You’ll want to leave enough space at the top for an added layer of mulch or compost (or a mixture of both).

Add compost first, then the mulch, making sure it’s not pushed up directly against the tree. The compost will send nutrients to the root system, and the mulch helps retain moisture and shield from drought. Two wooden stakes on each side of the tree should be pounded into the ground firmly about a foot away from the tree, and tied with string to help anchor the tree during storms and high winds. They can be removed after a couple of years, or once the tree has established itself.

Keep in mind that while fruit trees are generally low maintenance, the project doesn't end once the transplanting is complete. Keep your young sapling well watered for the first year, making sure to give it a half dozen gallons of water or so every week. Continue to prune as it grows, and feed it with a balanced fertilizer of choice, especially if you didn’t use compost. With some basic attention, your fruit tree will flourish, and after a couple of years, it will provide you with a tasty, fruitful bounty as a thank you.