Planting fruit trees: What to consider

a small apple tree in a garden
a small apple tree in a garden

A lot can go wrong when planting a fruit tree. Here are some tips on the right tree size and a step-by-step guide on how to do it correctly.

If you want your fruit trees to provide a reliable harvest and healthy fruit for many years, they need an optimal location. Therefore, before planting your fruit tree, think carefully about where you place it. In addition to plenty of light and a good, water-permeable soil, it is especially important to have enough space for the crown to grow in width. Before you decide on a fruit tree at the garden center, also consider how much space the tree may take up over the years in terms of shade and border distance.

The size of a fruit tree determines the grafting rootstock

Before buying a fruit tree, ask the nursery about the growth vigor of the variety and the rootstock that goes with it. This influences not only the height and width of the crown, but also the lifespan and the onset of yield. The most important fruit trees are apple, pear and cherry. They generally prefer a sunny, well-drained location where the fruits can ripen optimally and develop their typical aroma. Weak-growing forms are particularly popular for apple and pear. They can also be grown in a small space as espalier fruit on the house wall or as a free-standing hedge.

Sweet cherries used to be planted mostly as half-standard or standard. However, the space required for a classic sweet cherry high trunk is very large. In the offer of nurseries, however, there are also smaller-growing variants and even sweet cherry columnar shapes with shorter side branching, which can also be grown in large tubs on the terrace.

The space requirements of a tall trunk are usually underestimated. When in doubt, opt instead for smaller tree forms that are easier to maintain and harvest. Frequent radical pruning of fruit trees to curb natural growth is not a solution. In fact, it has the opposite effect: the plants then sprout even more vigorously, but produce less yield. The following list will help you to plant the right fruit tree and will give you an overview of the most important tree and shrub forms.

Planting fruit trees: The space requirements at a glance

1 meter is 3.3 ft or 1.1 yard

  • Apple
    • Half-/ standart 10 x 10 m
    • Shrub tree 4 x 4 m
    • Spindle tree 2,5 x 2,5 m
    • Column tree 1 x 1 m
  • Peach
    • Half-/ standart 4.5 x 4.5 m
  • Pear
    • Half-/ standart 12 x 12 m
    • Shrub tree 6 x 6 m
    • Spindle tree 3 x 3 m
  • Plum
    • Half-/ standart 8 x 8 m
    • Shrub tree 5 x 5 m
  • Quince
    • Half-/ standart 5 x 5 m
    • Shrub tree 2.5 x 2.5 m
  • Sour cherry
    • Half-/ standart 5 x 5 m
    • Shrub tree 3 x 3 m
  • Sweet cherry
    • Half-/ standart 12 x 12 m
    • Shrub tree 6 x 6 m
    • Spindle tree 3 x 3 m
  • Walnut
    • Half-/ standart 13 x 13 m

The ideal time for planting fruit trees

The best planting time for hardy fruit trees such as apple, pear, plum and sweet and sour cherry is autumn. The advantage over spring planting is that the trees have more time to form new roots. As a result, they usually sprout earlier and make more growth in the first year after planting. Early planting is especially important for bare-root fruit trees, they need to be in the ground by mid-March at the latest to still grow well. If you want to plant your fruit tree right away, you can confidently buy a bare-root plant. Even trees with a trunk circumference of 12 to 14 centimeters (5 to 6 in) are occasionally offered bare-root, since fruit trees generally grow without any problems. You can take more time with fruit trees with potted root balls. Here, even planting in the summer is unproblematic, as long as you water the fruit trees regularly afterwards.

When buying a fruit tree, look for quality: a straight trunk without damage and a well-branched crown with at least three long side branches characterize good planting stock. Also look out for symptoms of disease such as canker, wooly aphids or dead shoot tips. It is better to leave such fruit trees at the garden center. The trunk height depends mainly on the space. So-called spindle trees, which are well branched from the bottom up, grow particularly slowly and can therefore find space even in small gardens.

Planting a fruit tree: Step by step

Before planting, cut the tips of the main roots cleanly with garden shears and remove any kinked or damaged areas. If you want to plant your bare-root fruit tree at a later date, you will first have to temporarily cover it in loose garden soil so that the root system does not dry out.

Remove lawn

First, using a spade, in the place where our apple tree will stand, cut the existing lawn and remove it. If your fruit tree is also to stand on a lawn, you should keep the excess sod well. You may still be able to use them to repair damaged areas in the green carpet.

Digging the planting hole

Next, you dig out the planting hole with a spade. It must be large enough for the root system of the fruit tree to fit in without buckling. The bottom of the planting hole should be additionally loosened with a digging fork at the end.

Check the depth of the planting hole

Using the spade handle to check if the planting depth is sufficient. The tree should not be planted deeper than it was previously in the nursery. The old soil level is usually easy to recognize by the lighter bark on the trunk. Shallow planting generally suits all trees better than planting them too deep.

Fitting the fruit tree and determining the pile position

Now fit the tree into the planting hole and determine the position of the tree stake. The stake should be driven with a distance of about 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 5 in) to the main wind direction in your region.

Drive in tree stake

Now take the tree back out of the planting hole and drive in the tree stake at the previously determined location with a sledgehammer. Long stakes are best driven from an elevated position, for example, from a stepladder. When the head of the hammer hits the stake exactly horizontally, the impact force is distributed evenly over the surface and the wood does not splinter as easily.

Filling the planting hole

When the tree is properly in place, you backfill the excavated soil previously stored in a wheelbarrow or on a plastics and close the planting hole. For poor sandy soils, you can mix in some mature compost or a bag of planting soil beforehand. While filling the hole, you can also put in some water.

Tramp down the soil

Now tramp down the soil carefully again, so that the cavities in the soil close up. In clay soils, do not tread down too hard, otherwise soil compaction will occur, which may affect the growth of the tree.

Tie the fruit tree

Now attach the tree to the tree stake with coconut rope. Coconut rope is best for this because it is stretchy and does not cut into the bark. First, you put the rope in a few eight-shaped loops around the trunk and the pole, then you wrap the space in between and finally knot both ends together.

Create watering rim

Use the remaining soil to form a small mound around the plant, the so-called watering rim. It prevents the water from running off to the sides.

Watering the fruit tree

Finally, the tree is watered thoroughly. One to two full cans are recommended.

Interplant a new fruit tree

If you want to remove an old and diseased fruit tree with roots and plant a new one in the same location, a problem with the so-called soil fatigue often occurs. Rosaceous plants, which include the most popular types of fruit such as apples, pears, quinces, cherries and plums, usually do not grow well in locations where a rosaceous plant has previously grown. Therefore, it is important to dig the soil generously when planting and replace the excavated soil or mix it with a lot of new planting soil.

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