As a child I grew up in a house named The Orchard and although the land had long since been sold off several large apple trees remained which gave us a reasonable harvest each year. I have fond memories of the delicious fruit pies and crumbles my mother used to prepare. Growing fruit is one of the most efficient forms of gardening – once the trees are established you can expect an abundant supply for decades with only a little pruning and mulching to keep them happy.
Without doubt, the cheapest way to start a mini-orchard is to buy bare-rooted plants: those sold without a pot and delivered while the weather is still cold and the plants are dormant. As well as saving money, you will often find a much wider selection of varieties and sizes available as bare-rooted trees. Many wonderful types of apples, pears, plums etc can be grown by the home gardener that are never available in supermarkets and the trees can be trained to fit the area you have.
However, bare-rooted trees need to be planted correctly and given careful treatment during the first year in order to establish healthy root systems and give a reliable harvest…
The biggest stresses on a new fruit tree are usually below ground. Getting sufficient water and nutrients in the first few months after planting is essential and that’s why the timing is crucial. The number one priority is helping your new tree establish a healthy root system. The best time to plant bare-rooted trees is towards the end of winter or the first half of spring – once the ground is no longer frozen so it can be easily dug but before new growth starts.
It’s usually worth consulting a tree nursery that know your area and can advise on the window of time when they lift the young plants and deliver them and when conditions are right for your area. In the mild maritime climate where I live, trees can be planted from November onwards and this gives them a few extra weeks for the roots to establish but in harsher areas you’ll want to wait until spring. You will need to plant them quickly once they arrive – usually within a couple of days, though it’s possible to pack the roots with moist earth to extend this period if conditions outside aren’t favourable.
If you miss the ideal window of time for your area but still want to plant this year, it’s worth paying more for container-grown plants. These will already have roots that have grown into the soil around them and as long as you don’t disturb these too much when planting, they’ll be ready to draw up moisture and nutrients during warmer weather.
Fruit trees don’t like to be moved so it is important to get the location right first time. Things to consider are:
Many good fruit-tree suppliers will sell reasonably priced kits that include a stake, tie, mulch mat etc and I think it’s a false economy to skip these items.
Follow these simple steps to give your tree the best start:
Fruit trees always seem to be such strong, healthy plants that we forget how vulnerable they are when first planted. Yet during the first year, the tree can easily die from not getting enough water or nutrients. Until the root system is at least as large as the tree it supports, it is particularly vulnerable to environmental stress.
During the first year or two, keep the tree well watered, especially during dry weather. A good soaking once or twice a week is much better than surface watering daily, though during very hot weather it can be worth doing both. It’s also vital to keep the area around the tree completely free of weeds and grass as they will compete with the young tree, which is why mulch mats are very effective.
Finally, don’t forget to remove all blossom from the tree in the first year. Although it’s tempting to let some fruit develop, doing so will again place more stress on the tree as it establishes and forgoing the first year’s fruit will result in a much healthier tree and better harvest in years to come.