PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson
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August 11, 2020

Well-drained soil is an important requirement when planting fruit trees. Read about the soil preferences of pretty much any variety, and you’ll see the term “well-drained soil” over and over again.

That’s not to say you want to plant fruit trees in a location as dry as a desert. To the contrary, fruit trees need plenty of water to thrive. But like many trees, they’re not fond of sitting with their roots in water-logged soil for days on end.

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Roots need oxygen to function properly. So if they’re submerged in water for prolonged periods of time, trees can essentially drown as their roots rot and die.

As a result, choosing a well-drained location for your fruit trees is an important step to ensure their long-term health and productivity. And if your preferred location doesn’t drain well enough, you could be in for quite a head-scratching challenge.

I’ve discovered this over summer, while planning out a planting of flowering crabapple trees.


It’s not hard to make a case for the family orchard.



A Challenging Vision

My vision has been clear for years. I’ve wanted to plant two rows of pink-blossomed crabapples inside the entrance to my orchard, marching up the hill to the upland location where my apple and pear trees are planted.

I can picture exactly how it will look in 15 or 20 years, with crabapple branches arching over the path to form an awe-inspiring tunnel of blossoms.

But I’ve had concerns about my chosen location for the trees. I intended to plant them not far from a low spot in the orchard where standing water frequently gathers after heavy rains. Although water doesn’t visibly gather where I’d planned to plant my crabapples, I was concerned enough about the condition of the subsoil to dig holes in advance of purchasing the trees, just to see how well the holes disperse heavy spring and summer rainfall.

So far, I’ve been disappointed with the results. While the uppermost holes drain reasonably well—they’re heading steadily upland, remember—the holes at the bottom of the slope drain very poorly. Following every significant rainfall, the bottom holes fill almost completely to the brim with water, and they require two or three days to drain back out again.


Plan out your orchard using graph paper for a precise and attractive result.


Clay Culprit

The culprit is the heavy clay soil on my farm, which isn’t very conducive to quick draining in low spots. Unfortunately, this means that potential solutions for addressing the issue are complicated.

On a dry day, when the holes were empty, I used post-hole diggers to penetrate deeper into the ground. I wanted to see if I could punch through a layer of clay and find more permeable soil underneath.

But it didn’t work. Once I got through another foot of clay, water started leaking in from surrounding soil. Clearly the water table is pretty high at the bottom of this slope, at least following a heavy rainfall.

Now I’m pondering whether I could dig a shallow ditch—a riverbed, if you will—to provide a means for water to drain out of the soil and flow downhill to an even lower location outside of my orchard. An even better option would be to install a subsurface drainage tile system. I suspect, however, this would be an expensive and time-consuming project.

I suppose I could just accept that this location soil doesn’t have naturally well-drained soil. Instead, I can build up sturdy berms on which my crabapples could survive and thrive. This way, they’d be raised safely above the water-logged subsurface. Or I could revise my plans and plant my crabapples somewhere else entirely.

I must admit the simplicity of the latter option holds some appeal. But I’ll ponder the drainage challenge a bit longer before making a decision.

I’m not ready to give up on my vision for a beautiful orchard entrance just yet!

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