Apple trees should generally be planted in early spring, although in warmer regions trees can also be planted in late fall; the question of planting time is important to investigate locally. When the nursery stock is received, inspect the root system to be certain it is moist and protected from drying. The trunk and any limbs should also be inspected for digging and packing damage. If the tree can’t be planted immediately, store the unopened package or potted tree in a cool place out of direct sunlight. On the day of planting, remove the wrapping and examine the root system; if it is dry, soak it for a few hours before planting. To store nursery stock for more than a few days, choose a protected area, dig a temporary trench deep enough to hold the roots, and “heel it in” by placing the stem of the tree at an angle in the trench and covering the roots with soil. Be sure to water thoroughly and keep the tree moist until replanted.
Planting the Tree
The basic steps for planting an apple tree are illustrated on the following pages [below] by 10-year-old James. Before beginning, beware that the roots must not dry out during planting as just a few minutes of drying wind and sun can severely injure or kill the tree; keep roots in a plastic bag or other protective cover until they are positioned in the hole and ready to be covered with soil. Also avoid using chemical fertilizers at the time of planting which will burn the delicate root system. If the tree is growing on a dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock that requires a support system, it’s best to place the stake in the hole at the time of planting because disturbing the soil after growth begins can damage the root system. Lastly, be sure to identify each tree with a “permanent” label (keeping in mind that even lettering from permanent markers will likely begin to become illegible after two years); a map of your orchard is a wise backup record.
Digging The Hole
Using a shovel or auger (or a tree planter for large installations), dig a hole that is large enough to accommodate the nursery stock roots. A 1-year-old tree, for exam- ple, should have a hole as big as a 5-gallon bucket. After digging the hole, separate the sod, topsoil and subsoil in piles.
To prepare for refilling, break up the sod that will be spread on top. Work amendments and well-rotted compost thoroughly into the topsoil and subsoil with a shovel or hoe. This medium will surround the roots of the newly planted tree. Be aware that any synthetic chemical fertilizer will damage roots.
Positioning the Tree
Standard trees, grafted or not, should be planted the same depth or just slightly deeper than they were growing in the nursery row. A color difference on the stem will show the soil line.
Trees grafted for size control should be planted so that the graft site, a slightly irregular area on the stem, is 3 to 4 inches above ground level. If the graft site is in the ground, the scion will root and a standard-size tree will result.
Filling the Hole & Placing the Tree
Return the best soil (the amended topsoil and subsoil) to the bottom of the newly dug planting hole in the shape of a pyramid. Place the tree upright over the pyramid and extend the roots outward and downward over the hill of soil. Two people working together make it easier.
If you are planting a burlapped root ball, cut the burlap in a number of places to facilitate root growth passage. Continue backfilling the hole with the best soil available, shaking the plant gently up and down and sideways.
Gently Tamping the Soil
After the roots are covered with several inches of soil, use a flat hoe or your foot to gently tamp it down.
This will compress and remove any air pockets, where roots can grow and die, and help provide a solid anchor for the young tree.
Watering the Tree
Soak the tree with water when the hole has been filled about 2⁄3 of the way with soil; then add more soil, leaving a very shallow bowl-shaped ring around the plant to trap water.
Following this initial watering, the tree should receive an inch of rainfall per week or the equivalent via irrigation. Stress from drought is devastating to young fruit trees.
The Fully Prepared Tree
Depending on tree’s specific conditions, it may need to be limed, pruned, limb spread, protected by fencing, and mulched. Apply lime when the soil test indicates the pH is below 6.5. Prune 1-year-old whips back to 30 inches from ground level where the first scaffold limbs will emerge. Older trees with scaffold limbs should be spread as shown to an angle of between 45 and 60 degrees.
Then, if the orchard is not fenced, construct a fence at least 4 feet in diameter and 4 to 6 feet high around each tree. At this point the tree should also be mulched to about 6 inches deep to suppress unwanted vegetation and retain moisture. A small circle around the stem should remain uncovered to discourage collar rot and mice or vole infestation.
This article, which appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Hobby Farms, was excerpted from Apples of North America, © 2021 by Tom Burford. Published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Tom Burford, “Professor Apple,” was an orchardist, horticulturist and nurseryman. He was also a consultant specializing in the restoration, re-creation and design of orchards at historic sites and private estates, as well as backyard and commercial orchards. His apple pursuits and adventures took him all over the world, but he always returned home to his native Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.