1. Consider the size. Fruit trees come in varied sizes – dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard. Do you have a small area? You might find a dwarf tree fits in perfectly. Do you long for a large stately apple tree like grandma’s? Then a standard is a good choice. Most fruit trees sold today are semi-dwarf. They produce a large crop, but the tree is more manageable when pruning and harvesting. Pick trees with different harvest times to ensure you have fresh fruit nearly year round.
2. Determine the fruit. Before you select the type of fruit, it’s important to consider the tree’s growing conditions. Soil type plays a role in the type of fruit produced. Plums do well in damp soil conditions. Pears and apples can tolerate drier soil, but need drainage. Peaches can get blight from too much rain and need a protected area. Also consider the pollinating requirements of the tree. Not all fruit tree varieties are self-pollinating so you will need to plant two of the same tree.
3. Look before you buy. Carefully look at the features of the tree. A fruit tree needs a strong, straight trunk. Even a slight lean can cause problems later when it is mature and full of fruit. Make sure there is an obvious central branch. This ‘leader’ helps keep the tree in balance. Without it the tree will require frequent pruning. The other branches should create a ‘candelabra’ shape to keep the tree straight and balanced. Avoid trees with low branches, which encourage ground pests and can be difficult to mow under. The tree roots should be plentiful and undamaged.
4. Where to plant. Fruit trees need good soil drainage. Try this test. Dig a medium-sized hole one foot deep and fill it with water. The water should drain within three hours. If not, find another spot for your tree.
5. How to plant. Dig a hole 18-inches deep (depending on the tree size) and loosen the soil at the bottom and around the sides. Add compost in the bottom of the hole. Return some of the dirt to the hole, making a mound in the center. Place the root ball on top of the mound, making sure the tree’s graft line is 3-inches above the ground. Spread the tree roots out evenly over the mound. Confirm that the tree is straight. Fill the hole with the remaining soil and gently push the soil down. It’s good to overfill the hole since the soil will settle when watered. If the tree needs staking, make sure to leave plenty of room in the line for the trunk to thicken. Mulch the tree, but don’t cover the graft line. Deer love the bark of young trees, so include some type of protection around your new planting. Keep the tree watered, but not over-watered, for the first year.
6. How to Water. Fruit trees more than most trees need water so their fruit can swell. When determining the planting location, make sure water is accessible. Your soil conditions can determine how much you need to water. You can bury a drainpipe or drainage hose close to the fruit tree, making it easier to get water to the roots. Soaker hoses are another way to water fruit trees. You can also use a bubbler head on your irrigation system. A moat around the tree base keeps the water in place and prevents any from washing away. Whichever system you use, fruit trees need the water to penetrate deep into the soil to the bottom of the root system. A well-watered fruit tree will be strong and healthy, better able to repel disease and insects than a weak tree.
7. When to Add Fertilizer. Fruit trees need sufficient nutrients to create fruit each year. Most fruit trees should receive a dose of slow release granular fertilizer each fall to help the trees produce a bountiful harvest year after year. Do not over-fertilize fruit trees, which can produce a lot of new growth and very little fruit.
8. How to Prune. Fruit trees need to be pruned regularly to help maintain their health. Start by removing all diseased or dead branches. Wait until the tree is dormant, and before spring growth has appeared, if you are pruning to shape the tree. Immediately remove suckers when they appear. These are usually from the root stock and not the grafted tree. You could end up with crabapples instead!