Growing fruit trees is one of our favorite things to do. We love fruit, and growing our own is the best way to have them. In fact, one of the reasons we wanted to have more space to grow was the desire to plant more fruit trees.
In growing fruit trees in cold climate part 1, we cover what is a cold-hardy fruit tree, varieties, where to buy hardy fruit trees, pollination, and bare-root vs potted trees.
Here in part 2 we cover planting and caring for hardy fruit trees as we are learning it. As always we would appreciate it if you share your experiences with us in the comment section, so we all learn together.
Where to plant fruit trees
If we think of trees, a forest comes to mind. There are different stages in a natural forest. It starts with pioneer species, that will grow in almost any soil condition. Those are the native trees. The varieties will depend on the area and soil condition. Aspen, maple, and poplars are common in our area. If a field is left alone, these trees will start to grow first. These trees like it sunny and do not mind wind and cold. If left alone, these trees will eventually be replaced by coniferous species.
Fruit trees are the more delicate trees in the tree family. If they are planted in an open field, instead of the native pioneer species, they will most likely struggle and many will not make it.
To help with that, shelterbelts with hardy trees need to be planted first.
In an established site or urban setting, fruit trees can be planted anywhere where there is enough space for them to grow. Line the northwest border of your garden with fruit trees and berry shrubs to provide a microclimate for the more tender vegetable plants.
More sensitive varieties of fruit trees do better on the north side of a building but still south of some shelter. This is because in that location there is more likely to be a good snow cover. Snow is the best insulator in the winter and also keeps the soil frozen longer preventing too early blooming.
Most fruit trees like a fool sun location with at least 6 hours of sunshine.
How much room a fruit tree needs depends on the variety. Ideally, you know what the mature size of the tree will be and give it that much space. That being said, trees can be planted a lot closer. For pollination and if there is no room for a second tree, you can even plant two young trees in one hole. As we see in natural forests, trees grow together often very close.
Soil preparation for fruit trees
Trees need fungal dominant soil. Tilling and digging the soil brings the opposite of what fruit trees need. In other words, the best soil preparation for fruit trees is not to disturb the soil. At planting time we only want to dig a hole for the tree itself.
If you want to convert a field into an orchard, plant some hardy nitrogen-fixing species like sea buckthorn, locust trees, or russian olive first.
Very young fruit trees can be planted right with the first pioneers. More mature fruit trees are best planted where there are already some trees growing.
If that is not possible, and you just want one tree in the middle of your lawn, consider bringing in some fungi dominant soil from under a mature fruit tree elsewhere. It will act as a starter for fungi soil under your newly planted tree.
There are different opinions on grass or weeds around the trees. Personally, I think it depends on the maturity of a tree. If a tree is very young, it is not much different than grass or weeds. The weeds or other orchard grasses protect the soil from evaporation during the day and gather moisture from dew during the night which trickles down to the root system. Grasses also give a bit of protection from predators for a very young tree.
A more mature tree is best mulched with a thick layer of wood chips. It will mimic the forest floor, and help the tree to stay moist and the fungi that the tree benefits from develop better.
Planting fruit tree
Fruit trees are best planted when they are dormant. In our cold climate, spring seems to be the best time even though some have had great results with fall planting also. Only potted trees can be planted anytime, except do not plant in frozen soil.
Fruit trees are available as plugs (when very young), bare roots, or potted. Plugs are rare since only fruit trees on their own roots are sold as plugs or one-year seedlings. Since most fruit trees in cold climates are grafted, you will more often find good fruit varieties as bare root or potted.
Personally, as we covered in part one, we prefer bare root trees. Those are usually young trees that are surely not root bound in a pot and have the best survival rate.
However, a good quality potted tree has its value, especially if you want to get fruit sooner.
When buying potted trees, check if it was not crammed into a pot, meaning if in doubt, loosen the soil and plant as a bare root. This can only be done though if the tree is dormant.
For all trees, you need a hole that is bigger than the plug, bare-root ball, or pot.
There is a saying that for a $5 tree you need a $50 hole. Two things are very true for this statement. For one a smaller, read cheaper tree, is better than a more mature tree, and also the hole or planting is very important.
If you are planting a tree into good soil, full of organic matter, as is the case in our urban yard, there is no addition needed. We like to improve the soil all around the tree with mulch and companion plants instead of giving the tree nice soil in a hole, and encouraging it to stay in that hole.
However, if you are planting a tree in very poor soil, a bigger hole is important. In this case avoid a perfectly round hole by breaking up the sides, so that the hole becomes more star-shaped than round. Just like a round pot, a round hole in compacted soil has the same effect.
If your soil has poor drainage (check by pouring water into the planting hole and see if it drains away), you can layer some old wood into the bottom of the hole, to give the roots better drainage. Another option is to plant the tree in a raised bed.
When planting bare-root trees protect the roots from drying out. A cooler box is a great way to keep the tree out of sunlight and wind. Have the hole and water ready. If you can, choose an overcast day, or plant in the evening.
Plant the tree and fill the hole with 2/3 existing soil and 1/3 peat moss, pine bark compost, or other humus soil conditioner.
Plant a potted tree at the same level as the tree was in the pot. A bare root tree just below the graft, where the root stops and the tree begins.
If a grafted tree is planted too deep. the graft is buried, there is a danger that the rootstock will start to grow as well as the graft resulting in a doubletree.
For bare roots, make sure that the roots are not j-d into a hole. You want them to look down or to the side, not up.
Fill in the soil firmly, to eliminate any air pockets. Now build a water basin around the tree and water thoroughly.
Caring for a young fruit tree
The first year after planting is very important for the tree. You want to give the tree the best start at your location for many years to come.
After planting and watering in, mulch the tree. We find the best mulch for trees is wood chips, chopped branches, and leaves. Not bark mulch or wooden wood chips, even though both are better than no mulch. Old branches and leaves would accumulate under a tree naturally if no one would ever clean up. These are the woodchips that most tree companies or arborists have no use for. We usually get it for free, if we are only willing to load it ourselves.
Water the freshly planted tree once a week. The amount of water depends a bit on your soil and the size of the tree. You want the roots to be watered well each week.
Do not assume that rain is enough, unless it rains so much that the soil is saturated. Especially if the tree is bigger the roots are still very small. The tree will need extra water for up to 3 years.
Watering deeply is so important because you want the roots to grow deep. If you just let it have rain you might end up with a shallow root system and the tree won’t be as stable as it should be.
If needed add protection from rodents at the base of the tree. The height of the protection depends on what animal you are dealing with. Note that in the winter the snow covers some of the stem, so the protection has to be higher if you have rodents coming through.
If the trunk of the tree is exposed to sunlight all day, it needs some protection. A white spiral tree guard can do both, protect from the sun and rodents.
In a windy area, a young tree needs staking. use elastic or stretchy bands to hold the tree. It is better for the tree if it has some movement.
Companion planting for trees
Fruit trees do not like to grow alone in a middle of a lawn or field. Plant chives, rhubarb, lilies, and other edible perennials around and you get a beautiful plant guild. Adding some nitrogen-fixing plants like clover, comfrey, or lupine will help the combination to grow well.
In a cold climate permaculture food forest, you can plant hardy berry bushes on each side of a fruit tree. In an orchard, it is better to interrupt fruit trees with nitrogen-fixing trees. The miracle farm recommends 2 fruit trees to 1 nitrogen fixer in a row. It is not just good for the soil and growth of the trees, but the nitrogen-fixing tree in between also interrupts pests that might find their way into an orchard or food forest.
A tree or trees planted this way do not need a chemical fertilizer. We personally never use any chemical fertilizer with great results. We only add a layer of wood chips, about every other year and do not clean up leaves in fall. However, we gather any fruit that falls to the ground to avoid any pests or diseases.
Pruning fruit trees
Fruit trees benefit from being pruned. Different varieties need different techniques.
Good timing is in spring just before the flowers open. It is a time when you are not in a way of pollinators, but you can already see where the fruit is forming as not to cut back fruit clusters.
Generally speaking, a tree is well pruned if the tree didn’t notice it was pruned. For that reason prune a tree each year a little. If in doubt go to the professionals.
We are not professionals, so the information here is very general. We share simple things that we do to keep our trees productive.
A fruit tree can be pruned to small or tall, however, which also depends on the rootstock.
If we want to keep a tree small, it has to be on dwarf rootstock. A standard tree can be kept fairly small by encouraging low growth, cutting back what grows up, and keeping what grows down. Trimming upper branches to half only encourages more upper growth, so do not do that.
Suckers, twigs that grow straight up, always have to go. Cut or even rip them out with no rest stem, they are useless.
We also prune branches that grow in and across, to keep the middle more open. The goal of pruning is always to give each branch the much-needed sunlight to ripen fruit.
Most of the trees in our urban property are planted along the border. We prune them to stay slim. Since the location is very sheltered this is mostly possible without even having support.
However, a fast-growing tree, like our M360 apple tree does need support. In this case, it probably would have been better to make a real espalier tree.
Winter care for fruit trees
A cold climate can be harsh on fruit trees. Right before the ground freezes, we water our fruit trees to make sure when spring melt comes, they have moisture to start growing.
For more tender trees we make sure they have a good snow cover. If that is not possible, adding extra mulch in the fall helps too.
In our climate, it can snow about at any time of the year. If the tree already has leaves, shake the snow off as soon as possible. Wett snow on leaved trees can be very heavy and may cause damage by breaking branches.
We like to place a big rock close to the stem under each fruit tree. The rock keeps the temperature more consistent. In the winter it stays frozen under the rock longer. In the summer the rock gives up some heat. Is this proven science? Not to our knowledge, it’s just our practice.
What is a practice that has worked well for you while growing fruit trees in a cold climate? Please share in a comment below.