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Planting Guide


Choosing a Planting Site

Location and Air Drainage


A sloping site facing southeast, south or southwest is ideal, although an alternate-facing slope will suffice if no southern exposures are available. In drier western areas where dessication may be a problem, try to provide protection from north and west winds. For tender or frost-susceptible plants requiring additional protection, a favorable microclimate can make all the difference. For example, planting a sour cherry in a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides will give it heat loss from the buildings and protection from wind and frosts, enabling the tree to escape much of the bad weather that it might be forced to endure if standing alone in a field. This will also improve its chances of fruiting each year in a Zone 3/4 climate. Cold air is heavier than warm air, and tends to pour slowly downhill into gullies and valleys, piling up in low areas. Places where cold air collects are called “frost pockets,” and the growing season in such spots can be 2-3 weeks shorter than that on nearby slopes and hillsides. The term “good air drainage” refers to this slow downward movement of cold air, which favors the planting of fruit and nut trees on higher ground.



Soils: Acidity, Structure, water drainage

The bar graph above illustrates the range of soil pH, which is a measure of acidity. Acid or “sour” soils have a pH below 7.0; basic or “sweet” soils have a pH above 7.0. Most fruiting trees and shrubs will grow best on deep well-drained loam soils with a pH of 6.5 - 6.9. Blueberries and lingonberries need a much more acid soil: pH 3.5 - 5.5. Use a test kit to determine the pH of your soil. The test should be accurate enough to tell you the soil pH to the closest tenth (one number to the right of the decimal point.) Kits can be obtained from your local Cooperative Extension or Soil Conservation Service, or from Cornell University at 607-255-4540, www.css.cornell.edu/soiltest, at a cost of $15 ($27 for wide-range kit.) If your soil is 7.5 pH or higher, you will have a hard time growing blueberries or other acid-loving plants. Soil can be made more acid (its pH lowered) by mulching with pine needles, peat moss, or other acid mulches (see Blueberries) and/or by applying sulfur. Sulfur comes pelletized or as a powder, and is simply the pure element sulfur, sometimes called “flowers of sulfur.” Do not use aluminum sulfate; aluminum can become toxic to plants in an acid environment and can be limiting to growth. To “sweeten” soil, or make it more basic (raise the pH), lime or wood ashes can be applied. Agricultural lime (calcium carbonate or dolomitic limestone) can be found in ground or pelletized form at garden stores, or in bulk at nearby paving quarries, where it is much cheaper than the bagged lime in stores. You should not use hydrated, or “hot” lime. Don't try to shift your pH more than one full point (for example, from 6.4 to 5.4 or the reverse) at one time. If you are preparing your soil before planting, application rates for sulfur and lime can be obtained from your local Cooperative Extension, or consult the table below.


Preplant Application to RAISE Soil pH to 6.5:
lbs of Ground Limestone per 100 sq. ft.
Incorporate into upper 6" of soil
Start pH
Sandy
Loamy
Clayey
4.5
12.6
25.3
34.8
4.6
12.4
24.8
34.1
4.7
12.0
24.1
33.1
4.8
11.7
23.4
32.2
4.9
11.2
22.3
30.7
5.0
10.6
21.1
29
5.1
9.9
19.8
27.2
5.2
8.9
17.7
24.3
5.3
7.2
14.3
19.7
5.4
5.3
10.7
14.6
5.5
4.2
8.4
11.6
5.6
3.6
7.2
9.8
5.7
3.1
6.2
8.6
5.8
2.6
6.1
7.1
5.9
2.0
4.0
5.6
6.0
1.7
3.3
4.5

Preplant Application to LOWER Soil pH to 6.5:
lbs of elemental sulfur per 100 sq. ft.
Incorporate into upper 6" of soil
*Note: Heavy clay soils are not appropriate for acid-loving plants.
Start pH
End pH
Sandy
Loamy
Clayey*
8.0
.7.0
1.2
2.4
3.3
8.0
6.5
1.7
3.4
4.7
7.5
7.0
.5
1.0
1.4
7.5
6.5
1.0
2.0
2.7
7.5
6.0
1.5
3.1
4.2
7.0
6.5
.5
1.0
1.4
7.0
5.5
1.9
3.7
5.1
6.5
6.0
.5
1.1
1.5
6.5
5.5
1.4
2.7
3.7

The ideal, especially if you are trying to lower the pH in heavier soils, is to incorporate sulfur the year before planting. Preplant application rates are calculated according to your present soil pH, and given in lbs. per hundred square feet or per acre. You can adjust the recommendations to the square footage you plan to treat. The recommended amount can be spread over the whole area and then lightly incorporated into the top 6 inches of the soil. Sulfur is oxidized by soil bacteria to sulfuric acid, which in turn breaks down into sulfates and free hydrogen ions. This bacterial action depends upon temperature, moisture and duration; the full effect will not be realized for several months. Soils containing a lot of free lime (like those which are underlain by limestone) may neutralize added acid so quickly that it is worthwhile replacing all the soil in the root zone with acid surface soil from a nearby pinewoods (the layer of decomposed “duff” under the pine needles is particularly good,) or you can incorporate a handful of ground peat into the soil around each acid-loving plant. If you are applying sulfur or lime after plants are already planted, you can mix it with the material used to mulch your plants or trees. Sulfur can burn plants if in direct contact with stem or roots, so if you are applying it after plants are already established, use only 1 tablespoon of plain sulfur mixed into the mulch covering a 4 ft. square area around the plant. Alternatively, if your soil is acid and you want to apply lime after trees have been planted, (in some areas this can be necessary almost yearly,) 2 shovelfuls of agricultural lime mixed into the mulch for one tree, or spread around at the base of the tree, is about right.

Apples, pears, plums, cherries, and hazelberts do not like clay soil. However, black walnuts, butternuts, buartnuts, hickories and oaks will do fine in clay as long as there is moderately good water drainage. The pH for these taprooted nut trees should be 6.5-7.2. Although nut trees have a reputation for slow growth, they can grow very strongly when planted on optimum sites (deep, well-drained loam or well-drained rich clay,) outstripping even fast growers such as white pine.

Stony soils are more of a problem for the planter than for the tree, but no tree will do well in soil where bedrock is close to the surface. Heavy clays, poorly drained swampy sites, and excessively drained sand soils also are restrictive to plant growth and health.


Planting Your Tree

How deeply to set fruit trees

When planting standard size grafted fruit trees like ours, it is best to encourage them to become at least partially “own-rooted,” that is, to promote rooting above the graft union. To accomplish this, you must plant grafted apples, pears, plums and cherry trees an inch or two deeper than they were in the nursery, with the graft union (near the root collar) below the ground. (See photo below).

Tree Level

The graft is sometimes hard for an unpracticed eye to locate, but will look like a healed diagonal scar on the stem that resembles a "Z." Don't worry if you can't see the graft. Simply find where you think the soil level was before, and plant the tree an inch or two deeper than that level. What was formerly the aboveground portion (the scion above the graft) will sprout new roots just under the soil surface, and these roots will be from the actual cultivar*, rather than from the rootstock onto which it was grafted. If the tree is ever damaged and then sends up sprouts from the base, these will likely be growing from above the graft rather than from the rootstock, and will make a new tree of the same variety. Use this recommendation only if you are planting a standard size tree, since planting a dwarf fruit tree in this manner will negate the dwarfing influence of the rootstock. (See Apples TODO: Add Link). Our Bali cherry and Northrup mulberry do not have a graft union.


Plant grafted fruit trees 1-2 inches deeper than they were in the nursery,
with the graft level below the surface to encourage "own-rooting".


* Cultivar: cultivated variety. This is the term used to refer to a specific named variety, like“Cortland” or “McIntosh.” These cultivars can be grafted as scions onto various rootstocks to produce a fruiting tree.

Digging the hole

We recommend digging your holes by hand. A square-ended spade shovel works better than a round-point shovel. Keep the trees in the shade while you are digging. The roots should remain wrapped, or you can soak them in water or manure “tea” for an hour or so before planting.

Do not allow the roots to be exposed to wind or sunlight, even for a short time. Using the shovel, cut a hole in the sod 2-4 feet in diameter. Skim off the sod, and pile it on the edge of the hole. Next remove the topsoil and place it in a second pile. When you hit sub-soil, use it to form a third pile. These piles will go back into the hole in reverse order.

A work-saving idea suggested by one of our employees is to pile the dirt from the hole on an old feed bag or piece of plastic rather than in the grass next to the hole; it makes refilling the hole much easier.

Dig until your hole is about 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep. It is best if the hole goes straight down on the sides. This gives a much larger volume than tapered holes.You may make narrower, deeper holes for long-taprooted nut trees. Do not cut taproots and do not curl them around in shallow holes. In clay soils the shovel will often make a compressed, “shiny” side as it slides down through the soil. These smooth sides can act as a sort of verticle “pan” which is difficult for young roots to penetrate. It can be eliminated by "roughening" the sides of the hole with the shovel.

When digging the hole remove any rocks. Do not re-plant these with the tree.

Setting the tree and filling the hole.

Hold the tree in the hole at the depth you want it to be. Keep in mind that when you are done you will want the tree to be at about ground level in the middle of a "saucer" so that water runs toward it, rather than sitting on a "hill" where water runs away. For this reason, always dig deeper than you think you will need to. Using the edge of the shovel, chop up the sod and press it (grass portion down) into the bottom of the hole. As the sod decomposes, it will provide nutrients for the establishing tree. As you fill in around your tree, you are going to reverse the soil layers, putting the topsoil at the root level and the subsoil on top, where it can slowly be improved by nutrients from manure, compost, fertilizer and lime that you apply as mulch (See mulching). Next, if the tree has a fibrous root system, center the roots on top of a little mound of topsoil in the hole, then cover them with more topsoil. For taprooted trees, simply hold the tree upright and fill in around the root with topsoil.


Make sure that your hole is deep enough. The tree should end up sitting at the bottom of a slight saucer-like depression.


Before you add more dirt, pack the soil firmly around the root, gently moving the tree back and forth, compressing the soil all around the stem with your heel or toe to exclude large air pockets. Don't be timid when packing the soil around the roots of your tree.


Fill the hole about halfway, then add 2-3 gallons of water. This amount of water will temporarily make the soil in the hole very mucky and “jello-like.” Eventually, as the water is fully absorbed by the ground, the soil will be sucked in close around the roots, minimizing air spaces. Add 2-3 gallons of water (above) when hole is half-filled with soil.


After packing and watering around the root, fill the hole to the top with the remainder of the soil, using up the topsoil first and then the subsoil. Pack the top layer in a “dish” shape that is thickest at the outside edge and thinnest at the center. (This means that the tree is actually slightly lower than the original ground level.) Fill this “dish” with another 2-3 gallons of water, again giving it a mucky, jello-like consistency. You have now planted your tree, and in the process have reversed the soil layers, putting the best soil at the root level. The subsoil, now closer to the top, can slowly be improved by nutrients from manure, compost, fertilizer, and lime that are applied to the surface. (See Mulching).

Note: The only thing that should go back into the hole is good soil. No peat moss! Peat moss is too acid for most plants and tends to foster air pockets in the root zone. (How many fruit trees have you seen growing in a peat bog?) Likewise, compost and mulch should be laid on top of the ground, not mixed with the soil in the hole. If the soil from the hole is extremely poor, you have two options. The first, and best option, is to choose another site with better soil. If this is impossible, you can import good topsoil to use in the hole. In this case, make the hole even larger, especially width-wise, so that the roots will continue to have access to the imported soil as they grow and spread out. Be careful — many places sell “topsoil” that is really just sand mixed with composted manure. Make sure you're getting real topsoil. If you have a garden , you can “borrow” some topsoil from it. Pack the imported soil well to avoid air pockets.

Mulching

Once the tree is planted and watered, it should be mulched. Mulching is covering the ground with a protective layer of organic matter, which will smother weeds and prevent evaporation while allowing water and nutrients to soak through. A good deep mulch can make the difference between survival and failure. It can be accomplished with aged manure, wood chips, shavings, sawdust, compost...any material which can be laid down thickly enough to smother weeds and will eventually rot down. Do not use rocks or decorative gravel as a “mulch” around the base of the tree. These will conduct cold to the roots in winter, especially when there is no snow cover, causing root injury. Fill a large wheelbarrow with your mulch and dump it at the base of the tree. Then, starting at the trunk and, working outward, use your foot to form a dish like the one you made in the soil when you planted the tree. The dish should be thinnest (about 1 inch thick) in the middle, where the mulch comes into direct contact with the trunk, and thickest (6-8 inches) at the outside rim. This dish shape will ensure that water will run toward the tree instead of off into the field. Lime, bone meal, or rock phosphate may be added to the mulch beforehand or sprinkled on afterward. To smother weeds or grass, lay flat sections of half-inch-thick newspaper under the area where your circle of mulch will be. Spread your layer of manure or other mulch on top of this. The paper will smother weeds for about a year, but will still allow water and nutrients to trickle down through to the soil.

Staking

When properly planted, a 3-5 foot tree should need no additional support. However, putting a marker stake by each tree will make it less likely to be broken off by snowmobiles, plows, lawn mowers, and tractors. When planting large trees, staking is necessary, because the wind will continually "work" the tree back and forth, preventing the growth of vital root hairs.

Watering

This is undoubtedly the most important aspect in establishing any new tree or shrub. After planting, follow-up watering is a must. We recommend 5-10 gallons of water per tree regularly (regularly might mean daily, three times a week, or a good soaking every weekend) for the entire first growing season; especially during the dry months of late July through mid-September. Rain in the forecast does not excuse you from your watering chores! Rain is spread out evenly over the surface of the ground and cannot equal the effect of a good, long drink from a 5-gallon bucket or hose. Rather than using the weather to judge watering needs, dig under the mulch to feel the soil. If it is dry or slightly moist, water. If it feels waterlogged, then pass for a few days.

If it is physically impossible to water the tree every day, go for 2-3 times per week, or at the very least, on weekends. Ninety percent of all tree failures in the first season are caused by lack of water. Sometimes even when enough water is present in the soil, the roots of the plant may not be able to absorb it efficiently. If soils are sandy, most of the water will pass right by the tree’s roots as it drains quickly away. Failure to pack the soil well around the roots during planting can cause air pockets, isolating roots from the matrix of soil that allows them to absorb water, and they can dry out in spite of adequate watering. If a heavy clay soil is allowed to dry out, it can crack and shrink away from the roots of the tree, leaving them “high and dry” even when watering resumes. The root systems of trees planted late in the season (late April, early May) may be slow to become fully established, making it harder for them to absorb water at first. One of the most valuable aspects of mulch is its ability to hold soil moisture, so it is good to mulch a large area around the tree. It is possible to drown a tree, but this is usually due to poor site selection (wet, swampy areas or heavy clay.) The symptoms of too much water, curiously enough, are the same as those for not enough water: browning and loss of leaves.

Fertilization

Fertilize Before July 1. Young trees should be fertilized sparingly, using natural fertilizers. A good manure mulch is usually sufficient. If your soil tests low or medium for calcium, you can add gypsum to the mulch. Natural foliar feeds (Seaweed, unpasteurized liquid fish) are a good way to supply nutrients. These are sprayed on and assimilated through the leaves of the plant. Some provide N/P/K; others mostly micronutrients or natural growth enhancers. Most fruit trees “set” their terminal buds by mid-July, and from then on the tree begins to prepare for the following winter. Fertilization or foliar feeding after this time may delay the initial "hardening off" that is so critical to the plant's survival over the coming winter, leaving it vulnerable to winter injury. For this reason, fertilize or foliar feed only before July 1, or, in very cold areas, June 15.

Caution: do not use fertilizer spikes!

Screening


Trees should be protected from mice, rabbits, deer, and moose. For mice and rabbits, 1/4 or 1/2-inch mesh hardware “cloth” (close-knit wire fencing) works best; it should be rolled around a pipe to make it hold a curved shape and then hooked together in two or three places to form a mini-cage around the tree trunk. This cage will generally be a diameter of 4-6 inches for a newly planted tree. It should be replaced with a larger cage once the trunk has expanded. (The cage should not be tight to the trunk.) A cage about 1 1/2 to 2 ft. high should be sufficient to protect against the worst mouse and rabbit damage. Precut hardware-cloth screens are available through our catalog or website. A word of caution about the white spiral plastic tree “guards”. Although they seem easy and convenient at first glance, these have several disadvantages over hardware cloth. First, contrary to their claims, they do not expand as the tree grows. If allowed to remain in place season after season they can become embedded in the bark of the tree, pulling tightly against the trunk and preventing air circulation between the bark and the plastic. This leads to sweating and massive tree injury during growth periods.Wrapping the trunk with tape can cause the same problem — moisture buildup followed by rot and insects when warm weather comes. If you choose to use plastic spirals or wrapping tape, put them on late in the fall and remove them in early spring. To prevent deer or moose browsing, you should fence off the orchard, (a ten foot fence should do it!) or build a pen around each tree at least 5 ft high, and wide enough to prevent browsers from reaching their necks over to take a bite. (See photos below.)


* Do not use plastic "tree tubes" in Zones 3/4. They promote winter injury.


Painting fruit tree trunks each year with white interior latex (not oil-based!) paint will prevent sunscald & makes borer detection easier.


A pen can be constructed around each of your newly-planted trees to prevent unwanted "pruning" by deer or moose.


A free-standing deer fence that can be lifted off for mowing uses 6x6 inch concrete reinforcement wire mesh, available in 5x10 ft sheets, to make a 5 ft high cage. (Thanks to K.S. Benigni for this suggestion.)