Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

planting fruit trees in fall

We ‘rescued’ this small apple tree from underneath two closely planted, overbearing trees.

Spring is always a busy and exciting time for gardeners. I’m no exception. Logically I spent a lot of time in the garden this spring, planting, prepping and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature waking up from her winter nap. One of the things I enjoy most about preparing the spring garden is the sight and smell of our neighbor’s apple tree. Apple blossoms are some of my favorite flowers! This spring, for the first time ever, as I looked around me I noticed that the deluge of beautiful white blossoms gracing my neighbors tree were echoed underneath a bramble of pine branches and other tree limbs at the back of our property.

After further investigation I discovered that in the back corner of our one-acre yard there was an apple tree growing! Sadly, the apple tree was growing in the shadow of a mulberry tree (planted only few feet away) which itself was growing in the shadow of a large, scraggly pine tree (just a few more feet away). All three trees were living but doing poorly.

I knew right away that I needed to rescue that poor little apple tree! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against pine trees or mulberry trees, but I’m an opportunist, and the idea of a ‘wasted’ apple tree already established on my own property was too much. The obvious first step was to cut down the two overbearing trees growing so intrusively nearby. That first step also lead us down the path of finally deciding where to put our micro-orchard. This back section of the property was also home to a medium-sized pine tree and a large cherry tree (not the kind with edible fruit). We never (ever ever) use that part of the yard for anything. (In fact, it probably only gets mowed a handful of times each year.) The area gets great sun so we decided to cut down the other two trees and replace each with an apple tree.

So down came the trees – Ryan and my father-in-law did most of the work (although my mother-in-law and I helped considerably with the clean up). My in-laws heat their home with a wood-burning furnace so the bulk of the lumber went to them. I kept a few logs for hugelkultur expansion and for edging a few mounded beds. I also kept some of the straightest branches to create tee-pees for caging tomatoes. But when all was said and done, the main thing we were left with was a big fat empty space.

It’s amazing how much larger that part of the yard looks without the trees there! Before I thought of it as a tiny sliver of space occupied by a random pine tree. Removing the trees has revealed its true identity – another sunny section so wide that I could easily fill it up by doubling the size of our already large garden. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in adding any more space to our roughly 1,500 square foot garden.) It’s a great space for fruit trees!

Around that time we purchased two trees on sale from Lowes. We didn’t have a very big selection to choose from so we went with a good cooking variety (Macintosh) and a good fresh-eating variety (Golden Delicious). We were careful to read the labels to make sure they would pollinate each other (apples need another tree in order to pollinate and produce fruit).

And then… we got busy…

And then… the CSA season came to a close….

And then… the weather started turning cooler…

And then… it straight-up snowed…

And all the while that little voice in my head kept saying “Blerg… I need to get those trees planted!”

Finally this week we had a little warm up. (Ok, a big warm up followed by a quick cool down that caused massive storms in our corner of the Midwest!) You never know when the weather will turn in Michigan, especially during the months where seasonal transition are common (October and November are on that list) so I knew I needed to make my move this week or risk losing my chance completely.

I did some quick research about tree planting. Everyone recommends doing this in the early spring. Of course… Not surprisingly there were several cautionary tales about fall planting. But then without too much more effort I found instructions on planting trees in fall. I even found a few forums where experienced gardeners said that fall was an excellent time to plant fruit trees because it gives them a jump start in the spring. Really, I only had two other options. The first alternative idea was to “heal them in” which sounds an awful lot like just planting them to me (only in an area that will be more protected from cold and wind). I’m not a fan of planting them twice, thanks.

The other option was to overwinter them in the green house. I wasn’t a big fan of this either because of that time in late winter where the temperate outside are still very cold (mid-30s or colder) but the sun is warming the greenhouse to spring-like temperatures that might cause the trees to bud too early. I couldn’t think of a good place to move them to during this time period without sending them into shock.

So at any rate, I planted them. It was super-easy. Here’s what I did…

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Step 1: Dig a hole about twice the width of the root ball and just as deep as the root ball.

planting fruit trees in fall

I ended up widening this hole after taking the picture.

Step 2: Loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow outward.

planting fruit trees in fall

Before loosening the roots…

planting fruit trees in fall

After loosening the roots…

Step 3: Place the tree in the hole. For directions on how deep you should plant the tree, I recommend that you read this. Depth matters – big time! In summary, it’s better to err on the side of planting too shallow than too deep. Be sure to avoid planting soil above where the tree is grafted to the root system to avoid scion rooting.

Step 4: Cover the roots with quality compost. Ideally the compost would be aged. I ended up using a mixture of mulched fall leaves, rabbit manure (not composted) and compost from this year’s pile (garden clippings, food scraps, etc.). Be sure to tamp the compost down as you go along. The purpose of this is to reduce air pockets which can cause root issues.

planting fruit trees in fall

This baby apple tree has been planted with a compost mixture and tamped down to get rid of air pockets.

Step 5: Water your trees and add a layer of mulch to keep them warm and retain moisture. I didn’t read this anywhere, but for the same reason as Step 3 (scion rooting) I made sure to keep the mulch away from the base of the tree. Ironically, our mulch comes from the large branches of the trees we cut down to make room for the new apples.

planting fruit trees in fall

Ironically the mulch used to surround this tree came from the branches of the trees that came down to make way for the micro orchard.

planting fruit trees in fall

This apple tree is ready for winter (I hope)!

So after putting it off for months and months… about 30 minutes of work (maybe less) has finally made us the proud owners of a micro orchard. I can’t wait for the beautiful flowers next spring – and the amazing fruit in the future!

More to Do

Want to know a little secret? I still have a cherry tree and two blueberry bushes to plant! I planned to plant them on the same day as our apple trees but ran into some questions. The cherry tree is destined to take root very (very) near a place in the front yard where we previously had a diseased ornamental cherry tree. (We cut that little guy down at the same time as the trees out back.) I want to do some research to find out how to safeguard the second tree from the same health issues that overtook its predecessor before moving forward. Part of me is worried that I just may not be able to plant there at all (the original tree stump is still there… rotting as it sits in the ground). As far as the blueberry bushes go, I just wanted to check one last time that the site I had chosen for them gets enough sun. Hopefully they’ll be in before this weekend! I can’t wait for all the delicious fruit to come!

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