Bearing fruit in a time of need: Virginia Cooperative Extension expert offers advice on planting a fruit tree
Arbor Day serves as a reminder for aspiring and seasoned gardeners that springtime is an ideal window of opportunity to begin planting fruit-bearing trees across the commonwealth.
“The spring planting window, usually mid-March through the end of May, provides young fruit trees with the best opportunity to receive regular rain showers and much-needed water after transplanting,” said Jon Vest, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Floyd County, Virginia. “Now is the time for our fruit trees to expand young root systems before the heat and dry weather move into the Mid-Atlantic summer months.”
To grow a strong and healthy fruit tree, Vest said it is important to:
- Prepare the soil
- Dig a hole at an appropriate depth
- Fertilize the soil
- Properly mulch or place stone around the base of the tree
- Don’t prune until late winter
Soil: Thorough soil preparation is critical as deep, well-drained soil works best. In choosing a location for the tree, find a spot that is ideally located away from any utilities and is in full sun. Compost or added amendments should be mixed thoroughly with parent soil before being added back to the hole.
Depth: Dig only as deep as necessary to cover the root ball or the original soil depth of the planting container. During planting, never plant the tree below the “bump” or graft union present on the trunk, with the union remaining at least four to six inches above soil level to prevent damaging the base of the fruit tree. Wide planting holes are best and enable young roots to more easily penetrate new soil.
Fertilize: Fertilize young fruit trees about two weeks after planting and again six weeks later using 0.03 pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) fertilizer. On a small tree, this may equate to one-third of a pound of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The application should be made by scattering fertilizer below the outstretched tree branches, but away from the trunk to encourage outward root growth.
Mulch: Mulching young fruit trees may conserve needed moisture; however, excessive mulch provides unwanted rodent habitat that may contribute to bark feeding during winter months. A few shovels of clean stone or gravel work well to discourage rodent habitat around the base of young fruit trees while allowing water to still penetrate the root ball below. Avoid placing mulch in a “volcano” shape.
Prune: While damaged or dead branches may be pruned at planting, avoid additional pruning until late winter. Spring pruning cuts leave young trees susceptible to many diseases that are present once temperatures warm above 70 degrees. Instead of grabbing the pruning shears, take some scrap wood trim, close pins, or other material and spread young limbs outward at 45- to 60-degree angles. This enables small branches to develop strength while encouraging new appropriately spaced growth.
Jonathan (Jon) Vest is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Senior Agent with an appointment in Agriculture and Natural Resources. With 26 years of experience in commercial horticulture production, soils, and crop science, Vest currently serves the New River Valley while operating out of his local Floyd County Office. Vest works to carry out the mission of Virginia Cooperative Extension by taking university research-based information and putting it in the hands of the clientele he serves.
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