One size does not fit all -planting fruit

There is one question which regularly appears in every batch that I receive in the post or answer at GQT events. It may be phrased differently but it keeps on re-occurring as regularly as night follows day. But it rarely appeared in lists of questions found in old magazines and is quite a recent phenomenon. The question goes something like this- "I planted this tree about three or four years ago, it grew away well and starts off well each spring , flowers and fruits form but in summer it runs out of steam, looks miffy and the fruits fail to develop and drop off followed by the leaves soon after, I've tried feeding and spraying but nothing seems to work. What's wrong?"

There are many possible reasons as I'll go into but over and over again in the majority of cases the tree turns out to have been planted badly with all it's roots wound in a circle and choking each other. The strangulation allows the tree to come into growth from it's reserves and to flourish while the canopy is small but as the soil dries and the daily demand for water and nutrients increases the constriction in the roots prevents a rapid flow and growth slows to a near stop.

This sort of problem was barely possible in the days of field grown bare rooted plants with well developed root systems which demanded a decent width of hole and which could only be crammed into a small pit with some effort. The modern convenience product of a tree in a container is responsible as the roots come wound into a cylindrical mass and unless these are teased out then the dire consequences depicted above will usually show up after a time. And the compressed shape allows the damn things to be pushed into a hole barely big enough for growing a potato plant yet alone a tree!

The worst case I've seen was a retired businessman who had taken on a smallholding. He planted up a whole orchard for hinself by digging all the holes in neat rows with a post hole borer. Then he bought whole a load of assorted containerised fruit trees and simply popped one into each hole with no thought as to final size, aspect or requirements. I need not tell you the results of that experiment but needless to say after but a few years he went back to the city disapointed and bitter with the hardships and lack of success he'd had with rural life.

Now of course if a plant is young, small or only compact growing, has a fibrous or delicate root system or is hard to come by or hard to transplant then there is a lot to be said for container grown plants. If they are well grown and treated correctly that is. But if you are planting a long lived, vigorous, large growing, and hopefully to be productive tree then a container grown specimen is probably inadvisable. After all if you expect it to reach as tall as the house does it make sense to have the first ten feet of every root wound into a foot wide cylinder crammed into what is not much more than a post hole?

There is no doubt about it but that good planting ensures a better future and if this job is done properly the tree romps away and soon crops heavily and consistently. If planted badly the tree may crop initially but this soon fades off and if it does not die it seldom flourishes. Considering the life and productive capacity of a fruit tree then rushing and short changing the planting is the height of folly.

Thus although it may be tedious with a bare rooted tree it pays to ensure every root is reburied, as near as possible, at it's original level and spacing and is then well firmed all round with friable soil. Once completed the filling should then be trod even firmer.

It is a good idea to trim ragged and damaged ends to snip off entirelydamaged roots with a pair of sharp secateurs so they heal promptly. Do not be afraid of cutting off considerable lengths if damaged as new roots will regrow to replace any removed. However although you may remove damaged branches do not follow the old advice of cutting back the top hard 'to get strong regrowth'. This is best reserved till the second year when the roots have re-established unless the tree is in leaf when planted in which particular case then some trimming may be necessary. And no plum, peach, apricot or cherry should ever be cut back at planting as these stone fruits are only safely pruned in midsummer.

With a pot grown tree the ball is best soaked beforehand and then the roots teased out while still held under water which helps untangle them more easily. Then they must be spread radiating out from the stem base as evenly and uniformly as possible. Just as with bare rooted trees ensuring each is in it's own layer and direction. Masses of long fine roots can be shortened considerably with no detriment. Friable soil should be packed gently in and around each root and firmed down as the hole fills. Finally the lot should be trod even firmer than with bare rooted specimens.

Now as to the hole; few dig a hole for a tree either deep enough or wide enough. The greater the excavation the better the long term result. Especially in heavy soils. The danger in these latter are the formation of a big or small pit set in impermeable clay which fills with water in winter. On such a soil fruit trees are probably best planted on raised mounds or ridges or the drainage vastly improved over the whole area. Do dig the hole deeper and wider than you are keen to and break up the soil at the bottom and edges so as not to leave a smooth hard-to-grow-into surface. You may fill the hole with water to really soak it if dry but always let the water disapear completely before planting. If you immerse tree rooots in mud they are suffocated with a lack of air and then exposed to damage as the mud dries and cracks open.

Likewise do not incorporate loads of manure, well rotted or otherwise, compost or bone meal, or even dead animals in the planting hole or soil unless you have some special reason. (Stone fruits are different and can benefit from old mortar or lime going in the hole.) Generally though it is not good to make the planting mixture rich compared to the surrounding soil as the roots are then reluctant to leave it. However do mix in sharp sand or spent potting compost if it's a heavy lumpy soil hard to repack. Never mix in bales of peat; I have seen trees killed by being surrounded in a sea of dry peat whilst sitting within reach of a wet soil. Of course it's beneficial to improve the soil fertility and texture over the whole area and previously preparing it with several cultivations will also remove any weeds.

Do drive in the stake before you plant and not after if you are sure you need one. A shortish stake attached to the trunk part way up is sufficient to anchor a new tree's roots. Position the tree to the stake then do a careful and proper job with the roots and make sure that the tree is not planted at any more than it's original depth and if anything preferably slightly shallower. Once planted and well firmed down you can then tie the tree firmly, but temporarily, to the stake. Remember to remove that tie and stake in a year's time. Some very dwarf apples and trained forms such as cordons will always require a hefty stake or frame to support their crops throughout their life. These might as well be in place initially and likewise a row of trees can be tied to wires running between stakes.

Weed control is essential and for the best results do not allow anything to grow anywhere near your new tree for at least a couple of years. The bigger the area kept weed free the better; in trials the results kept improving with every increase -even beyond apparently huge areas for each tree. However do not mulch very thickly unless with a very loose mulch such as straw or coarse bark; better add to a thinnish mulch regularly as roots must not be buried too deep and cold. Providing the soil underneath is moist then a dust mulch kept clean by hoeing is preferable to a dense thick mulch as the roots will get more air. However in dry areas the moisture holding benefit of a thick mulch outweighs the air exclusion from the roots.

A piece of carpet makes an excellent weed excluding mulch and allows air and water to penetrate. A carpet mulch works best upside down. Plastic membrane mulches must be perforated as these exclude too much air. A cheap mulch for maintaining weed free conditions under trees is grass clippings. Put on in regular thin layers they do not make a revolting mass but a fibrous mulch. Once the trees have started cropping they can be grassed down around (but not pears who resent it) but even so it pays to keep a small area under the tree mulched with clippings.

As it is only sensible to plant this month while most trees are 'dormant' then watering should not be needed straightaway. Indeed it is best avoided. If the soil is in friable condition and the roots are fresh, or freshly soaked, then adding water will just expel the air and oxygen and make it harder for the tree to re-root. Of course at other times if the tree is still in leaf or has started then watering, heavily and often, is extremely beneficial. This should be continued throughout the whole of the first growing season and especially during late spring and early summer as by then the root system will hardly have established. Foliar feeding with dilute seaweed solution will also be very beneficial throughout the growing season.

Finally of course there is the deflowering or defruiting of the tree in the first year. Although it is permissible to allow one fruit to set and ripen in order to ascertain the veracity of the variety it is invariably the case that fruiting the first year reduces future yields significantly. Remove the whole lot as soon as they can be distinguished, be ruthless, it will be worth it. Likewise always thin fruits to remove the poor, damaged and overcrowded so that the remainder will be better and sweeter for it.

And if you haven't even chosen and ordered your new trees yet you'd better get moving, October is the ideal month for getting your, bare rooted of course, trees planted.