|by Liz Forsyth
It wasn’t long ago that gardeners, who have learned the glories of picking fresh fruit from their own orchards, anxiously awaited for January to arrive to take their list of desired trees to the local nursery to buy bare root fruit trees. There would be bins full of moist sawdust or mulch, in which the trees would be heeled, and the nurseryperson would lift up each tree, shake it loose so that the purchaser could examine the roots, and if selected, wrap it in newspaper, ready to be taken to its new home and immediately planted. Whether it be plum, nectarine, pear, peach, pomegranate, persimmon, cherry or quince trees, the safest time to dig these young ones from the field for transportation to the garden center sans soil on their roots, is when they are in a state of dormancy. Hence the term bare root.
Fewer and fewer garden centers are presenting their fruit trees in this manner. By canning up the bare root trees in containers, not only is the failure rate drastically reduced, but a moisture level for the roots is maintained that safely allows for a longer selling season. “Bare root” fruit trees are now referred to as “dormant.” The best time to purchase is during the winter months as Green Thumb carries a wide selection of varieties.
Your first look at the dormant fruit tree that you envisage bearing baskets of fresh sweet fruit may be a bit of a disappointment; they won’t win beauty contests. Unlike evergreen fruits such as citrus, deciduous trees go through a dormant phase during which they lose all their leaves. True gardeners have learnt patience. They will choose the smaller specimens, as the larger the tree the more out of balance will be the root to stem ratio. And while it may be momentarily painful, top your first year dormant off at 2 to 3 feet in height, with no side branches remaining. Doing this means that the scaffold, which is the lower side supporting structural branches, will be lower to the ground, making harvesting and pruning less of a chore. And while we’re on pruning, peaches and nectarines will need to be heavily pruned each dormant season; apples, pears, almonds, plums, persimmon and apricots, once they are established, will only require moderate pruning.
It’s wisest to ready the planting holes for your trees prior to going to the garden center, so that you can get them into the ground the same day. As with most plants and trees, they like loose soil with good drainage, and sunny locations. If your soil conditions are less than perfect, but the location you’ve chosen is, why not plant your new additions in a raised bed? This allows you to completely control the soil into which you are placing the trees. It also means that you can plant four fruit trees in a bed that is only 4 feet by 4 feet, and only 16 inches deep. Set the trees in the raised bed just 18 inches apart. Group trees together that have similar spraying needs, along with those varieties of fruit trees that require pollinators. Bees and the wind will assist you with this, so how lucky if your neighbors have cultivars that are needed for pollination of your trees!
Your planting hole should be wide rather than deep. A depth the length of the rootstock, or approximately 1 1/2 feet, should suffice. Put your hands into the earth and form a slight mound; this one act will bring you closer to the tree, and allow you to hold the soil that your new family member will live in for its lifetime. Place your tree on the mound, gently spreading out the roots so that they aren’t encircling the tree. Use the native soil to fill in the hole, and don’t fertilize until you see growth on the tree. For the first two years, dilute the fertilizer by half so that young roots do not get burned.
It will take a couple of years before your dormant fruit tree actually bears fruit, but what a relatively short wait for the satisfaction of knowing that you were a part of the growth process nearly from the beginning. And imagine how sweet that first bite of fruit will taste!