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Planning & Planting

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Choosing a Site for Fruit Trees and Berries

The best sites for fruit crops have well-drained fertile soils, protection from wind, good air drainage and full sun. A gentle slope and 6–8 hours of full sun per day is ideal. Good air flow will moderate frosts and fungal disease. If possible, avoid “frost pockets.” Do not plant trees where power lines will interfere with them.

Sunny south- or west-facing slopes are not advisable for less hardy varieties. These slopes tend to warm up before the danger of frost has passed. Trees may flower prematurely and then be damaged by frost, causing loss of fruit. South and west slopes may also have widely fluctuating early spring temperatures that can damage less hardy trees.

Soil pH for fruit trees should be between 5.5 and 8.0, towards the lower end for apples, the higher end for peaches, and in the middle for others.

Fruit species have optimal space requirements.
  between plants between rows
Apples, Dwarf
7-8'
15'
Apples, Semi-dwarf
15'
15'
Apples, Standard
25-30'
25-30'
Asparagus
1-2'
4'
Blackberries
3-4'
6-12'
Blueberries, highbush
3-6'
8-10'
Blueberries, lowbush
1'
1'
Grapes
8'
8-10'
Hazel
4-6'
hedge
Kiwis
10'
10'
Nut trees - orchard
35'
35'
Nut trees - forest
20'
20'
Pears, Asian Pears
20'
20'
Raspberries
2'
6-12'
Stone Fruit
15-20'
15-20'
Sweet Cherries
25'
25'

The basics of tree care outlined here are meant to get you going. Obviously, we can’t tell you everything you need to know. A soil test is useful in determining the specific needs of your site. Reading, observation, trial and error, and talking with other growers and with extension agents can expand your knowledge of trees and shrubs. Consult our book list for recommended reference books, or look for information online, including our useful links.

General Planting Directions for Trees and Shrubs

  • Dig a large hole, at least twice as wide and about as deep as the root system. Most roots grow laterally and need plenty of room to spread out. Your trees will benefit if the hole is at least 3' wide.
  • Place the topsoil aside in a separate pile from the other dirt removed from the hole.
  • Loosen up the soil at the bottom of the hole and especially around the sides. For fruit trees, if you haven’t used a deluxe fall preparation, you may add a 3-lb bag of our Tree Planting Mix, or well-aged compost and mineral fertilizers like rock phosphate or azomite, but not manure or other nitrogen sources. Incorporate the amendments into the soil.
  • Place the topsoil at the bottom of the hole where it will do the most good. Make a mound at the bottom of the hole over which to spread the roots.
  • Generally, you should plant trees and shrubs at the same depth that they grew in the nursery. You should be able to see a “dirt line” or a change in bark color indicating nursery depth. This is different from the graft line.
  • Set the tree in the hole and spread the roots out around the mound. Make sure the roots are not circling in the hole. It’s better to trim the roots a bit than to coil them. Hold the tree at the right depth as you backfill the soil around it. Tamp firmly to remove air pockets.
  • Water immediately. Don’t skimp on the initial watering. Plenty of water to “puddle in” your plant will help to settle all that loosened soil. Wiggle the trunk as the water seeps in to ensure that the roots are settled in with no air pockets. Leave a berm around each tree so water will seep in and not run off.
  • Keep them well watered throughout the first summer. They require the equivalent of 1–2" rain per week. A good soaking is effective; sprinkling is not.

For best results, plant on cool cloudy days in the early morning or late afternoon. Soak deciduous trees and shrubs in a bucket of water for a few minutes or up to 24 hours, before planting. Keep the roots from drying out; even a few minutes in the sun and breeze can kill a tree or shrub. Keep them in the bucket of water as you plant.

The best way to ensure your plants will thrive is to follow cultural requirements. Choose the right site for the plant. Many native plants don’t require any fertilization. Add soil amendments only as needed.

Initial Pruning at Planting Time

For most trees and shrubs: Prune any injured branches or roots. Further pruning of most trees is not necessary at planting time.
Nut trees: Do not prune tops; do not prune or bend tap roots.
Conifers: Prune off about one-third of the roots.
Roses: Prune roses back to 3 canes, 2–5" tall.

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Mulch

Keep weeds and especially grass away from new trees and shrubs. Apply a 2–4" mulch of composted material, leaves, wood chips or hay out as far as the drip line. A ½–1" topdressing of alfalfa meal beneath the mulch may substantially reduce transplant shock. Keep mulch back several inches from the tree trunk. We lay down cardboard or newspaper and spread mulch on top of it. Mulch encourages earthworms, holds moisture, keeps down weeds, insulates against excess heat and cold, aerates and loosens soils, builds humus and fertilizes feeder roots, 90% of which are within 6" of the surface.

Staking

Newly planted standard-sized fruit trees and ornamental trees seldom need staking. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees may require staking. If your tree is in a very windy site or develops a leaning habit, staking may help. Drive a stout post near the tree. Wrap the tree trunk with a scrap of burlap or rubber to protect against abrasion. Secure the wrapped part of the tree to the post with string or wire. Tie the tree somewhat loosely, as a slight rocking motion will encourage rooting. Once roots are well anchored, the stake may not be needed. Mark small trees with a stake with ribbons to warn operators of lawn mowers, tractors, cars, skidders and skateboards.

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Conifers

Evergreen trees prefer a pH between 5.5–6.5. If you are planting in dry or well-drained areas, dip tree roots in Agri-gel® solution before planting to protect roots from drying out. Do not soak conifers overnight; a good dipping is sufficient. Do not use Agri-gel in heavy clay soils or in wet areas.

Before planting, prune off one-third of the roots. Dig a small hole or make an incision with a spade or planting bar and slip the tree in to the level it grew in the nursery, never below. Fan the roots out; do not wind them around in the hole. It is much better to prune the roots than to crowd them in the hole. Water well and pack the earth down with your feet to remove air pockets.

Young conifers need ¾–1" of rain per week. Periodic deep waterings are far more beneficial than frequent sprinklings. No fertilization is necessary in the first year. In later years you may fertilize around the drip line.

Lowbush Blueberries

Woodsy dry poor acid soil (pH 4.0–5.2) is a prerequisite. Full sun is best for maximum fruit production.

Highbush Blueberries

Shallow-rooted plants like light acid soil (pH 4.0–5.2) with plenty of organic matter, good drainage, and plenty of water. Space them 3–6' apart (3' for the shorter varieties) in rows 8–10' apart. If your soil is lacking acidity, add peat, woods humus, or 1 cup elemental sulfur per bush.

Dig a hole at least twice the size of the root ball. If you use peat, soak it and then mix it with soil at a one-to-one ratio. We suggest dipping roots in Agri-gel®. Plant at the same depth as in the nursery. Do not let the roots dry out! Pack the soil firmly and water thoroughly. Plants require at least 1" water per week during the growing season. On most soils, highbush blueberries require regular applications of nitrogen.

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Raspberries and Blackberries

Cane fruits have shallow perennial roots. They prefer full sun, good air circulation and well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Avoid soils where tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, strawberries or wild brambles have grown. Prepare planting holes by adding manure (15 bushels dry or 10 bushels fresh per 100 sq ft) and make each large enough to spread out the roots. Do not allow the fine roots to dry out. We suggest soaking roots in Agri-gel® for 1–2 hours before planting.

Plant 1–2" deeper than in the nursery and then cut the canes off at ground level. Mulch with a thick layer of woodchips. Fertilize liberally each spring with up to 100 lbs manure or compost, 8 lbs bloodmeal or 14 lbs soybean meal per 100 foot row. Some sources recommend additional nitrogen feeding each June and August. Plants require 2" water per week during the growing season.

  • Summer-bearing raspberries: To make a hedgerow, trellis between two wires about 3–4' off the ground and 18–36" apart. Space plants 2' apart. After harvest, prune to the ground the canes that carried fruit (or remove them the following spring). Thin the fresh first-year canes to about 3–4" apart. They will bear fruit next year. During the growing season cut back canes to 5' if they are bending over severely.
  • Everbearing raspberries: Plant 9–15" apart. Because everbearing types bear fruit on first-year and second-year canes, you have a couple of options. In warmer districts, you can leave the first-year canes to overwinter after they fruit. The following year, you will get a light crop in early summer from those now two-year-old canes, followed by a larger crop later from the new first-year canes. In colder areas generally you would cut all canes to the ground in late fall after the leaves drop, or in early spring; new first-year canes will fruit in mid-late summer.
  • Purple and black raspberries and blackberries: Plant in hills 3–4' apart, 3–4 plants per hill. Tie to a center post for support, if needed. Basic pruning is same as above. As they fill in, thin to 5–8 canes per hill. During the early summer, pinch back tip of first year canes to 2½–3' tall. This will encourage lateral fruiting branches. You may run a wire between hills for lateral branching but this is not necessary. In the following spring, cut these fruiting laterals back to 8–12 buds.
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Strawberries

Strawberries require good air drainage, well-drained fertile soil with pH of 5.8–6.2, thick mulch and full sun. Avoid soils where tomatoes, peppers or potatoes have grown in the past 4 years. Plant strawberries at the same depth as they were in the nursery, with the middle of the crown at soil level. Keep your patch free of weeds. They require ¾–1" water per week during April, May, August, September and October. Mulch with hay or straw in late fall to protect plants over winter. In the spring, pull mulch off plants and place between rows where it will keep fruit dry and clean during the summer. It can also be raked back over the plants if frost threatens flower buds. Floating rowcover may also be used for winter and frost protection.

  • June-Bearing Strawberries: Matted Row system: Set plants 12–24" apart in rows 3' apart. Allow plants to produce runners freely and fill in the row. Remove all flowers the first year. Harvest berries the second summer. Immediately after harvest, fertilize liberally with compost or aged manure and renovate the row. By hand or with a tiller, narrow the row to 12" wide. Thin plants to 4–5" apart within the row. By this method a bed can last about 5 years. Then plow it under and start again.
  • Everbearing or Day-Neutral Strawberries: They are heavy feeders and benefit from 3–4" of manure worked 4–6" into the soil prior to planting. Plant 6–12" apart. Mulch with black plastic or thick straw immediately after planting. Remove flowers for the first 6 weeks, and remove all runners the first season. Mulch in late fall. Sidedress with manure monthly during the second season beginning in May. Till under after the second year and begin again.
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Grapes

For the best grapes, provide moderate fertility, very well-drained soil with pH of 5.8–7.0, and full sun. Space 8–12' apart in rows 8–12' apart.

Spread the roots out, planting the crown even with the soil surface. Do not prune roots. Pack soil well. Water and mulch well. After frost danger has passed, prune vines back to 3–5 strong buds. Continue to mulch annually with hay or straw. Every few years fertilize liberally with granite dust.

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Hardy Kiwi

Easy to grow in rich well-drained soils. They are extremely vigorous and require a rugged trellis or arbor and heavy pruning. Plant vines 10' apart each way in moist but well-drained soil. Kiwis are adaptable and tolerate a wide range of soil types (pH 5.0–6.5). One male will pollinate several females as long as they are within approximately 30' of the male. Although the vines are quite hardy, the flowers and foliage are frost sensitive. Planting on a northern exposure will delay budding in spring and reduce risk of frost damage. Protection from winter winds and intense winter sun is also recommended. Mulch with hay or wood chips. On poor soil fertilize with compost annually.

Asparagus

Requires fertile soil with pH 6.8–7.2 and high levels of phosphorus, and no weed competition. Plant 14–18" apart, 6–10" deep, in trenches 4' apart. Or dig your trenches somewhat deeper and fill the bottom with 4" of compost and rotted manure. Lay plants with crown up and cover with 2" of soil. Plants emerge very slowly. As young shoots grow, add soil gradually, just covering the shoots, until the trench is full. In late fall, remove dead stalks and mulch with 3" of manure.

Second summer: Add lime, rock fertilizers and nitrogen as needed. Control weeds but do not injure crowns. Cautious harvesting for two weeks may be possible.

Later years: Same routine but increase fertilizer. Be sure to leave some spears each year to grow stalks that will support the roots and give you more spears next year. Keep the bed weed-free and mulched heavily. Cautious harvesting for four weeks may be possible in the third year, and full harvest in the fourth and beyond.

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Hops

Hops prefer full sun and rich light well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5–8.0. As soon as soil can be worked in spring, till to create a weed-free area. Dig holes about 1' deep and at least 3' apart in rows. Add manure, compost and other slow-release organic fertilizers. Plant 2 rhizomes per hole, horizontally with the buds pointed up and cover with 1–2" of loose soil. The first year the hop plant requires frequent light watering and mulching.

Hops grow vertically, with lateral sidearms extending from the main vine and producing cones. Vines may grow up to 25' in a single season, and do best if they are trained onto strong twine 12–30' high, supported by a trellis, wire, pole, tree branch or south-facing building. When the young vines are about 1' long, select the 2 or 3 most vigorous vines per hill and remove the rest. Gently wrap the vines clockwise onto a string. Once trained, the vine will guide itself.

Cut the vines back to the ground after they have been killed by frost. Each spring apply a hearty topdressing of manure and compost. To help control vigor, prune roots by cutting a 2–3' circle with a shovel around the base of the plant in spring.

Rhubarb

Plant the top of the root division level with the surface in well-prepared well-drained rich slightly acid soil (pH 5.5–6.5). Add a bushel of well-rotted manure or compost under each crown. When plant is established, fertilize liberally with manure and balanced garden fertilizer or compost every spring, as it’s a heavy feeder. Harvest for 4 weeks 2 years after planting. Thereafter you can harvest for 8–10 weeks each year. Never remove more than two-thirds of the stalks from a plant.

Every 10 years or so, divide plants in early spring, leaving about a third of the crown in place. Cut up the remainder into fist-sized pieces and replant.

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Cranberries

Shallow-rooted plants require light acid soil (pH 4.0–5.5), preferably cool, moist and high in organic matter, though will grow in dry locations. Plant them in spring once the ground can be worked. For a 5x5' bed for 10 plants:

  • For acidic “blueberry” soils: If you’re fortunate to have a site where blueberries grow naturally, clear a spot of vegetation, cultivate the soil, add some peat and sand if you like, and you’re ready to plant.
  • Sandy soils: Remove soil 10" deep and mix soil with 2 bales of damp peat moss. Replace mixture in bed and cover with 2" of sand.
  • Clay or silty soils: Remove soil 10" deep and place it around the edge of the bed as a berm. Replace the soil with a 50-50 mix of soil and peat (about 2 bales of peat). Cover with an additional 2" of sand. Plant cranberries 12" apart, so the roots are in the peat and the sand is covering the lower portion of the stems.

Remove all weeds as needed. Water the plants weekly so that the peat is moist but not saturated. Add nitrogen at a rate of ⅓–1 lb (or 20–50 lbs of manure) per 100 sq feet each year. No pesticides should be necessary.

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Roses

Roses prefer full sun (at least 4–6 hrs per day) and a pH of 6.0–7.0. Space them 4–6' apart, in most well-drained soils with a good amount of organic matter. With poor drainage, add gravel at the bottom of the planting hole, or build in drainage. Pick a site with good air flow, but avoid sites with cold northwest winds. Avoid competition with tree roots.

Plant roses as early as soil can be worked. Most roses’ roots don’t spread beyond the original hole, so dig a bushel-sized hole, as deep as 2' or more. We recommend a bale of rotten hay in the bottom of the planting hole. Mix soil with liberal quantities of well-rotted manure and compost. Add a coffee-can full of rock phosphate or bone meal.

Soak roots in water overnight or up to three days before planting. Prior to planting, prune roses back to 3 canes, 2–5" tall. Plant them 1" below the level they were in the nursery. Add water as you fill in the hole to puddle it in. Mound soil around branches to prevent them from drying out, and to encourage buds to sprout. As the buds open, pull back the soil to the correct level. Keep roses well mulched to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

Lilacs

Plant them in a well-drained location in moderately rich soil. Sandy gravelly loam is perfect. They prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. Plant them with a shovelful of wood ash or lime, then add another shovelful of either one every three years. A yearly mulch of manure or compost will encourage spectacular annual blooming. Pink, lavender and blue lilacs color up best in soil with a neutral pH.

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Planting Instructions for Bare-Root Perennial Plants

For the first growing season, let new perennials focus on root growth. Once established, usually in the second year, they are vigorous and floriferous.

  • When you receive your order, open the bags and check the stock immediately. Roots and crowns should be firm and pliable, not soft or brittle. If they are slightly dry, add a little water or, if they are going to be potted up soon, wet the roots. Generally, a little surface mold is harmless and will not affect the plant’s future performance. If you cannot pot them up immediately, store them in a cool (35–40°) location for a short time.
  • Pot up the rootstock in well-drained potting mix. Most plants need a deep 6" pot or a 1-gallon container. Avoid coiling the roots in the bottom of under-sized containers.
  • Grow newly potted perennials for a few weeks in a protected location in indirect light at 50–60°. Wet and/or cold conditions for an extended period may cause rotting of the root crowns.
  • Transplant outside once they show some top growth and the danger of frost has passed. Dig a hole about twice the size of the pot, loosening the surrounding soil and adding compost or fertilizers as necessary. Generally, plant the top of the crown just below ground level, less than an inch from the surface of the soil.

All perennials appreciate a fall mulch and a sidedressing of compost or leaf mold in the spring.

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Fall Site Preparation for Fruit Trees

If you’re preparing locations for your trees in the fall, or feeding newly planted fruit trees, the following amendment recipe should address most sites in the eastern U.S., which tend to be acidic and moderate to low in calcium and phosphorus. You can apply this mix as a mulch to your newly planted tree in the spring. Or check our Tree Planting Mixes.

Simple Method

Simply pile 1–2 wheelbarrow loads of compost on each planting-hole site. If you live by the ocean, add a couple of wheelbarrows of seaweed. Then cover with mulch. In the spring, pull back the mulch and plant your fruit tree, incorporating the compost into the hole as you dig.

Deluxe Method

Without digging the hole, cover an area 4–6' in diameter with:

For building high levels of humus, also add:

Cover with a 3–4" mulch of lawn clippings, leaves or “brush” chips, which will smother the sod, conserve moisture, prevent leaching and provide a habitat for soil organisms to break down the recipe. In the spring, pull back the mulch and dig your tree hole, incorporating the mineral supplements and compost into the backfill.

Feeding older fruit trees

Cover the surface of the ground out to the drip line with the same materials listed above. For larger trees (five years and older) increase the mineral amount to 10–15 lbs each. For ancient trees you can use up to 25 lbs of each mineral in a ring beneath the drip line. Mulch as described above.

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