I read a wise proverb once about planting a tree: “It is better to have a $10 hole for a $1 plant, then a $1 hole for a $10 plant”. Over the years I have learned just how good this advice is. It doesn’t matter how big, strong and robust your tree is—if it’s in a bad hole it will not do well. A good hole, however, can help rejuvenate even a sickly plant. My spring fruit tree planting actually started several months before my trees ever arrived in the mail. Last fall I went to my local Clemson Extension office and got samples of my soil tested to determine the PH of my soil. Most trees prefer a fairly neutral PH—somewhere around 6.0 – 7.0, but my area is known for its acidic soils. I discovered my soil was too acidic (5.5!) and treated the area with lime according to the soil report’s recommendations. Some of the plants I bought, like blueberries, like and need an acidic PH, so it is important to know the individual characteristics of each species you are planting. The lime was allowed to absorb into the soil for a good two months, and then my trees arrived.
The hole itself needs to be dug much larger than the container you are planting. My trees were bare-roots, which means there was no pot, but the same concept applies. The reason for digging a larger hole is to loosen up the dirt all around the rootball so the new, tender roots can penetrate the soil and grow quickly. If your soil is well compacted, you also want to ‘roughen up’ the sides of your hole, so the roots don’t encounter a smooth surface when they grow out. Do not plant your tree deeper than they were in the pot, just backfill the hole until it is the correct depth.
If you have any sort of mole problem, like I do, you will want to build a mole cage for your trees. A mole cage is simply some chicken wire wrapped around the outside of a 5-gallon bucket or some similar container. The top is left open and you are left with a chicken wire “bowl”. The bowl is placed in the hole dug for the tree, and it protects the young tree’s tender roots from mole damage. The tree is able to extend roots through the holes, but moles cannot penetrate to get to the root ball. By the time the tree is larger and more established (say, two years), the mole cage will have rusted away and the root ball is free to grow larger.
I chose to purchase the smallest tree size I could find for the varieties I wanted. This ended up being 1-2’ whisps. All of my research led me to believe that smaller trees would provide the best chance for success. With larger trees everything is magnified: the transplant shock is harder to get over because you are dealing with a larger plant. It is harder to establish because it requires so much more water in the first year, versus a small tree that can be more easily controlled. A larger plant has more branching and is more likely to be damaged in transport. The only drawback is it will take an extra year or two to get fruit out of the tree, but, in my climate, where we have such extreme heat, humidity and insects, it made more sense to establish a smaller plant. This way my chances of having to start all over again in a year or two are greatly reduced. By the time it is the size I would buy from my local Lowes, the tree will already be adapted to my climate.
The soil where I dug my holes is quite fertile, so I just backfilled the holes with native soil. I did, however, dig my holes deep enough to put a few shovelfuls of composted horse manure, covered by native soil, before planting the tree. I also mulched the planted tree with composted horse manure. I did not place the manure in direct contact with the roots, since I didn’t think it was done curing yet. The curing process for compost can get quite hot (over 100F!), and roots like to stay cool, so I didn’t want to burn them. The manure will be well cured by the time the roots get to it, the extra nutrients will encourage the roots to grow downward to build a strong foundation, and the heat generated by the compost will warm up the surrounding soil without burning the plants, both stimulating growth and protecting the roots from any late frosts.
You see the little knot where the trunk curves a little? That is where the fruit tree is grafted onto the roots. This tree is a peach, and like many fruit trees, it is difficult to grow a known breed of peach from seed, so cuttings from a larger, known tree are grafted onto roots. It is very important to keep the graft dry–make sure it is a good inch or two above ground level.
Lastly, because we are raising two puppies who don’t like to look where they are running and are fascinated by anything ‘new’ or anything ‘stick-like’, we added some above-ground protection for the tree’s first year. For the pictured tree we staked a section of old PVC from another project a foot away from the tree and zip-tied a few feet of chicken wire to it, making a little fence. We also added some pretty recycled rubber mulch rings that I got on sale at Lowes. They will last several years and stay pretty, which is somewhat important, at least in the front yard.
Hopefully all goes well! Stay tuned for updates!