Planting Fruit Trees & Soft Fruit Bushes

Having carefully chosen your fruit trees and soft fruit bushes and identified the planting site the next important step is to get your hands dirty and do the actual planting. To ensure a good and strong life for your trees and plants it is essential that you take good care in planting as this will quickly reap rewards and longevity.

Firstly before contemplating planting it is essential to ensure that the proposed site is cleared of all weeds and any other growth, there is good drainage and that plenty of organic matter is worked into the planting area if the soil is very heavy or very light. Weed clearance needs to be thorough as weeds can compete with trees and plants for nutrients and water and they can retain and spread diseases. Good drainage can be achieved by thoroughly working over the planting area by either double digging or at the very least breaking up the bottom of any planting hole. The best organic matter for working into the planting area is well rotted compost but if this is not available it is possible to buy bags of suitable material from garden centres. When planting, work into the soil a handful of blood, fish and bone or Fruit Feed which will act as a slow release fertiliser. A single application of Rootgrow (mycorrhizal fungi) directly to the roots will help your trees and plants establish quickly.

For all top fruit trees – apples, plums, pears, peaches, quince, medlars and nectarines it is essential that the bud or graft union is well above the finished ground level. My advice is to plant your trees so that the union is 150mm (6 inches) above the ground level when planting has finished. As all trees sink a little after planting due to settlement and roots beginning to anchor the union will remain well above finished ground level as the tree starts to grow. You will need to stake all trees to support them during their growing life as the dwarfing rootstocks will never achieve sufficient anchorage to prevent damage by wind rock. Always use purpose made tree ties to ensure a flexible yet strong tie to stakes. Please ignore advice which suggests that apple trees grown on M26 or MM106 and pears grown on Quince A or C can have stakes removed after a period of time as these rootstocks – although stronger than others – will never achieve sufficient anchorage for occasions of very strong winds.

Purpose made tree ties are less likely to damage young trees

You will either be able to acquire your fruit trees bare rooted (and typically available between late November and March) or potted (available at any time of the year). My personal preference is for bare rooted trees as they are cheaper to buy and tend to grow away more quickly but the drawback is that they need to be planted in the winter months when planting conditions are often unpleasant and unsustainable. If you buy bare rooted trees you can heel them into a spare piece of ground if you are not planting for some time but alternatively you can keep them in a cold but frost free place for several days providing the roots are kept damp and covered with plastic bags. If planting bare root trees give them a good soaking for about 30 minutes before planting and trim off any damaged roots.

If short of space you may grow top fruit trees as vertical cordons in pots or containers which are at least 45cm (18 inches in diameter). Use John Innes No. 3 with a handful of blood, fish and bone or Fruit Feed added.

Incidentally never replant fruit trees on the same site from which similar kinds were removed from as specific plant diseases can build up in the soil and this can cause very poor or minimal growth. For example you should never replant apple trees in exactly the same location as they were growing previously. However, you could contemplate growing pears or plums in areas where apples grew previously although I would still introduce different soil into the planting holes.

Moving on to soft fruit bushes it is essential to plant them firmly into well prepared holes but at a slightly lower level than they were grown in the nursery. For red and whitecurrants and gooseberries prune after planting to a good bud on a single stem to about 22 cm (9 inches) above ground level. You can either grow these plants as simple bushes or – as I prefer – as cordons, double or triple cordons. Growing as cordons will provide you with more fruiting wood and will enable you to pick much more easily and far less painfully in the case of gooseberries! They also look far more attractive grown in this way. If you are growing as cordons you will need to train them up canes or a suitable framework. Blackcurrants are grown as multistemmed bushes and after planting prune the stems to about 10cm (4 inches).

Similar to top fruits you will be able to buy soft fruit bushes bare rooted or potted although for these plants I firmly believe that bare root planting will ensure that they grow away strongly at an early stage.

Raspberries will come as bare rooted plants and although planting procedures as for other soft fruit apply pruning after planting is slightly different. Raspberry canes should be cut down to a bud at around 15-22cm (6-9 inches) from the ground. Do not plant raspberry canes too deep and as raspberries do not like their feet in water, if your soil is inclined to be heavy plant on a raised bed. The choice of supporting framework will depend on the type of raspberry. If the cultivar is autumn fruiting a simple structure of supporting wires can be utilised as the canes are generally cut down at the end of every season. But if the cultivar is a summer fruiting type a more substantial supporting framework will be required. Several good fruit growing books are available which illustrate this.

Gerry Edwards
4th December 2012

Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.

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