University of Maryland Extension

Tree Fruit: Planting

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Plant your trees as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or from mid- to late September into fall.

Site Selection

The planning and care that goes into the site selection process will pay big dividends over the entire life of the orchard. An ideal location is:

  • Well drained but not droughty;
  • In full sun; and
  • Without frost pockets (places where cold air collects).

Slope: The side of a hill that is too steep to be tilled for gardening usually works well. Cold air will drain down the hill, helping to limit frost damage in the spring.

A north-facing gentle slope is particularly desirable because it delays early flowering and thus reduces the risk of damage to tender buds from a late spring frost. It also lessens winter injury because the sun will not the heat trunks. Heating causes sap to move up during the day and then freeze at night and results in trunks splitting as the sap expands. Plant the trees from the top of the slope to three quarters of the way down the hill.

Frost problems are common on stone fruits. For this reason, apricots and sweet cherries are not recommended for colder areas of Maryland. Due to late spring frost, early-blooming apricots produce a crop only once or twice every five years in most locations.

Exposure: Foliage and fruit dry faster in full sun, reducing disease infection. Fruit will also color better and ripen more evenly in full sun.

A direct southern exposure, however, should be avoided whenever possible. The warmer temperatures on a southern slope speed many stone fruits into early bloom, increasing the probability of exposure to frost.

Northern exposures shaded by buildings are also poor choices. Light levels will be too low for adequate fruit development.

Soil: Deep, well-drained soils are necessary for most fruits. Adequate soil depth allows roots to both seek out nutrients and water and provide anchorage.

Stone fruits, particularly peaches, do not tolerate “wet feet” (roots in poorly drained, heavy clay soil). Very sandy soils may drain too quickly, leading to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies. Pears are somewhat tolerant of heavy clay soils. 

The Planting Processlabeled parts of a fruit tree

Fruit trees are vegetatively propagated by grafting scion wood (wood of the desired cultivar) onto a clonal rootstock chosen for a specific characteristic, such as hardiness or disease resistance (see image on right). This is
done because seed-grown trees will not have the same characteristics as their parents and, in general, are inferior to a grafted tree.

Planting is best accomplished in early spring when the soil can be worked. Purchase healthy one-to-two-year bare-root plants from a reputable nursery.

  • If trees cannot be planted at once, heel them in outside in a protected location. Dig a shallow trench, lay the root system down, and cover with soil.
  • Hydrate your trees 12 hours prior to planting by placing each one in a large container filled with water.
  • Plant your trees so that the graft union (the bulge where rootstock meets scion wood) is two to four inches out of the ground after the ground settles.
  • Generally, set out your trees one inch deeper than they were planted in the nursery.
  • The diameter of the hole is much more important than the depth of the hole. The hole should be big enough to lay the roots out without crossing over or bending any back.
  • Before planting, use sharp pruners to remove any roots that are broken or damaged.
  • Backfill the hole, firmly packing the soil around the root system, and water in well.
  • Add a liquid starter fertilizer to the water, but do not add granular fertilizer to the planting hole.
  • You may build a low ridge of soil around tree base to hold water in.
  • Place a three-inch layer of organic mulch under the tree, starting at the tree’s drip line and tapering to zero inches at the trunk.
  • Water deeply throughout the first season to supplement rainfall.
  • Do not allow your trees to bear fruit before their third season. Remove blooms on the central leader and thin fruits heavily on the scaffold limbs. Root establishment in the young orchard should take priority over fruiting. Once roots are developed, fruiting will follow.
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