Grow For It: Plant bare root fruit trees — a green-thumb project in February?

By From page B5 | January 01, 2014

Who would have thought that planting little twigs the diameter of a pencil with exposed roots this time of year would flourish?

Well, check this out: bare root fruit trees. They don’t look very impressive from the nursery, but that’s part of the fun — these babies really take off and can out-perform their potted brethren at a fraction of the cost.

I was skeptical until last year, when we started our own orchard.

Pick a time during the dormant season when the ground is not frozen. Mid-February worked well for us. Plan the tree layout and spacing — group compatible pollinators together to ease cross-pollinating.

Rootstock is a very important consideration when planning an orchard. As trees mature, do you want to use ladders to harvest your fruit? If not, you may wish to consider using a semi-dwarf rootstock. This will limit tree growth to 10 to 15 feet. Pruning further controls their size.

Pick a site with good sun exposure and drainage. Dig holes, twice as wide as the roots spread out, so the roots can grow outward without crowding. Remove any grass or weeds within a three-foot radius, as they will compete with your trees for moisture and nutrients.

Unpack the trees and soak the roots in water for three to six hours, just prior to planting.

Prune broken branches and roots — do not treat with a dressing. Your goal is to be planting within one week of delivery, so plan with the weather forecast in mind.

Plant the tree at the same depth it stood in the nursery. Orient the graft union to face north — away from direct sunlight and make sure the graft is above the soil, otherwise buds will be produced by the rootstock.

Fill the hole with the same soil as you took out. Back-filling the hole with ‘nice’ dirt like top soil, will minimize the tree’s root expansion into the surrounding native soil, and in effect, you have just ‘potted’ a fruit tree which limits its future growth. Do not use fertilizer or chemicals on the new trees.

Construct a water-holding basin around the tree, under the drip line. Give the tree plenty of water.

After the water has soaked in, spread protective mulch two inches deep in a three-foot diameter around the tree but not touching the trunk. This helps keep moisture in and competing grasses out.

The soil and mulch around the trees should be kept moist but not soggy. During dry weather, generously water the tree every seven to 10 days during the first year. Provide water deeply at the dripline. Drip emitters with a timer work great for this.

Moisture can be easily checked at the root zone (six to 12 inches below the surface) with a moisture meter.

A phenomenal resource to help establish and maintain the fruit trees is “The Home Orchard” book published by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources; publication 3485. It can be found at the Master Gardener office and at Saturday public education classes.

Join Master Gardeners Saturday, Jan. 4 for one of the most popular public education classes: Planting Bare Root Fruit Trees. Master Gardener and long-time county resident Walt Miller will present essential information on the selection and the proper planting of bare root fruit trees. The focus of the class will be on planting techniques and tree selection, with emphasis on fruit tree varieties best suited for El Dorado County.

There is no cost for the three-hour class that starts at 9 a.m. in the Veterans Memorial Building, 130 Placerville Drive in Placerville.

Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon by calling 530-621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at the office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville.

For more information about the public education classes and activities go to the Master Gardener Website at Sign up to receive the  online notices and e-newsletter at You can also find Master Gardeners on Facebook.

Dave Hale

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