10 Steps to Planting a Fruit Tree

Planting a tree.

Seems straightforward enough.  All you have to do is dig a hole, place a tree in the hole, add water and hope for the best…right?

Last week I made a very special post-birthday purchase: An apricot tree!

Since I wanted to make my purchase and hard work count, I did a little bit of “treesearch” before heading to the nursery.

Here are the three most important facts that I learned about apricots in the process:

1. Apricot trees prefer alkaline soil.  (Score!  Our soil is alkaline!)

2. Most apricot tree varieties are extremely sensitive to frost.  

3.  Chinese/Mormon and Tilton apricots are some of the most frost-hardy varieties because they bloom late in the season (June/July).  

Once at the nursery (go with local nurseries instead of big-box stores–they tend to carry more plant varieties suited to that region), I inspected each tree for signs of rot/mold and chose a Tilton that had evenly placed limbs.

Then I shoved the tree in my car and drove back to work since I purchased it during my lunch break.  (Not hard feelings, okay tree?)

From there, I used the wisdom of my master-gardener friend, Terry, to assure the most successful planting possible.

10 Steps to Planting A Fruit Tree

#1. Plant the tree in the fall (depending on your location).

Yes, the fall.  If you plant a tree in the spring, it will spend more energy producing leaves and buds and less energy growing roots.  Since the roots are the lifeblood of a tree, their health should be the main focus for the first couple years.  October and November are prime months to plant here in Texas.  If you live in a colder climate, try planting in August or September.

#2. Select a sunny spot for the tree in a place where it won’t have to compete for light, water or space.

I chose a sunny and roomy spot for our tree in the back yard far enough away from the fence.

#3. Allow the tree to adjust to its new surroundings before sticking it in the ground.

Once I brought the tree home, I set the it in the spot I wanted to plant it and left it there for a few days.

#4. Prune excess limbs.

When planting a fruit tree, the goal is to have horizontal growth instead of vertical growth.  In other words, you want the tree’s limbs to stretch out instead of up so that the fruit is no more than an arm’s reach away.

We cut away the tall center limb of our tree to reduce vertical growth as well as a lower side branch that had started to show signs of rot.

Early pruning is not harmful to a tree.  Excess limbs waste the tree’s energy, and it is best to remove them sooner than later. A good rule of thumb?  Keep the limb count to 5 or 6.  Any more than that is not necessary and can be pruned.

PRUNING NOTE: When pruning a limb at its base, make sure your cut is perpedicular to the limb.  This will create flat angle for rain and moisture to run off of instead of collecting and causing rot.

#5. Trim back the remaining limbs.

Even though long limbs on a new tree look promising, they’re really just taking energy away from the roots.  Most of the limbs on my tree had already started putting out buds so we trimmed them back nearly in half to reduce the energy waste.

TRIMMING NOTE: Trim limbs at a shallow angle (about 15 degrees).  Use one limb as a cutting guide for the rest of the limbs to create an even look.

ONE LAST NOTE: Prune in moderation.  No more than 50% of a tree should be removed at one time. 

#6. Prepare pot for transplant

My tree came in a biodegradable pot that could either be cut away or left on.  If left on, it is a good idea to cut slits into the sides of the pot and cut away the bottom so that the roots can move and breathe.

#7. Trim excess roots.

What?  Cut the roots?  I thought we were trying to nurture the roots?

My tree had what looked like a shaggy beard hanging from the bottom of the pot.  Such long, bushy roots “congest” the soil and slow new growth, so it is best to cut them back.

#8. Digging the hole

Soil plays an important role in the success of a tree.  Heavy clay soil is problematic because it holds water for too long and sandy loam is problematic because water passes through it too quickly.  The solution to both compost.  Compost breaks up thick, clay soil and gives sandy soil more body.

To condition your soil for planting, dig a hole in advance and thoroughly remove all grass and weed roots.  Return the removed soil to the hole along with equal parts of compost and allow to set a few days.

Our spot was already conditioned so we just made sure to remove as many grass roots as possible.

How Deep is Deep?

Plant the tree in a hole deep enough for the soil level to meet the top of the base of the root nodule.  Any lower would expose the root and any higher would choke the tree.

As you can see, we needed to add more soil to the pot to reach the correct level.

#9. Planting the tree

Now that the hole is the correct depth and width for the pot to fit, flatten the soil at the bottom of the hole with your hand or a trowel.

It is important for the base of the tree to have a flat base to rest upon.  If the bottom is scooped instead of flat, it creates a pocket for water to gather thus causing rot.

Place the tree in the hole, making adjustments as needed to reach the right soil depth.

Fill in the gaps with more soil and pack down firmly.

If you are still below the soil depth, add more soil and pack again.

NOTE: Even though it is hard to see in the pictures, the sides of the hole slope slightly inwards towards the tree for optimal water collection.

#10.  Mulching and watering the tree

Mulch is your new tree’s best friend.

Mulch not only reduces water evaporation, it insulates the tree–a good thing in these colder months.

A thick blanket of premium mulch, leaves or, in our case, pine needles do the trick nicely.  We also placed a border of heavy limbs around the mulch to prevent it from blowing away.

Time for a drink!

Water the tree thoroughly and allow the water to sink in.  Repeat another couple of times until the soil is fully saturated.

Continue to water in this manner at least three times a week for the next 2-3 years.  Depending on your soil’s porosity and the weather you may need to water more or less frequently.

WATERING NOTE: How can you tell when your tree needs a drink?  Poke your finger as far as the second knuckle into the soil next to the base of the tree.  If the soil is damp, you can wait another day.  If the soil is dry or barely damp, water again.


After a short blessing, we left our tree to do its work.  Cannot wait for that first harvest!



11 thoughts on “10 Steps to Planting a Fruit Tree

  1. Very informative post, thanks. I have had a yearning this year to plant an apricot tree – what a nice coincidence. However, since we are in late Spring in Australia I shall heed your advice and look to next autumn instead.

    We might be able to compare growth and yields 🙂

  2. Late spring is a good time to choose a tree for asthetics, size, shape, etc. Choose the most beautiful tree you can find. This is not a good time to plant your tree. If you choose one now, this is a good time for your tree to accimate itself to its new home. Once you have chosen your tree, choose its permanent home. Remember, choose its home,with, in mind, your tree being its adult size. Dig a hole the size of the container and put your tree in the hole, still in the container. Treat as if the tree were in the ground. When Fall arrives, your small tree will have grown accustomed to its new home and have put on lots of new roots. Now you can put the tree into its new home permanently. Remember, this time is for storing and acclimating.
    Terry Coffman

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