My Back Yard Apple Orchard: Part Two, Planting The Trees

apple tree below graft

You’ve gotten your apples in the mail. If you’re like me, they came on a tremendously bad day to plant. What to do? If you’ve got to wait two days, keep them balled up and in a dark place. If you have to wait longer, rearrange your schedule to plant the damn things or go out at midnight and start digging holes! In this post, I’ll go over how I planted my trees. 

I talked about picking a site for the trees in Part One, but it’s worth remembering that they’ll grow high. I had to rule out two spots because they would have grown into power lines! When you have your spots picked out, here are some pointers for planting:

  • have water on hand, in a watering can or hose.
  • Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and about as deep as it.
  • Don’t use fertilizer! The tree will not grow out of its spot if it has all those great nutrients so close.
  • Plant shallower than you think – only as deep as the highest roots. Many trees are planted too deeply and this will really screw them up long-term.
  • Absolutely don’t bury the graft joint.

Check out the picture above. See that big knurl of wood above the roots? That’s where the two trees were joined together. If you plant it with that area in the ground, the weak grafted tree will take root instead of your strong rootstock. Bad. Also, pay attention to how shallowly that tree is planted. I only buried up to the top of the roots. This is what you’re supposed to do, by the way.

apple tree planting depth

I gently spread the roots around and put some of the dirt back on. Use that water to soak the dirt as you put it on; this helps it settle around the roots. I added the dirt back in three or four waves, watering as I went. It takes a lot less time than you’d imagine. I got all five trees planted in two hours, even with the sprained wrist you see above.

After planting, you’ll want to water them deeply. I like to give mine a soak of a few gallons, once a week. It’s better to give it a deep drink occasionally than shallow water each day because it causes the tree to send deep roots into the ground for water. That makes it more drought-resistant and better-anchored against winds.

The last step is to mulch around the tree, but don’t let the mulch touch the trunk. I left a bare spot of an inch or so away from the trunk. The mulch keeps in moisture and suppresses weeds. Don’t make a mulch volcano around your tree! The mulch will cause the graft joint to grow roots and undo all of your hard work planting.

From there, it’s a matter of waiting for it to leaf out and then pruning. I am not pruning extensively this first year. I want the trees to set on good branches, build roots and store energy. In February of next year, late winter, I’ll prune them a bit more into the modified central leader shape that I’m after. For now, I’m enjoying watching them grow – even if something is taking a bite out of the leaves…

apple tree damage