Tips for Planting Apple Trees

After our visit to Century Farm Orchards, we went up to the land to plant and cage as many of our apple trees as we could before dark. Right now, we are planting a single row of apple trees along the long road that is the entrance to our land. As soon as we can get a patch of land cleared off (this has not gone as expected), we intend to plant our full orchard (20 trees at a time). The orchard will mostly consist of apple trees, but we also plan on peach, plum, and a couple of nut trees. We have already planted 5 trees at the house and 5 trees at the land. But still we are learning so much.

Preparing the Soil

Apple trees like a neutral pH (meaning 7). Around here our soil is naturally acidic and a hard clay. Be sure to test and know your soil to determine if you will need to amend. For us, this means we will need to add lime to raise our pH. Most lime available in garden centers is dolomitic lime. Dolomitic lime also contains magnesium. Over time an overabundance of magnesium can block the absorption of calcium. However, our NC clay is so nutrient deficient it may take a decade or more for that to occur. So for planting we will use a granular dolomitic lime. When digging the hole, put all of the dirt into a wheel barrow rather than on the ground next to the hole. Once the hole is dug, mix in the soil amendments (for us 2 to 3 Lbs of  dolomitic lime) into the soil (clay) in the wheel barrow with a trowel or shovel. When we planted our first trees at the house I was concerned that we had done them an injustice by using the clay from the hole we dug. I thought it would be better for the trees to use a bought better quality soil, but we were too cheap to do that. However, what we learned from Anne Stomp on our visit to Century Farm Orchards is that it is best to use the native soil from the dug hole. A tree’s roots will become trained to the soil that it is planted in. If store bought soil is used to fill the hole, once the roots grow and reach the outer edge of the hole they will stop extending and begin to grow around as though it was potted because it does not recognize the soil.  This circular growth of the roots will be a problem as the tree matures because the roots will not provide a proper strong foundation for the tree. A shallow root system may cause the tree to be damaged or completely uprooted in a storm. Also, if the roots are not extending out to reach available nutrients and water beyond the base of the tree, it may become under nourished over time. It is therefore best for the tree to become accustomed to the native soil from the time of planting so that it will continue to extend its roots further developing a strong root system. I was relieved to know that we inadvertently did the right thing when planting our first trees.

Digging the Hole

Digging the hole is definitely not the most fun part of the process. I feel so guilty every time Jon has to dig holes in our very hard clay. Be sure to dig your hole wide enough for the roots and deep enough for any large central rootstock to go directly down straight without bending. This can be achieved by digging a second smaller width hole deeper into the center of the first hole. Take care to thoroughly loosen up the root ball and stretch out the roots. Generally, the roots will be growing in a circular fashion because of the confines of the pot. If the root ball is not properly loosened and the roots not stretched out when planting, the roots will continue to grow in this circular way that they have become trained to. If you find your hole is not wide enough for the roots to be stretched out, dig it wider. If you have some stray roots that are much longer than the rest it is easier to dig a trench for those roots rather than trying to extend the entire width of your hole.

Planting the Tree

The planting process is easier with two people. I will admit I do get the easier tasks in the process. I will hold the tree in the hole for Jon to check for spacing width and depth. Fill the hole around the tree roots with the amended soil from the wheelbarrow. Take care to keep the roots extended while filling as they tend to curl back around the root ball. Proper depth of the tree is also important. Dirt should be filled up and over the roots just below where the rootstock and scion graft meet. It is common that people plant trees too deep covering with dirt much higher up onto the scion. Be sure to pack the ground around so that there are no air pockets and that the tree is stable. Anne taught us a trick to fill the hole with the dirt 2-3 inches below the ground level. Fill this remaining depth with gravel and rocks to protect from moles and voles. Then “mulch” the area around the tree with gravel and rocks. Generally, the moles and voles will be deterred from the difficulty of all of the rocks and venture elsewhere. There is always the option to use cages to protect your roots, but for us this is a cheaper method. We have an over abundance of rocks at the land. Just by looking at this tree (if you did not know any better) it almost looks pitiful out in all this hard red clay with all of the rocks pile around it.

Mulched with Rock for Mole and Vole Protection
Mulched with Rock for Mole and Vole Protection


Additional Protection

After planting there are various precautions to take for additional protection of your trees. To prevent cracking and splitting from sun scorch and boring beetles it is a good idea to paint fruit tree trunks. If the trees are in an area where deer are a concern it is also a good idea to cage young fruit trees. Since caging our first trees we have tweaked our caging process. We are now using a heavier gauge fencing rather than the flimsier chicken wire. We are still using some young poplar trees for the anchoring of some of our cages. However, we did try buying some of the green metal fence stakes at Lowe’s as well because some of our young poplars were not sturdy enough. The fencing rolls out to a circular shape so we are now only using 2 trees or stakes instead of 4 as was our original design. We have also hooked the ends of the fencing together buy folding the wires over so that it is easier to open and close as we will need to be able to access the trees. Below is an example of our newer deer protection fences that was designed from tips from our trip to Century Farms Orchard. This is the same setup they had on display as an example.

New Cage for Deer Protection
New Cage for Deer Protection

We intend to wrap a second round of fencing along the top before the tree gets much bigger. These stakes are 7 foot stakes and the fencing is 5 foot. This height will do for now.


Last, we gathered many wheelbarrow loads of leaves and completely covered the rock “mulch” and the entire ground area surrounded by the cage. By the time we were done covering with the leaves, it was getting too dark for me to take a good picture. The cover of leaves will help retain moisture and add nutrients to the soil as they compost. When we planted our first 5 trees at the house, we had mulched with pine needles. Because our soil is already acidic it is not good to mulch apple trees with pine needles as they will lower the pH even more as they breakdown. Know your soil and understand how your cover will impact it.

We only got 5 planted and then planted 4 more the next week. It takes longer than you would expect to “simply” plant a tree when you do it right.