I made some great progress in the garden on a glorious winter’s day. The second installment of the fruit tree order arrived a month earlier than expected. Deciduous fruit trees usually come bare rooted, which means they need to be planted again fairly quickly. I still had a small mountain of agapanthus to dig out, and I really wasn’t prepared to be planting fruit trees. It was a bit of a scramble but luckily I was able to call on some helpers to assist with the bed preparation and planting.

Here is the process I followed with more detail below:

  1. Look after your new trees
  2. Remove pernicious weeds
  3. Deal with herbaceous weeds/ unwanted plants – cut and leave
  4. Aerate
  5. Dig holes
  6. Plant trees
  7. Sheet mulch
  8. Water

     1. Look after your new trees

First and foremost, it is important to take care of your newly arrived bare-rooted tree. Soon after they arrive, carefully unpack the tree and check the roots. If they appear a little dry or if the tree has been in transit for a couple of days, it would be a good idea to soak the roots in a bucket of water for a few hours before planting.

Tree Delivery

If you aren’t able to plant the tree for a few days, consider putting it into a temporary bed. I haven’t decided on permanent spot for my dual plum tree yet, so to keep the roots viable I “heeled-in” the tree in a temporary bed. To do this, dig a hole large enough for the roots and line it with wet sand, wood shavings or straw, making sure that it is gently packed around the roots. Then cover this with soil and mulch. I put my plum in on an angle so it could lean against the fence, as it is not staked yet. The tree should be quite happy for several weeks during the winter as long as temperatures remain cool. Ideally it should be in its permanent spot by the spring when the sap starts to rise. This is good way to look after bare rooted trees until you have the time to prepare a bed for them properly.


2. Remove pernicious weeds

These are weeds that are persistent, invasive, harmful to other plants or have no tenable purpose that would give reason to keep them in the garden. Unfortunately they often have deep roots that can regrow even from tiny segments left in the soil. We have a lot of agapanthus on the ranch, which is hard work to get rid of. Fortunately I had some extra muscle to help with the extraction.

The big clump of agapanthus at the back is no more

See my post Man vs Pantha for more information about my trials with this weed.

3. Deal with herbaceous weeds/ unwanted plants

Once upon a time I would have spent hours pulling up these plants by the roots, shaking excess soil off the roots and tossing the plants away. However, I was recently advised that by throwing the top growth away I was essentially removing the nutrients it took to grow that plant from the system. So today I took out the hedge clippers and cut down all the perennial weeds and left them in situ, on top of the soil. As they break down under layers of mulch they will return nutrients to the soil and give the soil structure.

Plants were chopped to ground level before aerating the soil

4. Aerate

Judging by the over-growth, the area we were planting into hadn’t been worked for many years. It was also below and area of over-flowing gutters so was potentially compacted and anaerobic. Therefore, it was important to aerate the soil to help air, water and nutrients to penetrate to the lower layers, thus encouraging plant and trees roots to grow deeper. It also helps soil drainage and alleviates compaction.

The aeration is easiest done with a broad fork. However, if, like me, such a tool is still just aspirational, then a normal fork is the next best thing.

5. Dig holes

Fairly self-explanatory with a few things to note. There are a few different schools of thought about how to dig holes for bare-rooted trees, but I have always done it the same way. For these trees, I dug holes larger than the root span, and deeper than required. I forked the bottom of the holes for aeration and partly back-filled with compost and other organic matter, firming it down.

Other sources reference digging shallower tapered holes, deeper in the middle, and not aerating the soil so that the roots are made to work harder to get into the soil. This apparently leads to a stronger root system. I can’t comment on which method is better.

Ceremonial planting

Both of our children’s placentas were buried beneath trees that we planted. The placenta is rich in nutrients and so provides deep nourishment to young trees as it breaks down in the soil. I take a degree of comfort in the thought that what once nourished my pre-natal child, now nourishes the tree, which will eventually nourish me and my family. We have also planted trees over deceased pets. This type “green burial” creates additional connection to the tree and makes the tree a symbolic of someone or something. If you are considering doing this, dig the hole a little deeper and ensure that there is a layer of organic matter (compost/ soil) between the tree roots and the placenta.

6. Plant trees

For the north side of the house I chose the following trees to espalier along the fence:

  • Hetlina apple
  • Freyburg apple
  • Conference and Red Bartlett pear, dual grafted

To plant each of these, I placed the tree in the hole, orienting the tree so that it is facing the direction I want. I then tapped in a stake close to (but not touching) the main trunk. The tree roots should be gently spread out in the bottom of the hole. This is a good opportunity to do a final check on the health of the roots – any dead or dying roots should be trimmed back to encourage new root growth.

Trees planted and staked

The fruit trees I have chosen are grafted on dwarfing root stocks, which will limit their size for my urban garden. When planting, ensure that the graft on the trunk sits proud of the soil level, so if the graft is too low, back-fill with additional organic matter. Then gently fill the hole with compost/ soil mix, gently firming around the roots.

Once planted and happy with the positioning, drive the stake into its permanent position and use a tree tie to secure the tree to the stake. Trees on dwarf root stock will need to be permanently staked. I will eventually attached wires between the fence posts and espalier the trees by training the branches along the wires.

Layers of composted manure and seaweed were then spread across the whole bed to enrich the soil. A regular application of seaweed helps to condition the soil and adds nutrients.

7. Sheet Mulch

Remember, we never weeded before planting, nor did we remove any of the unwanted plant material. To stop these from re-sprouting I put down a layer of heavy cardboard over the top of the soil, overlapping the card at the edges. Careful to keep an area free around the newly planted tree trunks to avoid fungal infection of the trunk. On top of this I spread another layer of composted manure, and on top of that a thick layer of  pea straw.

A layer of composted manure and seaweed around the base before sheet mulching with cardboard.

Happy helpers

Bales of pea straw being broken up and spread to provide a think layer of mulch

Pea is a legume that fixes nitrogen. This means it sequesters nitrogen from the atmosphere and soil and assimilates it into organic plant matter. As the pea straw breaks down, the nitrogen is released into the soil and made available to the trees and plants. It also helps to build structure in heavy clay soil.

8. Water

Dowsing the pea straw to hold it in place and to water in the trees

Finished Result!

My cousin Tracy posted me some Russian comfrey root from Waikato, so I am planning to some of this at the root of each tree. Comfrey has deep tap roots that help to break up compacted soil and accumulate nitrogen and other nutrients from deep down. The leaves also form a natural mulch and ground cover.

Between the trees I’ll add other perennial ground cover to attract bees and benefical insects. Plants such as oregano, thyme, and strawberry would be suitable for this area. I’ll also scatter seeds of some self-seeding annual flowers such as borage and calendula.

Plum tree in its temporary home

Happy trees in their new home

Oh wait, one more thing to do…..

Huge pile of agapanthus root to take to the tip

Credits & Suppliers
  • Thanks to Deano for the hard graft, and Luca and Fionn for your cheerful assistance
  • Thanks to cousin Tracy for the comfrey plants
  • Fruit trees were ordered from Edible Gardens, Palmerston North
  • Composted manure ordered from ZooDoo, Wellington
  • Pea straw bales from Ablaze, Wellington
  • Organic gardening advice from Kath Irvine, Edible Backyard
  • Seaweed courtesy of the south coast of Wellington
Please follow and like us: