Marin Master Gardeners
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Plant your bare root fruit trees now

January 1, 2016
Wendy Irving

Dreaming of having lovely, luscious fruit growing in your garden? There is no better time of year to plant a fruit tree than now. This is the dormant season and local nurseries are beginning to display an abundance of good-quality stone and pome bare-root fruit trees, as well as newly containerized trees adaptable to our area. Online sources of bare-root fruit trees of all kinds are ready to take orders and deliver.

While fruit trees can be planted any time of the year, the bare-root season is the best for prices and selection now. You will also have the benefits of roots adapting quickly in unamended native soil, not to mention the opportunity to begin to train a young tree to be the size and shape you desire.

There are some important things to consider especially if you are purchasing bare-root fruit trees online without the benefit of your favorite nursery person’s knowledge.

First, check out the “chill.” Fruit and nut trees require a certain number of hours of temperatures below 45 degrees from November through February to successfully “break dormancy” and produce good fruit. In Marin recently, cold years have brought as many as 1,300 chill hours — last year’s warmer winter averaged only 650 chill hours. In our zone, fruits such as apple, apricot, cherry, peach, plum, prune and olive are safe choices, and low-chill varieties are being developed all the time for warmer winter areas. In the summer, “heat brings sweet” but some varieties like less heat than others. Check to see what your neighbors are growing successfully. And if you are planning on only having one tree, make sure you choose a self-fertile variety.

Planting your fruit tree properly and in the right place is essential. Your tree will need at least six hours of good sun every day during the growing season, and a minimum of 1½ to 2 feet of well-draining top soil — if you hit “hardpan” below that, break it up with a pick or auger. You’ll find that there are various techniques for planting a fruit tree, but the point is to plant wide enough to accommodate the spreading roots and high enough to keep the root crown just below soil level and the graft union about 2 inches above the soil after the tree is settled in.

Choose a bare-root tree with a trunk about the width of your thumb. If you cannot plant it immediately, “heel it in,” which means keeping the roots moist by covering them with soil, compost or sawdust. Check the roots carefully and remove any that appear to be damaged or diseased. After planting, water deeply, then mulch around your tree, avoiding the trunk. Protect it from sunburn and pests by painting the trunk with a half-and-half mixture of interior white latex paint and water.

Pruning your fruit tree during its lifetime is a whole other story, and an unnecessarily scary one at that, especially for the novice. Some home gardeners are finding that pruning to achieve manageable, small fruit trees is not that difficult and relieves a lot of the pressure of caring for big trees. If you are brave, you can cut a newly planted tree to about knee high and prune during the summer months to develop a fruit tree (or should we say fruit bush) that is from 6 to 8 feet tall, much easier to manage and with even sweeter fruit. If this is of interest, you may want to read local horticulturalist Ann Ralph’s book “Grow a Little Fruit Tree,” which is now included in the reference materials at the Marin Master Gardener help desk in Novato.

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