Written by Doug Crouch
To plant a tree is a special moment in time with this unique lifeform taking root in your landscape and making a lasting and transformational impression. As the dimensions of time and space intertwine, the tree eventually reaches some level of maturity and ones intention for planting comes into fruition. Seasons come and go, leaves drop, fruits form, flowers are pollinated, and kids climb them thus delighting all who encounter them. To look back in time as the tree grows and think about that year, that season when you planted it, well its like a bookmark in a chapter. It’s a reference to time and as we watch season after season its rhythms, its thickening trunk and its elongation of its branching pattern, we begin to connect further with our sites and hard work. Trees give so much so during its inception into our sites we should give our full presence to a pattern of planting. I don’t claim that this is the only way, or the absolutely correct way to plant a tree. Rather I simply offer a guide to the process that gets the tree ready for its next step in life.
In this guide I am writing more about fruit and nut trees that form an important part of our edible landscapes rather than simple ornamentals or a row of pines in zone 4. This is more the guide of what we would do for zones 1-2 and maybe 3 depending on your site and context. Variations of this guide are endless and are presented in ideal conditions so extremes and climate and context dependent factors are bound to alter it. And remember Like Mr. Phiri said “plant the water, before you plant the trees”, so working with your water resources is important. In the old adage of water, access, and structures, the tree is the structure so make sure you design with the other two in mind way before you ever plant.
Trees can be raised in your own nursery yet most often purchases occur from local retail nurseries. It is always nice to try to find organic nurseries but they are few and far between. You can also try to source plants from friends or other local producers through the overall growers network. This helps with the local economy as nurseries often rely on a bigger industrial complex and shift trees around at great length. Trees are either sold bare root in the dormant season or in pots in any season. Pots afford more roots and a bigger window of time for planting. As a note, never be afraid to return a potted plant to a nursery if it is extremely root bound just as if shoes were not fitting right you would do the same. Furthermore, bare root trees benefits are a lower cost of shipping and allow one to move plants around a site more easily. However timing and management is crucial as the exposed roots are a weak point. They must never dry out and the new root shoots are very fragile if the tree wakes up and begins its growth. Thus preparation must occur before the trees ever arrive to ensure success. Selection of species and cultivars depends on climate and context dependent factors that are not so present in this article (see food forest article for more on that)
Preparation/ Project Management
With the trees location decided within a holistic design, the next steps are about preparing for success before the trees even arrive. Thus before purchasing trees from online resources or local nurseries, one should decide where the plants will be placed once they arrive. As the number of trees to be planted increases, the more design work is incurred to ensure your investment is worthwhile. Several temporary nurseries known as staging areas may need to be set up to protect the trees accordingly until they are planted. Regardless if they are bare root or potted, the plants should never dry out. This means they need to have access to water so consider this in your choice of location for staging. Easy access to bring the trees in and out is important but this water factor always trumps. If you have purchased bare root trees, there is a chance that you will need to come up with a substrate that is light but holds water as some local nurseries will not have this associated material upon purchase. Sawdust is commonly used as well as peat moss, bark mulch, or even compost. Compost and potting mix will warm up quicker and feel more like earth and invite the trees to wake up sooner. However the most important part, again, is that the roots don’t dry out or get exposed to sunlight. Henceforth think about supporting this staging area with sun and wind protection as seen in the picture below.
When you purchase from nurseries, online or at their retail site, dialogue with the shops to make sure you are getting exactly what you need. Take plastic bags with you as well as newspaper and a water bottle when transporting bare roots if you are picking them up. Transport can be stressful for the plants so take care to reduce this by thinking ahead and planning accordingly. For example the back of a pickup is great choice for transport but the roots can dry out from the wind and any leaves on the trees will be damaged. If they are being delivered via shipping, keep track of the order and its shipping so you can properly anticipate their arrival. Once back at the site of planting, settle them into the substrate for bare root and arrange potted plants so they don’t fall over. Keep in mind access for watering, fertilizing, and care.
Other things you will want to line up before the trees are to come besides where they will go is the following:
- mulch material; green and brown (cut and gather before hand)
- tree protection
- guild plants
- water for the planting and if a greater water system is needed
- tools for digging and shaping the land as well as transport of materials
- labour; yourself, friends, colleagues, or hired help
In the end the more you do before the trees arrive the better off they will be as significant time will be thoroughly spent on each tree during planting. You can even do hole digging before hand but I like to let the trees arrive to know exact root/ pot size to do it most accurately in the moment. However I do make sure I have the other things sourced so that in the middle of a tree planting experience you are not looking for a tool or some mulch. And this may mean building a compost pile three months beforehand so that you have some ready when it’s that time to plant.
Once the trees are selected and preparation is done, its time to start digging in the field! For me its the fun part as it’s getting closer to this unique opportunity in time when the landscape is altered for quite some time to come. Thus do the digging accurately even if it is quite exhausting work. However attention to detail and dedication while doing so is crucial for future and immediate success. The first step is to locate the center of the hole and create at least a one diameter meter/yard clear space around. If you desire complex guilds ( see below) then you will want to have a two meter/ yard diameter on your tree ring. Why this big? Because trees and grass don’t go to together and the more work you put in in the beginning, you will save heaps of time over the years and give the trees a better chance of thriving. So take a hoe or mattock, peel the sod back and turn it down hill and form a c-shaped bund at the lower part of your circle. Almost always on slopes, unless in really heavy soils and high rainfall areas, I create
an individual tree planting terrace of a one to four meter diameter dimension. To do this dig in to the upper side of the hillside and create a level sill for the tree to sit on by bringing that displaced material downhill. (See figure below and the little raised mound in the picture helps with those heavier soil situations). The terrace allows for easier watering and mulching thus keeping valuable nutrients in the soil and root zones hydrated. Regardless if you do a terrace or not I dig only a slightly bigger hole for the actual roots than what is needed. I prefer to keep much of the soil structure in place. Be sure to go deep enough and test by putting the plant in the hole and seeing if ground level is where the tree was before. In essence don’t bury the tree to deep nor plant it too shallow. Some people create a slightly sunken depression in the hole for the tree to sit especially in sandier soils and drier climates where soil humidity can be tough to come by. When the hole is complete, fracture the edges of the hole by taking a spade and thrusting it downward with pressure severing the sides. Work around the hole like you were making the hours of a clock. 5-12 downward slices are created so that tree roots can easily get out of the hole. Tree planting holes can be like creating clay pots in heavier soil thus accumulate water for prolonged periods. This can cause stunting or even death because of excessive anaerobic soil conditions due to this excessive moisture from poor drainage. This is the reason you fracture the hole and never add compost into the bottom of the hole or if you do no more than a handful! Let the earthworms, rain, and soil microbes work it down as this human intervention can actually cause problems. Remember trees normally germinate in the field and there is no digging with steel. This also leads me to say that while an auger seems like a great mechanical tool for tree planting, well it’s actually for post hole digging where you actually want compaction! The action of the auger creates a nice glazed pot for your tree to wallow in so get some mates over to help you out if you are feeling shorthanded so you can do this digging properly.
Again make sure your hole is adequate and begin to put in the tree at the right height. If you fractured the hole on the side, some soil was bound to fall in which is nice cause you do want a bit of light soil below the tree. However you may have made your hole too shallow so adjust when needed. Then align the tree as erect as possible but orientate the graft to the non-sunny side when planting grafted trees. In the northern hemisphere that is to the north and we do this because it is a surgery point on the tree and can be weakened by direct sun (I was once told this by an old-time farmer). Once the tree is in position, slowly backfill the soil and break apart clumps and clods to get as much soil contact with the roots. As you go, lightly press down the soil to hold the tree in place but as too not overly compact. Trust me it helps as the tree will not be anchored by much so the weight of the soil can help to prevent it swaying in the wind, which is quite damaging to young roots. Backfill until the appropriate height of where it was in the pot or ground before. Clean the soil around to finalize the earthwork even when on flat ground. I like to give the tree water straight away to force large air pockets out and moisten the roots and let the tree sigh and relax. You can do it later but I prefer to give it what it needs straight away.
To support the tree and the overall ecosystem, we can create guilds after the planting is finished and before or after the mulching. Regardless, by associating other plants with our newly planted tree, it has a much better chance of survival. Common families I rely in guilds are the following:
We select plants for multifunctional expression within these mini ecosystem. To design guilds and see the exact functions you want to be looking at, please visit our diversity page where towards the bottom of the page the four functions of a guild can be seen. While food production is not one of the functions, it can be an aim from these other supportive plants but not necessary. Guilds can be simple or complex when the tree is planted but do evolve overtime. Comfrey is a common plant and can form a green terrace on the bottom side of our tree terrace earthwork or on slopes themselves. In Portugal also for this lower side I use Lemongrass and cana lily. I also use taller plants on the northside there to help slow winds but smaller ones on the southern side. One side note to finish is that if you are working in a very weedy grass patch with rizhominous invaders like couch or kikuyu, simply mulch thickly initially. Also in very poor soils where you are worried about drying out or low fertility you may want to only much at first so it’s an easier task to load heaps of mulch on.
Once the guild plants are in, I then make sure I accelerate succession after this disturbance. When digging for planting a tree, you kill microbes as the soil structure is demolished and inverted. Often when planting in trees you are also doing so in systems in need of regeneration. Thus to repopulate microbes compost extract can be used. It’s a simple process of having quality compost squeezed through and old t-shirt and spun in a vortex for a little bit. Then you can dilute it in a watering can or spray where the digging was done and in the general landscape if need be. This will “seed” microbes once more and allow nutrient cycling to happen more quickly and efficiently which increases the trees survival rate. This technique is often what we use because compost is in a low amount on a farm. However if you have numerous compost piles to tap into, you can just use compost as when you water a compost extract is essentially formed.
Now that the microbes have been reseeded, I then mulch to help feed them and create fertility. I not only do this with brown mulch like straw or wood chips but also cut green material. The green material is broken down by bacteria and the brown material by fungus. The tree needs both in the first few years so I keep going with this for a prolonged period until the tree feels more self-reliant. Each year I spread the mulch around just a bit further than the initial mulching as the trees roots will be growing deep but also horizontally where they feed. The mulch also helps to suppress weeds including those coming from the outside to invade so I keep slightly ahead of the roots. Mulch also helps to retain water and keep the ground surface at a more moderate temperature. All of these things create conditions that are conducive for growth and should be a priority. One thing, however, can cause problems which is mulching right up against the trunk so make sure you keep a half handful distance away from the trunk. If materials are rotting against the trunk it may invite pathogens to invade the trunk.
The last part of the process, when need be, is to protect the tree to help it survive. If you are in heavy wind places you may need to protect the tree by staking it. The best way I have found to do this is drive four wooden stakes outside of the root zones. Then get punctured bike tires from a local shop and recycle these to be your material to attach to the stakes to the tree. The stakes should be wrapped lower than where you attach it to the tree as to anchor the tree down. If you only have rope use a bit of plastic or fabric so the rope doesn’t eat into the tree as it will cause a point of rubbing and possible infection. If you buy large bare root trees, keep this in mind as they will sway in the wind once the leaves are on. If it does so too much, the fine new root hairs will die and the tree will suffer or die.
Another valuable form of tree protection I have tried over the years is protecting the trunk from overheating. Trees grown in nurseries are pruned to be space efficient thus creating an unnatural form leaving the trunk of the tree exposed to sunlight. The teachings of Victor Schauberger and intuition from conversations about this have led me to understand that nutrients do not flow up and down the way they should when the tree trunk is exposed. Thus when I plant a tree now, I do a ring of some material around to cast shade on the lower part of the tree. In Portugal at Terra Alta we have used canas, which is a cane grass similar to bamboo. It is cut into two foot (65 cm) sections approximately and just outside of the root zone pushed into the earth. This effectively shades the trunk and it also causes the tree to sucker less. Furthermore it helps with keeping mulch material from hitting the trunk as discussed above in the mulching section. It may also keep small mammals away like rabbits which can be damaging to the bark of the tree as they search for winter foods.
You may also need to protect the tree entirely especially in zones with larger browsers like deer. I failed miserably a few years ago at establishing an apple orchard on my families land because I didn’t do this step. I was short on time and money and hoped for the best. Fruit trees must taste great to these creatures so be sure to use bought metal fencing or construct one out of wood. It should be about a three meter/yard diameter and go up at least two meters to protect the tree. Even at that height some browsing is most likely to happen. If so the deer would browse but the tree would bounce back afterwards. Another facet of the deer sector is in the fall the bucks, male deer, leave their presence behind by rubbing their antlers on the tree. This is damages it severely if not killing it which another reason to protect the tree well.
One of the most important strategies to keep the trees alive is do Deep Watering. This means don’t just give them a splash here or there like you might with an annual vegetable. Instead take the time to make sure you water at the base of the tree to get the deep taproot going down to always be searching for its own water. With deep watering rather than watering a little bit a few times a week, give plenty of water once a week. Furthermore you will want to water in a circle around the drip line and just beyond to get the feeder roots. Do note that you have to make sure the water is going through the thick mulch. In Portugal the mulch is so absorbent that I have to lift up the mulch from time to time to do this watering. There I water the trees in the summer drought once a week deeply to most effectively use our limited yet abundant water resource. Contrastingly, the apple trees planted at my families land in Kentucky, USA in the humid temperate landscape never needed watering again after the initial plantings because of our constant rainfall throughout the year.
Also you can keep developing the guilds to further increase the little mini ecosystem around your newly planted tree. You may want to add in more chop and drop species like comfrey or nitrogen fixers. With these and other herbs and carbon resources you will want to keep topping up the mulch to keep the nutrient cycling going. Along with that, as to stack in space and time I also plant in annual vegetables to be a gauge of soil fertility and how much water I need. A tomato plant will wilt long before a tree but by seeing the wilted tomato right next to your tree you should know to water soon. Moreover building soil fertility will be an ongoing process to ensure efficient nutrient cycling and the health of your tree. Thus you can feed with more compost extract every three months to seed and feed the microorganisms. Remember to stay ahead of those feeder roots in years 1-5 by keeping knocking back the grass layer one to three feet ahead of the drip line by digging and mulching or just mulching very thickly.
Furthermore you will want to prune the trees to help create a form for health and production. Although some like Fukoaka or Sepp Holzer recommend not, they raised their trees often which gives them this perspective. Most of us will buy them from a nursery and they will have been pruned already which makes me feel the need to keep going with that. At the end of year one I do a very light pruning with normal procedures of first the dead, dying or diseased as well as any branches that are crossing. I also evaluate the form of the tree and eliminate branches growing back towards the middle of the tree. I aid the tree in building the architecture it wants for fruit production and keep going over the years to help shape it and keep it thriving. Another thing to check for is seasonal changes in the ground. In the Mediterranean of Portugal the soil shrinks and swells based on the seasons. When we have a change of seasons I go around to each tree and press with my foot around each tree to make sure the tree is firmly rooted. This is something to do in general as well because no matter what climate your are in, the soil settles in the months after tree planting.
Finally, All of these above strategies and techniques are meant to be a guide and you will find your own system but I have presented mine and what I enthusiastically advocate to others. This comes from years of planting and caring for trees and a genuine passion for both. Happy Planting and Harvesting!
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art Maya Mor