“What the hell, Garden Doctor! I’m not going out in the garden now, it’s bloody freezing!” I hear you shout. But I have to say, this is one of the best times of year to get out in the garden and observe, analyse, plan and re-organise. Also, on a technical note, despite how cold your fingers are, six degrees is not technically freezing. Though people hate when you say things like that, and quite happily lock you in the yard for it.
While all the leaves have dropped, and growth has slowed to a snail’s pace (meaning the slimy blighters can eat your plants as fast as they grow) it is the best time to see how your plans have come to fruition, or failed dismally. It is also the time to figure out ways to improve your chances for next season, which will be here before you know it. In less than a week, the days will start to get longer, and signs of spring will appear in the next month, like cherry blossoms and flowering bulbs.
But for now, think about moving things around, the shock of transplanting is greatly reduced on perennials at this time of year, as their metabolism is so slow. Things may seem dead, but they are still ticking over, just incredibly slowly. One of the most obvious dormancy mechanisms is the loss of leaves. Deciduous trees, those that only grow leaves in the warmer months, are currently dormant, and look like bare sticks. This is when they are best moved and planted, and nurseries at the moment are full of bare rooted stock, including the majority of fruit trees. Apples, Cherries, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Apricots, Quinces as well as Almonds, Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Pecans are all cheaply available right now, and ready to be planted. You will also find things like bramble berries (Raspberries, Blackberries, Loganberries etc), Currants (Red & Black), Gooseberries and Grapes.
Bare rooted plants are sold without a pot, they are just dug up and “heeled in”, usually under sawdust to stop the roots drying out, which is a danger even in this dormant state. It means plants are available much more cheaply, as they can be bundled together and transported much less labour and lower cost than potted plants. I picked up three fruit trees over the weekend for $25, which is less than the price of a single containerised tree. When considering what to plant, it is worth considering what you like. There’s no point growing what you don’t eat, and it may be worth considering that commercial varieties, like Jonathan Apples, may be cheaper to buy, and it could be worth looking for something a bit more unusual. Pollination also needs to be considered, as some fruit trees require more than one variety in close proximity to get a good crop of fruit, though there are self pollinating varieties of almost everything – just check the label.
It’s best when buying bare rooted plants to have the ground prepared for planting straight away, or alternatively, you can heel them in to keep their roots moist in sawdust or potting mix, or in a quickly dug hole straight in the soil. A planting hole should be as deep as the roots of the tree to be planted, though digging a little deeper and covering the bottom of the hole with compost or composted manure, and a handful of blood & bone will give the plant a real boost when it shoots away in spring. You should be able to see the level of the soil from when the tree was dug up, it will be a darker mark toward the base of the trunk. But really, as long as the graft union is above the soil, the tree will do okay. Most fruit trees are bud-grafted with named varieties to ensure they produce the kind of fruit we want to grow, as seedling fruit is pretty variable.
Another important thing is to prune the branches either before or immediately after planting. This is because the roots have been usually quite severely pruned in digging up the tree and for transport, and too large a canopy will cause stress if there are not sufficient roots to support it. Check the roots for any large broken roots and prune them using secateurs, as a smaller, smooth cut reduces the risk of infection by bacteria or fungi compared to an uneven, broken wound. Most fruit trees are pruned to an open vase shape to allow light to get into the middle of the tree and make picking and spraying easier. Choose four or five good sturdy branches growing out from the main trunk and cut them back about a third, to an outward facing bud, so they don’t grow in to the middle of the tree. Remove all the other smaller branches, and remove any central branch, or branches growing toward the middle.
As far as pruning goes, that should be enough for now, as different trees require slightly different approaches to pruning, depending on what kind of wood they will fruit on. You can also try espalier, which involves training a plant to grow along a fence or other support. This is a bit more complex, and probably requires another post entirely, though it is a great option for small spaces. I am planting my trees in containers, as I want to espalier them along a fence, and I have not much in the way of soil. There are dwarf fruit trees, including Peaches, Nectarines, and Apples, which are perfect for containers, and will happily remain in them for their entire lifetime.
Filling in the hole, if you have sandy soil, leave a slight depression around the base of the tree. On heavier clay soils, the tree should be planted slightly higher than surrounding soil, and slightly mounded to aid drainage. Newly planted trees are best not staked, as this tends to weaken trunks, and roots. If support is needed, it’s best to lay stakes across the ground above the roots and peg them down, or if staking is absolutely unavoidable, stake trees on at least two sides, and only loosely tie the tree so it doesn’t fall over. As soon as root growth starts up, it should be removed.
Water them in, and cross your fingers, you should be rewarded in spring with a burst of flowers or leaves, depending what you’ve planted, and maybe even a couple of fruit later on, if you’re lucky!