The day has finally arrived, it’s probably a winter’s day as trees are best planted when dormant (normally November to March) but without snow on the ground. It may be chilly but there’s going to be a lot of digging to warm everyone up. Failing that, bring plenty of tea and biscuits.
You will need:
- Sturdy spades to dig the pits
- Mulch mats
- Loose mulch
- A pinch bar to make pilot holes for the stakes
- Two stakes per tree
- Tree ties
- At least two hard hats and safety goggles
- Sheets of wire mesh
- Hammer and fence staples
- A pair of wire cutters
- Old bicycle inner tubes
- Cable ties
We always dig a square shaped pit on the basis that there is less chance that the growing roots will reach the side then grow round the edge instead of penetrating into the surrounding soil; a square pit provides angles for the roots to get stuck into. The pit should be 2×2 spade widths minimum, although it should be made much larger, even double this, on heavily compacted soils. The pit should be dug to at least one spade’s depth and it is important to break up the underlying soil with a fork, especially if this is a layer of clay.
Dig the pit like this:
- Use the spade to mark out the edge of the square, cutting into the top couple of inches as you go around.
- Place your mulch mat adjacent to the square.
- Cut your square into quarters or sixths.
- Use your spade to slice off the squares of turf you just created, shaking off the top soil onto one side of your mulch mat, then put the turf squares to one side.
- Dig the pit, and place the top few inches of soil you dig out onto one side of the mulch mat and the deeper soil onto the other side. Be sure to retain the sharp angles of the square as you get deeper.
- Once the pit is a spade’s depth, use a fork to break up the underlying soil and to create penetration holes down the sides.
- The pit should accommodate the root ball without the roots having to be squeezed in or bent up the sides – check the tree to be planted by holding the roots in the pit.
- Any long roots can be accommodated by using the spade to make a slit from one of the corners. Ease the spade forward so that the slit can be opened and the root tucked in, before removing the spade and tamping the ground down.
- Some of the turf taken off can be placed upside down in the bottom of the pit (the grass and roots will break down and provide nutrition to the tree).
- Have one person hold the tree in position while the other back fills. It is important that the graft union (the bulge where the rootstock has been grafted onto the scion) remains 8-10cm above the ground level (a cane or spade handle can be laid across the top of the pit to measure the tree against.
- The person back filling should aim to first put the topsoil back in as this has more nutrients, being careful to ensure that no air spaces are left around the roots. The tree holder can gently shake the tree every few minutes to ensure soil falls into any spaces. Care should be taken to lift any roots that originate from higher up, placing soil underneath them so that the roots extend at many levels, as they did when they grew in the nursery. This helps with stability.
- The rest of the soil can then be added, until the pit has been filled and tamped down to the surrounding soil level. It is often easier (and much more satisfying!) to have both people pick up the mat and pour the remaining soil in rather than using the spade.
- A generous layer of mulch can then be added. This should form a circle around the tree, around 1m diameter and 8-10cm thick. A hollow should be made immediately around the base of the tree’s stem so that the mulch is not touching the bark, which can lead to rotting. The mulch should now resemble a doughnut of sorts.
- Wood chip from hard wood species makes a good mulch, as does well-rotted compost.
We have had over a 98% tree survival rate for our newly planted fruit trees. Part of this success is down to the guarding technique we use. This is really important in urban areas to stop vandalism, for example, people snapping young fruit trees and the most damaging urban pest in young orchards – fighting dogs. Guarding also protects trees for accidental damage, for example strimmers. We use heavy gauge wire mesh guards and 2 sturdy posts. The guards are then reduced as the trees grow to allow room for branches to spread.
- Once the tree is in, the position of the two guard posts should be measured, 3 spade widths apart (approx. 54cm), with the tree in the middle. In order the guard to allow the tree sufficient space, it is vital to get this distance correct; making the holes too close or too far apart will retard the guard circumference.
- Use the pinch bar to make a pilot hole for each post (some of the mulch may have to be moved slightly while making these holes and fitting the wire mesh).
- Lay down each post so that the pointed end points to its hole.
- Two people are needed for the next stage. Ensure both are wearing hard hats and goggles.
- One person will slide the stake driver onto the end of the post (horizontally, as the post is still lying on the ground).
- Then, as the person lifts the stake driver with the post in it slowly into vertical position, while the other guides the pointed end into the pilot hole.
- Once vertical, both people take opposite handles of the stake driver. At this point it’s useful to have a third person stand back and make sure that they’re holding the post vertically, and not at an angle, to prevent a crooked guard.
- Once vertical, and after the count of three, both people bash the post into the ground to a depth of two feet, with six feet left above the ground.
- Two pieces of wire mesh fencing are then nailed on with fencing staples, with three staples up each side (bottom, middle and top). You may have to rearrange the mulch a little to allow these to be positioned.
- Some branches may need to be carefully threaded through the mesh while these are being fitted. Any good, wide angled branches that could form scaffold branches should be allowed through by cutting small holes for them. These then need to be lined (see below) to prevent rubbing.
- A weeding hatch should then cut low down on one side of the mesh. This should be about 4-5 squares across and 3 up. Try to cut the wire as flush as possible as the remaining edges will be razor sharp. Use cable ties to attach an old bicycle inner tube, lining the hatch to prevent injury from the sharp bits
Stand back and admire your work and think about how many people will enjoy that tree over the coming decades!