A Guide to Planting Fruit Trees

Having fruit trees is a great perk of owning a backyard. Planting fruit trees requires a little more thought and effort that nonfruiting or evergreen trees but it isn’t difficult if you have the right information.

Fruit Tree Basic Questions, Answers

Let’s start by answering some basic questions people have about growing fruit trees.

Can fruit trees be grown from seed?

Unfortunately, no, for some types of trees you shouldn’t try to plant them from seeds, although you or your kids may be tempted to try it. Apples and pears especially; there is too much variability in the seeds because of pollination. Stone fruits such as peaches, apricots, and nectarines are less variable and you can try to grow one from seed. Your chances of being successful are lower than buying a young tree, but the cost is obviously reduced. 

Can fruit trees be planted in containers?

Yes, you can plant fruit trees in containers. Cherries, peaches, apples, tangerines, lemons, and limes are among the many types of fruit trees that thrive in containers. While it opens up the possibility of growing trees in a small space, there are some drawbacks. If you plant a fruit tree in a container the overall size of the tree will be much smaller because the root system doesn’t have the space to grow outward, and you won’t see the same amount of fruit production. Trees in containers also have a much shorter lifespan unless you opt for a dwarf variety.

Do you have to plant fruit trees in pairs?

Often, but not always. Most fruit trees need to be pollinated with at least two or three compatible trees. This means if possible, you should plant a couple of trees to encourage pollination, giving them about 50-feet of space between the trees. However, if you are in an urban area and there are neighboring yards with apple or crabapple trees, you should be OK to plant only one (my neighborhood is filled with apple trees, so it isn’t an issue for me to have a single tree in the backyard). The chance of neighboring trees of other fruiting varieties (peach, plum, cherry) may not be so high, so either check with neighbors or err on the side of caution and plant a couple.

Fruit trees: How many years to fruit?

Amanda Shiffler with an apple from her backyard tree
Worth the wait: author Amanda Shiffler with an apple from her backyard tree.

I’ll admit, this is one of the biggest drawbacks of planting fruit trees. Fruit trees purchased from a nursery, online retailer, or garden center, are typically 1-2 years old at the time of purchase. They take additional years after planting to grow and mature enough before they start to fruit. 

The typical time from planting to fruit is:

  • Citrus 1-2 years.
  • Fig: 2-4 years.
  • Peach 2-4 years.
  • Plum 3-5 years.
  • Sour or tart cherry 3-5 years.
  • Apple trees 4-5 years.
  • Pear 4-6 years.  
  • Mulberry: 10 years. Sorry!

Apples and pear trees grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock will fruit much earlier, notes Iowa State University Outreach and Extension.

When Should You Plant Fruit Trees?

The best time to plant trees is as early in the spring as possible after the frost has left the ground but after it has dried out a bit from snowmelt. Research has shown that trees planted in April have a significantly improved chance at thriving versus ones planted even a month later.

There is little advantage to planting in the fall, Spring planting keeps newly planted trees from being subjected to the adversely low temperatures through the winter.

Choosing a Fruit Tree

Regardless of the type of fruit tree you are planting, there are two different buying options: bare-root and container-grown trees. They both have their advantages and disadvantages that should be considered when you’re looking to purchase a tree or trees.

Option 1: Bare-root

  • More economical than container-grown trees. 
  • Widest selection of types of fruit and varieties.
  • Available to purchase in the late winter, for earlier spring planting.
  • Not as convenient because they must be planted before they break dormancy and begin growing for the season.

Option 2: Container-grown 

  • Available later in the spring, so trees may not be able to establish themselves before the hottest part of summer.
  • More expensive to purchase than bare-root.
  • Limited varieties are available.
  • They are often rootbound at the time of purchase, and this can be difficult to ameliorate at the time of planting. Container grown fruit trees have a higher tendency to develop root girdling a decade or two after planting.
  • Perform better for fall planting.

Select the best tree to purchase

Now that you’ve decided upon bare-root or container-grown, it’s good to know how to look for the best specimen(s) to purchase when you go shopping. 

When buying bare-root fruit trees look for specimens with healthy roots and no major breakage. If purchasing container-grown fruit trees look for ones that have good leaf color, no damage to the bark, no signs of disease, have spent less than 2 years in the container, and have the lower limb structure you are looking for.

Choosing and Preparing a Site

Choose a planting site with the following characteristics:

  • Full sun, fruit trees need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight daily to produce fruit.
  • Well-drained soil.
  • Soil pH from 6.0 to 7.5.
  • Protect from strong winds. 

It’s best to dig the hole just prior to planting to avoid sidewall glazing, or the hole filling with water. The most important thing to remember is to dig the hole to fit the roots, don’t force the roots to fit the hole!

Using a sturdy digging shovel (I prefer one with a pointed center) dig a hole that is slightly bigger than the root system on your tree. Aim for a hole that is about two to three times as wide as the roots and only 2 to 3 inches deeper, regardless if you are planting bare-root or a container tree. 

If soil is sandy or has a lot of clay, dig an area much larger than what you will need for the hole working in a fair amount of rotted manure or finished compost. Do not add fertilizer to the hole, this encourages the tree roots to stay in this nutrient-rich zone instead of branching out in the surrounding soil to “look” for food.

Step-by-Step Fruit Tree Planting Instructions

The drawing below summarizes the major steps, with many additional details added below.

How to plant a tree: illustrated guide
Credit: Amanda Shiffler / LawnStarter.com

Tools, supplies you will need

  • Shovel/garden fork
  • Tree support & ties
  • Hammer
  • Fencing if you have deer or rabbits in the area

First, a heads-up: Planting is easier if you have help from someone else, but can be accomplished with only one person.

For bare-root trees put the roots in a bucket of water in a shaded location for 1 to 2 hours prior to planting. Trim off any broken or damaged roots. Container-grown trees need to be carefully removed from the pot. Shake out as much of the growing media as possible and splay the roots out as much as possible.

1. Loosen the sidewalls of the hole

This can be done by just slashing the side of the hole with a spade or shovel, or sticking the garden fork into the sides like you would tenderize meat. Loosening the sidewalls allows the roots to easily penetrate the soil surrounding the hole as the tree grows.

2. Remove any labels

Take them off to prevent trunk girdling as it grows larger.

3. Place the tree in the hole at the correct depth

The depth at which you plant your new fruit tree is critical! Many people plant their trees too deeply, and it severely hinders proper growth. Apple trees have been grafted onto a special rootstock, meaning two different trees (the fruiting portion and the rooting portion) have been carefully joined together to create a hybrid tree. If this graft is placed below the soil line, the upper fruiting part of the tree will generate roots, a process known as scion rooting, negating the grafting process to result in a tree with a weaker root system.

Place the root ball in the planting hole so the graft union — the visible spot where the rootstock was grafted to the fruit tree —  is slightly above the soil surface line. A good way to ensure this is to lay a piece of lumber, a bamboo cane, or a fence post across the top of the hole to give you a visual indicator of ground level when the hole is filled in. This is where having a second set of hands is helpful; they can hold the tree at the appropriate height in the hole while you begin filling in under the roots under it can be rested, unassisted, in the bottom of the hole. Once the tree can be rested in the hole, spread the roots out evenly and begin the process of filling in the rest of the hole.

4. Fill in the hole

Gently tamp the soil down with your foot as you fill the hole in, trying to remove all air pockets, without compacting the soil around the roots. Create a slight bowl or depression as you reach the top of the hole to allow water to naturally settle around the tree. Make sure you do not mound soil up around the trunk.

5. Provide support

A newly planted tree needs staking for the first two to four years after planting until the trunk is strong enough to support itself, especially if the tree is planted in a site prone to heavy winds. Using your hammer, drive the tree support into the edge of the hole (trying to avoid as much of the roots as possible) either perpendicular to the ground, or angled slightly away from the tree trunk. Secure the tree to the support along the bottom 3 feet of the trunk. Use ties made from a soft material such as rubber or old nylon stockings.

6. Water the newly planted tree

Even if you soaked your bare-root tree prior to planting, all trees need water immediately. Give it 2-5 gallons of water. Go slowly; let the water absorb before adding more. The water helps settle the soil around the roots, getting rid of any air pockets that may have formed when you were filling the hole in. 

You may need to add more soil or firm it down again after watering.

7. Mulch around the base of the tree

Mulching retains soil moisture in the root zone and minimizes weeds, reducing competition that can slow a new tree’s growth. Use well-rotted manure or finished compost to a depth of about 1 inch, fanning out to a distance of about 3 feet from the bottom of the trunk. Don’t let mulch touch the bark on the tree trunk.

8. Protect your young tree from deer and rabbits

Until its bark toughens, your tree risks being snacked on by deer and Peter Cottontail. If they eat the bark, it will damage your tree, potentially killing it. Chicken wire and other types of fencing provide the best option to keep animals away. If only rabbits drop by for a meal, a shorter fence close to the trunk will do; deer require taller fencing spaced a couple of feet from the tree to keep them from reaching the higher branches as the tree grows.

9. Prune your newly planted fruit tree

Pruning encourages root growth and also side-branching the following spring. A good rule of thumb is to prune the tree to a height of 30- to 36-inches; many apple and pear trees are pruned to create a single, central leader as they grow. The top bud will grow over time to form the central leader or main trunk of the tree. Remove any branches from the bottom 18-inches of the tree.

10. Water it well again the following day

The next day water it well again, giving it another 2-5 gallons. After this point, basic tree care takes over, although pruning apple trees requires some special care. Then begin a schedule where the tree is watered weekly if you are in an area that doesn’t receive at least 1 inch of water weekly through rainfall.

Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.