At this time of year it can sometimes seem to be a race to get all the jobs that you thought you had all winter to achieve done before its over. By the first week of March most trees will either be bursting their buds or well on the way. At this time, the sap is rising in the tree and cutting branches can lead to a loss of vigour so we need to prune whilst the tree is still dormant. Young trees need a bit of tender loving care to help them establish. There are many thousands of trees planted in the UK but sadly only a fraction of these survive due to poor aftercare and maintenance particularly in the first 3 – 5 years of their life. Young fruit trees are no exception and need to be well planted and maintained to ensure that they will yield rich rewards over many years to come.
Planting – fruit trees come on a variety of rootstocks. In a nutshell, rootstocks determine the mature height and vigour of the tree. Most purchased trees are on a dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock which means that you can, with a bit of judicial pruning using some really good secateurs, manage the tree height and spread so that you can pick the fruit from the tree without the use of ladders. Trees come as container grown or bare root stock, these latter ones have to be planted during the dormant season and need to be planted as quickly as possible once you get them so that the roots are not damaged by drying out or extremes of temperature. Planting holes should be dug to allow plenty of room for root growth, using a quality spade really helps as the soil doesn’t stick to the spade and hamper your progress! Loosen the soil around container grown stock and soak this and bare root trees in a bucket of water for a while, with both types make sure that the soil level once planted matches that of its previous planting (look for a mark). Backfill the hole with good quality soil or a mixture of soil and peat free or home made compost. Don’t forget to position the tree stake at this time and then give it all a really good water. Use a rabbit guard if these little bark nibblers have been spotted locally.
Maintenance – once planted, make sure that the stake is firm and attach the tree stem to the stake in such way as to ensure that the two don’t rub together when its windy. Cover the soil around the young tree with an organic or inorganic mulch. All sorts of things can be used for this…. choose things that will eventually rot down into the soil eg. wool carpet rather than nylon. This soil covering or mulch serves to protect the soil environment around the tree, prevents water loss and very importantly prevents grass and weeds growing around the tree stem and thereby competing with the young tree for water and nutrients. During the growing season, check the stake has not loosened and water freely during dry periods.