Roger Cook and crew member moving a large burlapped apple tree
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How to Plant an Orchard

This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook shows how to put in a fledgling home orchard so it’s sure to flourish

Step One // How to Plant an Orchard

Mark the Hole’s Circumference

marking the apple tree hole's circumference
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using the flags as markers, Roger rolls each root ball into place. Trees need a generous hole, backfilled with quality soil that encourages roots to spread horizontally. Roger likes the hole to be about three times the root ball’s diameter; gauging by eye, he marks a ring around the tree using a shovel.

Steps // How to Plant an Orchard
1 ×

Mark the Hole’s Circumference

 
Step One // How to Plant an Orchard

Mark the Hole’s Circumference

marking the apple tree hole's circumference
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using the flags as markers, Roger rolls each root ball into place. Trees need a generous hole, backfilled with quality soil that encourages roots to spread horizontally. Roger likes the hole to be about three times the root ball’s diameter; gauging by eye, he marks a ring around the tree using a shovel.

 
2 ×

Find the Root Flare

 
Step Two // How to Plant an Orchard

Find the Root Flare

Roger cuts a hole in the fruit tree root ball burlap
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

A nursery tree’s root flare—where the trunk transitions to the roots—might be buried under excess soil, jeopardizing the plant’s health. Before digging, Roger cuts a hole in the burlap and removes any soil on top of the root flare. Then he measures the depth of the root ball below the flare.

 
3 ×

Dig the Planting Hole

 
Step Three // How to Plant an Orchard

Dig the Planting Hole

Roger Cook digs the hole following the ring he marked earlier
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

A few days before starting work, Roger calls 811 to make sure no utility lines are buried at the job site. Using a pointed shovel, he digs the hole following the ring he marked earlier. Tip: Tossing excavated soil onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow makes backfilling easier.

 
4 ×

Check the Depth

 
Step Four // How to Plant an Orchard

Check the Depth

Roger Cook stretches a rope across the hole and measures down
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

When the tree is planted, the root flare should be at or slightly above grade. To confirm planting depth, Roger stretches a rope across the hole and measures down. He doesn’t loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole so the tree is less likely to sink when planted.

 
5 ×

Roll the Tree in Place

 
Step Five // How to Plant an Orchard

Roll the Tree in Place

Roger Cook rests the tree on its side, then eases the root ball into the hole
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Roger rests the tree on its side, then eases the root ball into the hole. After cutting the canopy free, he centers the tree before stepping back to find its best side. He rotates the root ball until the most pleasing side faces the approach to the orchard.

 
6 ×

Set the Root Ball Free

 
Step Six // How to Plant an Orchard

Set the Root Ball Free

Roger Cook uses bolt cutters to remove wire cage
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Roger uses bolt cutters to remove any wire cage added by the grower to hold the root ball together. Though the burlap underneath might degrade over time, he likes to remove it, too, using a utility knife, to make it easier for the roots to spread out.

 
7 ×

Loosen the Roots

 
Step Seven // How to Plant an Orchard

Loosen the Roots

Roger Cook uses a cultivator to expose the root flare
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

With the burlap gone, Roger uses a cultivator to expose the root flare. He works along the sides of the root ball, freeing up small feeder roots. If the hole has shiny, smooth sides, common in clay soils, he roughs them up, making pockets for the roots to enter.

 
8 ×

Backfill with Amended Soil

 
Step Eight // How to Plant an Orchard

Backfill with Amended Soil

Roger Cook checks that the tree is straight, adding or removing soil from under the root ball as needed
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Roger uses a 50-50 blend of excavated topsoil and compost to backfill the hole. He also adds a starter fertilizer according to the bag’s directions. As he works, he checks that the tree is straight, adding or removing soil from under the root ball as needed.

 
9 ×

Water in the Roots

 
Step Nine // How to Plant an Orchard

Water in the Roots

watering the soil with a garden hose to collapse air pockets
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Soak the soil with a garden hose to collapse air pockets. Roger uses slow-release watering bags around the base of the trunk after the initial dousing; alternatively, you can put a hole in the side of a 5-gallon bucket. Refill either one daily for the first six to eight weeks.

 
10 ×

Add Tree Supports

 
Step Ten // How to Plant an Orchard

Add Tree Supports

Roger Cook installs 6-foot-long stakes
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Stakes help young trees stand up to strong winds, especially in the first two years after planting. Using a fence-post driver, Roger installs 6-foot-long stakes 30 inches into the ground on either side, just outside the root ball, angling them slightly away from the tree.

 
11 ×

Use Tethers to Keep It Straight

 
Step Eleven // How to Plant an Orchard

Use Tethers to Keep It Straight

flexible plastic chains to keep newly planted trees
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Wrap flexible plastic chains around both stakes, and connect them to the central leader. Roger sets the ties no higher than two-thirds of the way up the tree. Once the chain links interlock, they should pull the stakes toward the tree, creating tension.

 
12 ×

Pest-Proof with Mesh

 
Step Twelve // How to Plant an Orchard

Pest-Proof with Mesh

Roger Cook uses tin snips to cut a length of mesh that’s tall enough to cover the trunk
Photo by Anthony Tieuli

A barrier like hardware cloth prevents deer from rubbing up against the tree bark and damaging it. Roger uses tin snips to cut a length of mesh that’s tall enough to cover the trunk up to the first branch, then secures it with plastic zip ties.

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