Pacific Northwest Regional Reports

Tips for Choosing and Planting a Bareroot Fruit Tree in Northern California

Midwinter is the time to start thinking about planting your backyard orchard

bareroot fruit trees at a nursery
It may be chilly outside, but that doesn’t mean that planting season is over. Winter is the best time to plant bareroot fruit trees in Northern California.

Plucking mouthwatering fruit from your own home-grown fruit tree is so rewarding. Growing your own lowers your carbon footprint (that luscious peach you’re biting into was not driven in from a faraway orchard) and reduces your grocery bills. It also puts you in charge of how your pears, plums, cherries and apples are cared for. No matter which growing practices you use, backyard produce tastes better than store-bought, but if you garden organically, you know your bounty is safe to eat and better for the planet. Midwinter is the ideal time to source new fruit trees. Bareroot season is here, and your local garden center is fully stocked with the most plentiful choices of the year. And remember, fruit trees are most productive and in the best health when they’re planted in a full-sun location (receiving at least six hours of sun per day during the growing season).

Seckle pear
An excellent variety of pear for a smaller backyard is ‘Seckle’. It’s a plump pear with a juicy sweet flesh.

How to choose the best fruit tree for your garden

Imagine yourself snacking on, sharing, or cooking with your favorite fruit. Which type of fruit is that? You’ve just answered what tree you need! Next, consider the amount of space you can allow for your fruit tree(s). Read on for rootstock info to help determine which one is best for your landscape. Then go to your local garden center and pick out a stocky, sturdy, well-branched bareroot tree with a healthy root system. Here are just a few of my personal favorites.

‘Stella’ cherry

Not only does this tree produce big harvests of delectable cherries, but it’s also delightfully ornamental, with beautiful bark and a canopy full of fluffy white blossoms in spring.

‘Gala’ apple

If you long to share home-grown crisp, sweet, juicy apples with your coworkers, choose this variety. It’s a high-yielding, old-style variety, plus it’s fragrant, super tasty, and stores well.

‘Elephant Heart’ plum

This is the perfect plum, with large, heart-shaped fruit that is meaty, sweet, and deliciously juicy.

‘Seckel’ pear

When it comes to pears, a chubby, round, short-necked pear is the best. Naturally snack-size, with a crisp yet juicy texture and a hint of vanilla to its sweet flavor, ‘Seckel’ poaches beautifully and makes the best pear butter.

fruit tree with nursery tag
When investigating which bareroot fruit tree to purchase, look at the plant tags to see which rootstock your potential tree is grafted onto. This will determine its ultimate size.

Get to know your rootstocks

Most fruit trees are actually two varieties grafted together. The upper part of the tree (scion) is the part you’re likely familiar with—the ‘Gala’ apple, ‘Seckel’ pear, or ‘Elephant Heart’ plum. That part is generally grafted onto the second (mostly underground) variety or rootstock. Rootstock determines the size, disease resistance, and conditions (soil type or heat/cold tolerance) your tree can tolerate. There are three types of rootstocks:

  1. Standard rootstocks produce the biggest trees, which can reach 35 feet tall.
  2. Semi-dwarfing rootstocks produce 16 to 20-foot-tall trees.
  3. Dwarfing rootstocks result in the smallest trees, from 5 to 10 feet tall.

Pay attention to the rootstock when choosing your tree. Fruit trees with dwarfing rootstocks are perfect for containers or tiny gardens, while fruit trees on standard rootstocks need a minimum of 15 feet of clearance all around. Fruit trees with semi-dwarfing rootstocks are usually the smartest option for most backyard orchards.

bareroot trees in boxes
At the nursery, you might find bareroot trees stored in boxes of sawdust or healed into mulch. This gives some protection to the exposed roots.

How to plant and care for a bareroot fruit tree

Dig the hole at least a foot wider than the spread of the roots and slightly deeper than the root system. Fill the bottom of the hole with 2 to 4 inches of a mixture of 50% native soil and 50% organic compost, plus 1 to 2 cups of worm castings. Press this mixture down, then create a small mound in the center of the hole, setting your new tree upright with the stem centered and the roots spread over the mound as evenly as possible. The graft should be positioned about 2 inches above ground level, facing north. Fill the hole completely, using a 50-50 blend of native soil and compost, adding a handful of organic fertilizer at the same time. Make a “basin” for holding water around the tree, and slowly fill with water to settle the soil around the roots. Finally, top it all off with a 2-inch layer of mulch to conserve moisture and prevent weeds.

Until your fruit tree is established, water when the top inch of soil is dry and the soil 6 inches below the surface is just barely moist. Apply enough water to wet the soil 3 to 4 feet deep. Mature trees require less diligent watering but should still be irrigated regularly during summer.

bag of organic compost
Compost can be your tree’s best friend. A yearly side dressing improves the soil and slowly feeds your tree.

Fertilize your new tree three to four times during the growing season with an organic, well-balanced fertilizer such as E. B. Stone Citrus and Fruit Tree Food. Avoid fertilizers too high in nitrogen, as they stimulate leafy growth at the expense of fruit production. There’s no need to fertilize during the dormant season, but a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to side-dress is appreciated.

The success of your fruit tree depends upon the initial training and pruning during the first three years. I recommend keeping fruit trees shorter to make monitoring, troubleshooting, pruning, spraying, protecting (birds and other critters love ripe fruit as much as we do), and harvesting much easier. It also lets you squeeze more fruit trees into your backyard orchard. For healthy, productive fruit trees, get tips from your local garden center, or do your research online. Dave Wilson Nurseries has helpful pruning tips and how-to videos that are indispensable for any gardener.

—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.

Photos: Fionuala Campion

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