On April 22, Earth Day, Des Moines County Master Gardeners and community members gathered at Homestead 1839 in West Burlington to learn about planting fruit trees.
Workshop participants learned about how to select a good tree, which varieties are best to grow in Iowa, and how to properly plant and care for a young fruit tree. Information from the workshop is below, as well links to some of the Iowa State University Extension publications that can help you select a fruit tree for your yard.
PM453 - Fruit Cultivars for Iowa - https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Fruit-Cultivars-for-Iowa
PM1788 - Growing Fruit in Iowa - https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Growing-Fruit-in-Iowa
How to pick a good tree
- Species & Varieties
- Most tree fruits grown in the Midwest are not self-fruitful, meaning they require at least two different cultivars of the same crop, planted in close proximity, for cross-pollination. Some fruit tree varieties are self-fruitful, like ‘North Star” tart cherry, or ‘Damson’ European plum. When selecting a tree, be sure to check and see if it needs a pollinator or not.
- Some diseases are a problem on fruit trees nearly every year, so select disease-resistant cultivars. Look for apple cultivars that show resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight, and powdery mildew. A few disease-resistant apples recommended for Iowa include ‘Redfree,’ ‘Freedom,’ ‘Liberty’ and ‘Juliet.’ ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Delicious,’ ‘Maxine,’ and ‘Moonglow’ are pear cultivars that grow well in Iowa and show good resistance to fire blight.
- Tree size
- Many fruit cultivars are grafted onto different rootstocks. The rootstock typically determines the mature size of the tree. Home fruit growers should consider planting the desired cultivar grown on either dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock instead of standard or full-size trees. Dwarf apple trees will grow to be about 10 feet tall, semi-dwarf apple trees will reach about 15 feet in height, while standard-size trees will reach at least 20 feet tall.
- Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are easier to manage (prune & harvest), fit better in an urban landscape, and produce fruit sooner after planting than standard-sized trees. Some dwarf fruit trees, however, have poor root anchorage, so they may need to be supported with a stake or trellis.
- Refer to Iowa State Extension publications PM453 – Fruit cultivars for Iowa and PM1788 – Growing fruit in Iowa for more information on specific fruit species and varieties that are recommended for planting in Iowa.
Planting your tree
- The ideal time to plant small trees in Iowa is between late march and mid-May, depending on weather.
- Be sure that there is nothing buried in the soil where you are planning to plant your tree and contact Iowa One Call. You can do this by calling 811 or 1-800-292-8989. You can also file your locate requests online at www.iowaonecall.com
- Site & Soil
- For good growth and quality fruit production, most fruit trees need to be planted in a location that receives full sun. Don’t plant them at the bottom of a slope or in a depression that will be a cold air drain on frosty spring nights. Locate the trees where there is good air circulation and where they will not warm up and bloom too early in the spring. Incorporate fruit trees in your landscape design so that they are not only functional and productive, but also ornamental.
- Apples, pears, cherries and plums grow in a wide range of soil types, but prefer a sandy loam or sandy clay loam soil with a pH around 6.5. Most importantly, tree fruits require well-drained soil.
- Preparing the planting site
- When planting a container-grown tree, dig a hole that is two to three times wider than the diameter of the container. The depth of the hole should be two to three inches less than the height of the soil ball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top is several inches wider than the bottom. In poorly drained soils, the depth of the hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the soil ball.
- Soil additives?
- Do not add compost, sphagnum peat moss or other organic materials to the soil when planting trees. Studies have shown that the root systems of trees in amended soils tend to remain confined to the amended soil in the planting hole, while trees planted without soil amendments developed roots beyond the planting hole. Additionally, in poorly drained sites, the amended planting hole can fill up with water like a bathtub during periods of heavy rainfall, causing root suffocation and tree death.
- Tree selection is the key when planting in poorly drained sites or other difficult soils. Select tree species for the soil conditions at the site.
- Container-grown trees
- Once the hole has been prepared, carefully lay the tree on its side. Tap the sides of the container to loosen the soil ball from the container, then slide the tree out of its container. All containers should be removed, even purportedly plantable containers. If the sides of the soil ball are a mass of roots, carefully shave off the outer one-half to one inch of the soil ball with a sharp spade or saw. Place the tree in the hole. The top of the soil ball should be two to three inches above the surrounding soil. In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the soil ball should stick above the surrounding soil.
- Gradually fill the hole with soil. With each new addition of soil, firm it in place with your hands. Place soil to the top of the soil ball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil. Once planted, water thoroughly.
- Balled & burlapped trees
- Dig a hole that is two to three times wider than the diameter of the tree’s rootball. The depth of the hole should be two to three inches less than the height of the rootball. Slope the sides of the hole so the top of the hole is several inches wider than the bottom. In poorly drained soils, the depth of the planting hole should be approximately two-thirds of the height of the rootball.
- Grasping the tree’s rootball, carefully lower the tree into the hole. The top of the rootball should be two to three inches above the surrounding soil line. In poorly drained sites, the top one-third of the rootball should be above the surrounding soil. Make sure the trunk is straight. Then, begin backfilling with the original soil. Firm the backfill soil in the hole with your hands.
- When the planting hole is half-full, cut and remove the twine. Also, cut away and remove the burlap on the top one-third to one-half of the rootball. If the rootball is in a wire basket, remove the top one-third to one-half of the basket. Completely fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Place soil up to the top of the rootball and gradually slope it down to the surrounding soil line. Once planted, thoroughly water the tree.
- Bare-root trees
- Prior to planting, soak the tree’s roots in a bucket of water for one to two hours. Also, prune off damaged or broken roots.
- When ready to plant, dig a hole that is 2 to 2.5 times wider than the spread of the tree’s root system. The depth of the hole should be equal to the distance from the tree’s trunk flare to the bottom of its roots. The trunk flare is the point where the trunk begins to spread out as it meets the roots. Build a cone-shaped mound of soil in the center of the hole. Place the tree on top of the mound. The trunk flare should be even with the surrounding soil surface. Spread the roots evenly over the mound. Then begin backfilling with the original soil. As you backfill, firm the soil in the hole with your hands. Place soil to the trunk flare. Finally, water the tree thoroughly.
- Many shade and fruit trees are propagated by grafting. The graft union is located near the base of the tree’s trunk and is denoted by a bulge or crook in the trunk. The graft union is typically 1 to 3 inches above the trunk flare. When planting bare-root trees, be careful not to confuse the graft union with the trunk flare.
**Information in this blog comes from the following Iowa State Extension & Outreach news articles – Yard & Garden: Planting Bare-root Trees, Jauron & Klein, 2013; Yard and Garden: Successfully Planting Trees during Spring, Jauron & Wallace, 2017; Backyard Orchards Require Planning Ahead, Naeve; Yard and Garden: Planting and Caring for Trees, Jauron & Klein, 2015