Community Fruit Tree Care and Planting Guide – Bare Root Trees

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How to be a Community Fruit and Nut Tree Steward

Congratulations! You are the host of a Community Fruit Tree! Through love and care, you will provide a priceless amount of fruit for the people of your neighborhood, including yourself and your family. We are excited to be on this journey with you towards a happier, healthier, and more sustainable community.

Hosting a Community Fruit Tree is pretty simple and requires minimal work, but it does come with some responsibilities. This guide includes notes on planting, watering, mulching, pruning, when to harvest fruit and nuts, and more resources to help the trees grow healthy and produce a bounty of fruit or nuts. 

We are here to help you along the way. If you have any problems or questions with your tree, email us at growfood@robgreenfield.org or post in the Community Fruit Tree Facebook group. Use the group to stay up to date, ask questions, and share photos of your tree! 

Stewards

Considering each tree’s potential, the time commitment to care for them is minimal. Nevertheless, all Community Fruit Trees need stewards to help them establish and grow into bountiful fruit trees. 

An excellent steward will 

  • Select a good locations 
  • plant at the right time
  • plant well 
  • protect young trees from animals
  • weed, mulch, and compost as needed 
  • water 
  • make signage to invite others to enjoy the bounty!

The trees you are receiving are dormant saplings that are about one year old. Once planted this fall, they will remain dormant in the ground until springtime. 

If you are not planting right when you receive the trees in the mail, take the plants out of the box and take care of them by digging a trench and heeling them in. Water the trees after heeling them in to keep the soil moist and prevent the roots from drying. When you are ready to plant them, take them out of the trench.

Here is a guide from Arbor Day and a video on how to heel in trees.

In this video we share an easy step-by-step guide on how to plant a Community Fruit or Nut Tree:

When to Plant

The best times of the year to plant bare root saplings are in the fall and spring. This is the time of year when there is a combination of less intense sun and more consistent rainfall. This weather is easier on young trees and increases success rates. In the fall, trees can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen. In the spring, trees can be planted once the ground is soft enough to dig.

How to Plant

  • Dig a hole slightly deeper than the length of the roots and approximately 12” in diameter.
  • Use a digging fork, pick axe, or even a large screwdriver to aerate the compacted soil on the side of your hole.
  • Place your sapling in the middle of the hole. Ensure that the base of the stem is just above the surface of the soil line. 
  • Make sure to keep all the roots pointing downwards. You do not want them to “j” or curl upwards at any point. 
  • Carefully fill the hole ONLY with the soil you took out, independently of what kind of soil it is. 
  • Do not add any amendments such as topsoil, manure, fertilizer, or peat. (Instructions on top dressing later in instructions). This applies to whatever the native soil is, even if it is almost exclusively clay or sand. 
  • Remove the roots, grass, and vegetation from the soil before covering the hole.
  • Once the hole is filled, firmly press down the soil to eliminate air pockets. You can use your foot to press it down gently but firmly. Do not put full force and pack it in too tight.
  • After planting, water the sapling just enough to keep the soil moist and the roots from drying out.

Weed Suppression, Mulch, and Compost

  • Burlap, cardboard, or even newspaper can help keep “weeds” down and improve the effectiveness of your mulch layer. Lay this layer down first. (If you want to reduce future weeding, remove all grass within two to three feet from the hole and mulch.)
  • Although not necessary, adding a 1-2 inch (3-4 inch is ok) layer of compost to give your trees some extra fertility is ideal. 
  • Top dress with a minimum of a 1-inch (ideally 3-4 inch) layer of mulch (wood chips, shredded leaves, straw, or grass clippings) around the tree in a donut shape, NOT a volcano shape. Mulch two/three feet around the three, but make sure no mulch touches the trunk. When watering the tree, ensure that the water doesn’t push the mulch up against the tree. If mulch is pushed up against the tree, pull it back. 
  • For continual fertility and weed suppression, you can plant root cuttings of comfrey, nettles, yarrow, or any other low-growing herbaceous plant. Plant them in the compost layer. 

Staking

Trees generally do not need to be staked.

Animal Protection

It is crucial to protect young trees from animals. 

This can be done with tree tubes, chicken wire, hardware cloth, or fencing. If resourceful, this can be done for free.

When trees have grown to a height where the canopy is above where deer can reach, you can remove your tree tubes and fencing. 

Around large areas, tree tubes are usually more affordable than installing deer fencing. Tree tubes are plastic tubes that protect the tree as it grows. Here is a product we recommend if you’d like to purchase. These tubes stay on for the first couple of years. These can be reused for future planting.

To practice resourcefulness, seek out stakes and hardware cloth or chicken wire. These can be found free or cheaply online and at yard sales. Use these materials to create tree tubes made of recycled materials.

Watch this video for information:

How to Water a Community Fruit Tree

After planting dormant bare root saplings, the trees will establish themselves naturally and develop drought-resistant root systems. If you water too much, you create a weak plant that will need human irrigation. 

Depending on your climate and the rainfall, you may need to water a few times during the first summer. If approximately 10 days of no rain are accompanied by high temperatures (generally, this happens only in the summer and early fall), the trees might need watering. Check on your trees in periods of drought and water if the leaves begin to droop or wilt. 

There is no exact formula for watering. Observation is the key.

With fall planting, water the trees after planting just enough to keep the soil moist and keep the roots from drying out. 

Tips:

  • Slow and controlled watering allows the water to gradually soak into the soil. Do not simply dump a bucket of water. It can result in water runoffs. 
  • These are resilient and easy trees. After the first year, you should not have to water them again. 

Maintenance – Mulching and Composting

  • Re-mulching every year is recommended, with fall being the best time. (Shredded leaves collected from your neighborhood are the best mulch there is)
  • 3-4 inches of mulch is a good goal. 
  • Make sure that the mulch is never touching the base of the tree.

 Maintenance – Weeding

Keep the mulched area weed free. Weeds compete for nutrients and water. It’s best to pull the weeds from their roots to keep them from growing back. Weeding once a week will only take a few minutes and prevent weeds from establishing.

Choosing Locations

We plant Community Fruit Trees in many different locations where the public can access them, including residential front yards and businesses with access from a public sidewalk, in the medians between streets and sidewalks, at schools, in public parks, in churchyards, along bike trails and along the edges of farms. Ideal locations are where people walk every day and where they are highly accessible.

Choose a location accessible to the public, preferably near a sidewalk, road, or path. (but far enough away to not crowd the sidewalk, road, or path).

See the “Tree Spacing and Size” section.

Each tree should receive a minimum of 6 hours of full sun. The more sun these trees get, the more fruit they will produce. We recommend only planting trees in locations where they will receive full sun.

When selecting a location for tree planting, the most important factors to consider are: 

  • The water tolerance of the tree type
  • Drainage capacity of the soil (Freeze tolerances should also be considered. However, we are only sending trees that are a match for your climate)

Well-drained soil is the preferred terrain for all of our trees. Some of them require it, while others can tolerate some wet feet. This means damp bottom land near creeks and rivers or locations with high water tables that are slower to drain. Still, well-drained soil is the safest bet for the survival and flourishing of the trees. 

Well drained soil needed to thrive: 

Shagbark hickory, chestnut, apple, pear, and hazelnut. 

Tolerates wet feet

Pecan, shellbark hickory, hican, persimmon, mulberry, elderberry, and pawpaw.

Pecan prefers lowland, loamy, rich, neutral to alkaline soil

Chestnut prefers upland, well-drained, acidic soil

Tree Spacing and Size

Each type of tree grows to different sizes and prefers specific conditions. Proper planning ensures trees survive and thrive. 

Pecan, hican, hickory, and chestnut 

Dimensions at Full Maturity 
80 feet wide and 110 feet tall
Recommended Spacing 
20 feet from each other, at least 10 feet from sidewalks or roads.
Life expectancy
500-1000 years 
Notes
To avoid overlapping crowns, remove every other tree every 15-20 years until final spacing of 80 feet between trees is attained.

Persimmons, pawpaws, apples, mulberries, and pears

Dimensions at Full Maturity 
30 feet wide and 40 feet tall
Recommended Spacing 
15 feet from each other and 10 feet from sidewalks or roads.
Life expectancy
100+ years
Notes
Easy to keep smaller if space is limited, i.e. front yards.
If planting on medians, make sure to harvest well. 
Trim every 15-20 years to avoid overlapping crowns. 

Hazelnuts and elderberries 

Dimensions at Full Maturity 
12 feet wide and 15 feet tall
Recommended Spacing 
Tree form:
15 feet from each other
Shrub form:
6-10 feet apart for a hedgerow/living fence 
15-20 feet apart for an orchard.
Life expectancy
100 years
Notes
Prunable into tree-form. Otherwise they will grow as shrubs.

Pruning

Below are links to resources for pruning nut trees and fruit trees. Generally, none of these trees require any pruning during their first three years of growth. In the early years, dead or damaged branches are to be pruned. 

When will they be fully grown?

Elderberry and Hazelnut: ~15 years

Apple and Pear: ~20 years

Persimmon, Pawpaw, and Mulberry: ~30 years

Chestnut: ~50 years

Shellbark hickory and Shagbark hickory: ~60 years

Pecan and Hican: ~75 years

When will These Trees Start Producing Fruit? 

Fruit trees are a long-term investment. Although we will likely see the fruits (literally) of our labor, future generations will be the ones reaping the most benefits. 

For most nut trees, expect a few decades before meaningful production.

For most fruit trees with large fruit (such as apples), expect 12 years before meaningful production. 

We have created a chart here that gives general ideas of when the trees will start producing fruit and nuts. 

First Production means any fruit at all. 

Medium production means enough for a handful of people to enjoy. 

Full production means the tree is capable of producing maximum yields.

First fruit / medium production/ full production (from planting)

Elderberry: ~2/5/8 years

Hazelnut: ~3/8/10 years

Mulberry: ~3/10/15 years

Pear: ~5/9/20 years

Persimmon, Pawpaw, Apple: ~5/12/20 years

Chestnut: ~5/25/50 years

Pecan, Hican, Shellbark hickory, Shagbark hickory: ~7/30/60 years

Survival Rate

If you select locations well, properly plant your tree, protect it from weeds, animals, and drought, you can expect a survival rate greater than 80%. If you plant 20 trees, it is successful if 16 live. If you plant 100 trees, it is successful if 80 live.

Don’t be hard on yourself if some trees die, as this is inevitable for those of us who plant dozens of trees every year. Remember that the “best compost” is the gardener’s shadow. Be sure to visit and love your trees often to help them thrive and maximize your learning experience.

Signage and Map Updating

Please place signs by your Community Fruit Trees and add them to the fallingfruit map to let people know that they can enjoy the bounty.

We have created a few PDFs that you can download and print for your convenience. If you use one of these, you could laminate the paper and put it up on a post.

Download the printable simple version here. This option is a simple sign that you can print and put up.

Download the printable version with blanks for information This option has blank spaces where you can fill in a little more information about the tree.

Best Resources

We are adding resources soon

The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. Check out the resource page including a guide to planting fruit trees, how to prune fruit trees, a hardiness zone chart and more.

A special thanks to the Live Like Ally Foundation for providing financial support.

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