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What to do when you receive your trees

Help & Advice from Keepers Nursery


When should you plant

Bare root trees and plants can be planted any time during the dormant season usually from mid November to mid March. You should plant bare root trees and plants in their permanent position as soon as you can after receiving them. While it is always best to plant the trees as soon as you can, it is sometimes better if conditions are not right to wait longer and plant when conditions improve. In any event you should always plant before spring growth starts.Do not plant if the ground is frozen or waterlogged. Frost is usually not a problem once trees have been planted. The above ground parts are hardy. The roots can be damaged by frost but frost in this country rarely penetrates far beyond the surface inch or two. However it is always a good idea to mulch the area around the tree after planting as this insulates the surface and prevents the risk of frost from penetrating and damaging roots. Straw, garden compost or leaf mould make excellent mulching. Spread some around the base of the tree and cover with a thin layer of soil to stop it from getting blown away. Waterlogging is often a more serious problem. If your soil is prone to waterlogging it is best to plant in late winter/early spring when the ground is starting to dry out. 


How to keep bare root trees before planting

If for any reason you are unable to plant immediately you can keep bare root trees and plants in one of the following ways depending on how long you need to keep them for. If it is a matter of a few days you can just leave the package in a cold but frost free place such as an unheated garage or shed. If it is for a longer period the best option is to heel-in the trees. To heel-in, dig a trench ideally in a well drained position with light friable soil. A shaded position is best as trees would maintain dormancy for longer and would also be better protected from ground frost.  Place the roots of the trees into the trench keeping the trees tied up as a bundle as packed. Cover the roots well with soil. Cut the ties holding the bundle together. Loosen and shake the roots to ensure the soil get all around the roots. If your soil is too wet or heavy you can use peat, compost or sand to cover the roots. Use straw or garden compost mulching to cover the soil as it will help to prevent frost from penetrating. If you have a rabbit problem you should ensure that the trees are protected while heeled in.

If you are unable to heel-in (for example when the ground is frozen) you would need to keep the trees in “cold storage”. Unpack the trees and check that the roots, which would be in a polythene bag, are moist. If the roots look dry, dip them in a bucket of cold water for a few minutes and put them back into the polythene bag and tie the top of the bag. Leave the trees in a cold but frost free place. Mulch with straw or garden compost to protect the roots from frost. While we would not advise keeping trees in this kind of improvised “cold storage” for longer than necessary, bare root trees can be kept this way for quite a long time as long as you ensure that the roots are kept moist and are protected from frost. But you should always regard this as an emergency option only. For longer term storage it is always best to heel-in. You can also if necessary heel-in the trees in a corner of a cold shed or barn using compost or sand. You should not under any circumstances stand the trees in water for any extended length of time.


Planting trees

Do not dig the holes until you are ready to plant as they are likely to become filled with rainwater and waterlogged. Dig a hole that will accommodate the roots comfortably with room to spare in every direction. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole with a spade or fork. Prune back any excessively long roots. It is not usually necessary to rehydrate the roots particularly if your soil is reasonably moist at the time of planting but if the roots are very dry cut the tips off and place the roots in water for up to two hours before planting. Unlike most other nurseries our trees are not lifted in advance and kept in cold storage but are usually lifted just prior to despatch to ensure that the roots are as fresh as possible when you receive them.

If you have reasonable soil you should use the soil that you have dug out to fill in the hole. If your soil is very heavy you should mix in sharp sand and peat or compost. If it is very sandy you should mix in peat or compost. On the whole it is best not to change the soil around the tree too much from the surrounding area. You should also add some slow acting fertiliser such as bonemeal.

Plant trees at the same depth as they had been before being lifted. The soil mark should be easy to see. It is usually not more than 2 inches/5 cm above the highest roots. Avoid planting the tree too deep. In any event the union between the rootstock and scion (which is usually clearly visible as a kink in the stem and about 6 inches/15cm above soil level) should never be buried under the soil. When filling in the hole make sure that the soil gets round the roots and tread in well after planting.

All newly planted trees should be tied to stakes. Very dwarfing apples on M27 and M9 will need support throughout their lives. Other trees need staking for the first 4-5 years. For dwarf apple and pear trees being trained as dwarf pyramids or spindle bushes use a single long stake with 6ft/1.8m out of the ground. For trees being trained as bush, half standard standards use two short stakes with 2-3ft/0.6-0.9m out of the ground, with the tree tied in between. Put in the stakes in before you plant the tree to avoid damaging the roots. Make sure that the stake is far enough from the tree and use good tree ties to prevent the tree from rubbing against the stake.

If you have rabbits you must protect the trees against them. Do not leave trees out even for one night without protection. Use wire mesh rabbit fencing tied in the form of a loose cylinder around the tree. Plastic spiral guards are cheaper but less effective and durable, and can be harmful to the tree. Do not use forestry type plastic tubes which are not at all suitable for fruit trees.


Early care of trees

In dry conditions young trees may need watering. Unless the ground is very dry or you are planting very late in the season (after the end of March) it is not necessary to water when planting. Avoid over watering particularly in the spring as this will only encourage excessive leaf development, which the roots may not be able to support in hot dry summer conditions. It may also discourage roots from going deep.

Keep an area of at least 3 ft/1m in diameter around each tree free of weeds and grass. This avoids competion for water and other resources which can severely  impede growth and development. Prevent young trees from producing fruit in their first year after planting by removing blossom or young fruit. This allows the tree to put all its resources into establishing and helps to ensure long term health and development. Even after the first year always thin the crop when necessary.  It is also particularly important to keep young trees free of pests and diseases so that they establish better.


Do I need a pollinator?


Some fruit trees are self-fertile and will produce a good crop on their own. Most however, require or will benefit from a pollination partner. The pollination partner must be a different variety of the same fruit species which flowers at about the same time and is compatible in other respects. Our database provides you with a very easy and quick method of finding suitable pollination partners. By clicking Show Suitable Pollination Partners on the descriptive page of a variety, you can see a full list of pollinators for that variety.


Pruning and feeding

Fruit trees need pruning both for shape and improved fruit production. It is important to prune young trees from the first year in order to develop them into the shape required, otherwise they will not develop into attractive trees.

Mature apple and pear trees need regular pruning to ensure a good crop. This is best done in late winter. Stone fruit do not need such regular pruning but should nevertheless be pruned to avoid overcrowding and to encourage replacement of older less productive wood with new growth. Stone fruit should not be pruned in the winter but in early spring after break of dormancy but before leaves are fully open. It is not possible to elaborate on the techniques of pruning here. Many good gardening books explain the techniques. In practice pruning is much less complicated than most books make it sound. We hope to add pages on pruning and training fruit trees on this website in the near future.

Feed the trees once a year with a general fertiliser in March before growth starts. Mulch around the trees with well rotted compost or manure.