Trees are a key component of edible gardening. The classic ‘gardening’ plants are mostly annuals, meaning that you have to rebuild the beds and replant every year… sometimes more than once, if you grow multiple crops of a veggie. With trees, on the other hand, you plant once and can harvest for years with a minimum of maintenance. The best choice of trees for you depends on several factors: your climate, how much room you have, and your taste preferences.
Some trees can’t make it through a frosty winter. Citrus trees, almonds, olives, figs and so on are good examples. On the other hand, other tree species require some winter chilling in order to produce fruit the next year – many apple varieties fall into this category. Trees that blossom very early, like most cherry varieties, will not produce much fruit in late-winter regions because the blossoms will freeze and drop off. So do some research into temperature requirements before putting a lot of time and money into buying and planting a tree.
Space is also a major consideration. Almost everyone will have room for at least one tree. If your yard is very small, you probably want to stick with a small or dwarf tree. Many fruit trees and a few nut trees come in dwarf varieties, which will be both shorter and narrower than full-sized trees of the same species. Careful pruning can help keep the tree under control. Some trees can be espaliered, meaning they’re trained to grow up against a fence and spread almost entirely along two dimensions. When considering space issues, also keep in mind that many trees require a second tree of a different variety for pollination. You’ll need room for at least two trees if you decide to plant that particular species.
Before you plant any tree, be sure it produces something you’ll want to eat! The best way to be sure is to munch a sample of the fruit or nut before buying the actual tree. Common types can be acquired and sampled at the supermarket. On the other hand, apples come in zillions of varieties that have very different tastes, textures and uses (such as cooking versus fresh eating). Your local nursery may have samples of a particular, unusual variety to try before you buy.
Choosing the right planting spot can make all the difference in how well your tree will produce. It’s especially important if you’re planting a type of tree that’s marginal in your area. Trees that prefer warmer temperatures shouldn’t be placed in a low spot in your yard because cold air flows downhill and will gather in such spots. On the other hand, if you have a tree that really needs colder weather than you’re likely to get, planting it in a hollow might be enough to give it the extra cold it needs. The planting spot should be an area that gets plenty of sun and should have good drainage – permanently soggy soil will drown your poor tree.
The best time to plant most trees is late winter or early spring, as soon as you can get a shovel into the ground. Earlier is better because your new tree will still be dormant, which is the best time to make such a drastic change to its living conditions. The next best time to plant is autumn, after the tree has entered dormancy but before the ground freezes. If you live in a warm-climate area, you can plant during winter, too.
Once you’ve selected the right time and place and brought your new tree home, it’s time to dig. Dig a hole at least twice as big as the tree’s rootball. Bigger is better – you can always sweep some of the loose dirt back into the hole if you get carried away. As you dig, try to keep the topsoil and subsoil separate. You’ll want the topsoil to go into the bottom of the hole, as the extra fertility in such soil will encourage roots to grow down instead of out. The deeper the tree’s roots, the better it will resist droughts and windstorms. It’s OK to add some fertilizer and/or compost to the hole, but don’t make the soil too much richer than the surrounding area. Once you’ve put the tree in the hole and filled in the soil, pour in enough water to turn the hole into a soupy mudhole. Once the water has drained away, there will be a depression around your new tree. Fill it in with more displaced soil and water again. Your tree will tend to settle over the next few days, so you should put it fairly high to start.
Newly planted trees need plenty of regular watering for the first year or two. It will take awhile for its roots to fully bind to the soil, and until that happens it will be far more vulnerable to drought. Most tree species require at least one inch of water per week for the entire growing season. That works out to roughly a half gallon per square feet of root area. For most tree species, the roots will go out about 50% wider than the widest branches. Mulching the roots for at least the first year will greatly improve your tree’s odds of survival. You can create a low-maintenance mulch out of a circle of heavy cardboard; just cut out a hole in the center about twice as wide as the tree’s trunk and put it in place as a collar on the ground around the tree.