Buying your first fruit tree or establishing a new home orchard? We share some easy to follow guidelines and tips for planting and growing healthy, happy fruit trees in South Africa.
We’re living off grid on half an acre in the Western Cape of South Africa, and we have a beautiful young food forest in progress. In this article we’re going to share what we have learned both through studies and experience, about planting fruit trees.
1. Choosing your tree
1.1. Grafted or From Seed
When choosing your fruit trees, be sure to check if you’ve got a graft or from-seed. Apart from getting to harvest faster, grafting has the added benefit of producing true-to-type fruits.
Whereas from-seed can have many genetic variations, that can result in a less than lovely fruit very different from the type you planted. That’d be quite disappointing after a 10 year wait.
A tip for growing grafted fruit trees. Keep an eye on the graft line, it should be visible about 5-15cm from the ground on the main stem. Sometimes you can see two different paint colours, other times you’ll see a darkish line in the bark. If you get any new growth sprouting from below the graft line, you need to remove it. That growth is coming from the root stock, not the fruit tree type you’re growing, and will take nutrients away from the main plant.
1.2. Self Pollinating or Not
Check whether the tree is open-pollinated, or need a pollinator. Although it will be happier and bear more fruit with another of its kind nearby, you can still get away with having just one open-pollinated type in your garden.
As a rule of thumb, apricots, nectarines, peaches and sour cherries can self pollinate. While apples, pears, plums and sweet cherries need a pollinator. So, one apricot tree will bear fruit on it’s own, but you’ll need to have two apple trees to get apples.
2. Planting time in South Africa
In general, avoid planting new trees during the hottest time of year, during the coldest time of year (especially if you get frost or extremely low temperatures), or when they are fruiting or flowering.
As winter comes to an end, around August is one of the best times to plant trees in our South African climate.
Deciduous trees are dormant in winter, but come spring they wake up with vigour and expend much energy on growth and rejuvenation. So having them situated in ground just before they spring back to life is perfect. Just make sure you plant after the last frost – you don’t want to lose all that tender new growth!
How far apart to plant your fruit trees will depend on a number of factors. From space available, to the reason you’re growing the fruit, to the resources you have at hand, for example.
You may choose to go with intensive planting, cramming as many trees as is advisable into a space. Bear in mind, under these conditions you will need to keep a watchful eye on soil and tree health. Your trees may strain to get everything they need when in direct competition from all sides. You may need to prune aggressively each year, add soil enhancements every season, and water consistently to keep them healthy.
Alternatively, you may choose fewer trees and space them out according to the final spread they can reach if left alone to just grow.
We have tried to find the balance between these two approaches. We’ve planted all of our fruit trees 2.5 to 3.5 meters apart from each other.
The way our plot is laid out, the trees run in two rows along the west side of the property and in one row on the east side of the property, with our house somewhere in the middle.
On the right is a drone shot of the top half of our plot taken in 2019/2020, when we had just started putting in our first fruit trees (circles).
By the way, if you’ve heard that planting a lemon and an orange tree too close together can result in sour oranges – you’ve been misled! Cross pollination can occur, and it’s generally a good thing, as it results in more fruit production. The fruit borne by the trees will be true to the tree’s type. However, the seeds of those fruit, if grown, may produce a tree that bears traits from both types of fruit, for example a sour orange.
Trees tend to go into a bit of shock when planted out, and take a little while to adjust to their new surroundings. To lessen this effect, treat your tree like a seedling – hardening it off (but keeping the soil in the pot well watered) in its new environment for a few days. Make sure to give it a thorough soaking before planting.
Conventional wisdom advises that to plant a tree, you should dig a 1m cube (1m deep, 1m x 1m wide), and fill it with compost. This isn’t necessarily the best approach for your tree.
As soon as the roots reach the edges of the cube, it’s going to be thrust into a completely new environment. Growth likely slows down or stops completely at this point, and in severe cases, the tree can become unhealthy or die.
In clay soil, the roots can struggle to break the confines of the the flat walls of the cube you’ve diligently carved out for it. This can result in the tree’s roots becoming “pot bound” (i.e. wrapping around itself and getting less and less nutrition).
5. Step By Step Guide To Plant A Fruit Tree
HOW TO PLANT A FRUIT TREE
- Dig the hole
Dig a hole that is at a minimum twice the size of the existing root ball (size of the pot or bag), maximum a meter. You can dig in a little wider as you go down, if you like, to mimic the spread of the roots outwards.
Lay a tarp, mat or feed bags down to throw the soil onto as you dig.
- Rake the walls
Be sure to make rough edges, lines and small holes into the walls of your hole for the roots to purchase onto and through, later on.
- OPTIONAL: Rehydrate the surrounding soil
If the soil is very dry. Fill the hole with water and leave it to drain and rest for a day.
If you have clay soil that takes days to drain, you can just thoroughly wet the walls all the way around with a hosepipe until the hole is about 2/3 full of water.
You want to rehydrate as much of the soil surrounding the tree as possible, but don’t waterlog it and create an anaerobic environment.
- Hugel Layer
Throw in a layer of decomposing wood, twigs, cardboard, kitchen scraps and manure.
I call it the “Hugel” layer after the traditional hugelkultur bed building method.
This bottom later has many benefits. For clay soils, the decomposed material will enrich the clay below, making it much nicer for the tree’s roots when they finally arrive. In dry soils and sandy soils, it adds the needed biomass to help retain a bit more water and nutrients, instead of everything draining away like a sieve.
- Mix your soil enrichments
You can use whatever you like, there are tons of awesome options. Compost, bone meal, vermicompost, organic fertilizers, kelp, wood ash (“biochar” if you’re being fancy), volcanic dust, to name a few.
We generally use a mixture of homemade compost (a heaped wheelbarrow full), bio ganic pellets (a few handfuls), and volcanic ash (a few more handfuls). Obviously if you’ve got a smaller tree and thus smaller hole, adjust accordingly.
Don’t be too heavy handed here, as too many nutrients can cause imbalances, and too much fertilizer can burn a plant’s roots. More is not always better.
- Mix your soil refill
Now it’s time to treat the soil you dug out of the hole.
Divide it into 4 rough piles.
Now mix your soil enrichments into your 4 piles, roughly adding the least amount to your first pile, more into your second, and so on, so that pile 4 has the most amount of goodness and the first pile has the least.
- Backfill the hole
Fill your hole starting with pile 1, the pile with the least soil enrichments added. Then pile 2, then pile 3. Stop refilling when your hole depth is equal to the size of your tree’s current pot / bag.
Gently remove your tree from its pot or bag, and then very gently give the roots a little wiggle to loosen them up if they’re stiffly interwoven.
Place it in the middle of the hole, then fill in with the remainder of pile 3 and finally 4 around it.
The idea here, is that you’re giving the plant maximum nutrition to stave off transplant shock and provide everything it needs to establish itself quickly. As it gets bigger, it goes deeper, and slowly gets introduced to and adapts to the real soil environment it’ll be growing in. Less shock, more sustained growth.
Build the soil up to 1-2cm past the root line, you can heap the soil a little because it’ll naturally compress down once you water.
- Gently tamp down
Push down gently with your hands to secure your tree in place, and make sure its support pole is pressed in deep and tight. Don’t stomp the soil! And try never to walk over productive soil. Air in the soil is essential for soil health.
- OPTIONAL: Final treats
I usually like to add a few last treats to the top of the soil, especially if it was a very big hole, to make sure the root ball gets some good nutrients from the first watering. I usually mix up some worm tea with my homemade fertilizer tea and give it a cup of that, with a good watering.
My homemade fertilizer tea is a mixture of rain water, banana peels (potassium, phosphorus and calcium), comfrey leaves (potassium, potash, nitrogen and B12) and borage (nitrogen, potassium and calcium). And anything else I throw in it occasionally. It brews and gets topped up all year.
Create a border around the tree approximately 1m or so in diameter. Keep grass and weeds out of this area. No plants are fans of grass, but fruit trees especially dislike it.
Mulch the area with a thick layer (+-5cm) of mulch, being careful to leave a gap around the base of the tree. Never place mulch up against the trunk / stem – it can cause rot, and even ringbark the tree.
Mulching will help prevent grass and weeds from taking root on top of the tree’s roots, causing competition and putting the tree under strain. It’ll also help retain moisture in the soil and regulate soil temperature.
6. Initial Care
Make sure to water your tree regularly for the first year. In winter when the tree goes dormant, you can dramatically reduce watering (or stop completely if you’re in a winter rainfall area).
Every spring, give the tree a good feed to fuel it’s regeneration, and again in autumn when the tree begins storing nutrients to overwinter. You can use any soil enrichment method you like, as discussed above in the How To section.
For the first two years in ground (in the case of grafts), it’s recommended to remove any flowers or fruits the tree tries to grow. Rather force the tree to redirect that energy into establishing a big strong root system and healthy branches.
In the year thereafter that the tree begins to flower and bear, remove some of the fruits, leaving just a few. You’ll have a smaller harvest, but the remaining fruits will be bigger and sweeter. With each successive year, allow more of the fruits to progress as the tree becomes bigger and stronger.
7. What To Plant With Your Fruit Tree: The Fruit Tree Guild
Once you’ve planted your tree and created a mulched circle around it, you may choose to create a little guild around the outside of the border. A fruit tree guild means planting plants with the fruit tree that together function as a mini eco-system, benefitting each other.
There are lots of options in terms of what to plant, and each type of tree has different ‘companions’ – plants that work well together. In general there are five types or categories of plants that can go in your guild.
Five Categories of Plants For Guilds:
- FIXERS & ACCUMULATORS: Fixers are plants that add nutrients back into the soil, like legumes. And Accumulators are plants that draw nutrients up from deep in the soil, making them more accessible.
- ATTRACTORS & REPELLENTS: Attractors are plants that attract beneficial insects, like pollinators and predatory insects which control the bad bug populations. While Repellers are plants that ward off bad bugs.
- SUPPRESSORS: Plants that cover the ground, suppressing weed growth.
- MULCHERS: Plants that are rapid growers and create a lot of biomass for you to chop and drop with, creating mulch and regenerating the topsoil with nutrients as the mulch breaks down back into the soil.
- EDIBLES & MEDICINALS: Edibles are plants that provide food, in addition to being beneficial in one of the ways listed above (my favourite!). I also include medicinal plants in this category, plants that have accessible and useful medicinal properties.
Here are some examples and recommendations of plants that work wonderfully as part of a fruit tree guild:
The Biomass Team:
Comfrey, borage, yarrow
This trio is a power house of nutrition. I could likely write an entire article about each one’s benefits. Between them they tick every category. Suffice to say, do pick one for each of your guilds.
Chop and drop for beautiful mulch that will regenerate the topsoil, make liquid fertilizer with them for seasonal tree boosts, use them medicinally to treat wounds and skin issues, and enjoy their beautiful seasonal flowers that attract pollinators.
Borage and comfrey flowers can be added to salads and drinks for a pretty purple pop of colour.
The Herb Team:
Dill, rosemary, lavender.
My favourite herbal trio for fruit tree guilds. They are attractors and repellents. All three are edible and medicinal.
Dill happily reseeds itself every year, making it a perfect no-fuss annual for a food forest. What is a pickle without dill? And if your stomach is rumbling, dill will help settle it.
Rosemary grows year round, ready to flavour your roast veg or create a potent anti-bacterial wash (to which you can add lavender).
Lavender is another perennial that smells amazing (put a sprig under your pillow if you’re struggling with insomnia or anxiety) and makes a wonderfully soothing tea. Or almost anything! Really, you can add it to so many things for positive benefits.
While this is my top trio, there are tons of delicious and beneficial herbs (think sage, oregano, thyme, basil, tulsi, to name a few) to mix and match with.
The Allium-ish Team:
Spring onions, chives and wild garlic (Tulbaghia).
Their pungent aroma makes an excellent repellant, and can mask the tastier smell of your fruits. These guys are robust perennial plants that grow with minimal fuss. And of course, all three are deliciously edible.
Note that when you grow spring onion as a perennial, it becomes inedible after the first season. Well, the taste becomes too pungent and the texture is undesirable – you could still eat it in a pinch, but it’s what I’d call “apocalypse food” – if you’re desperate, it’ll do. But there will be babies that pop up around the adult plants after they have flowered, eat some, and leave some to grow for next year.
Wild garlic leaves can be added raw to salads for a mild garlic flavour, or break off a small bulb below ground from the main plant and fry like normal garlic.
You can choose instead to grow annuals instead, like onions and garlic.
Strawberries, Gooseberries, Blueberries, Fuchsia
Strawberries make a great ground cover, they are suppressors and living mulch.
Gooseberries do well in a fruit tree guild, creating your shrub level without the thorns of the brambleberry family.
Blueberries can go on the outer edges of the guild as well, but make sure they continue to get enough sunlight.
Another excellent and often overlooked berry shrub for your fruit tree guild is the Fuchsia. They make such gorgeous flowers, which attract pollinators. And the berries they produce are edible.
Rhubarb pie might not be as popular in South Africa as it is in the US, but rhubarb does make an excellent guild addition. It’s a suppressor (both with its broad leaves and as a mulch) and accumulator. The stems are edible, and its roots are medicinal. Plus, it’s a perennial plant, making it perfect for a food forest.
Another plant that stands out for me as an excellent fruit guild addition is evening primrose. A biennial and voracious self seeder that will pop up again year after year, evening primrose is a hidden treasure.
The entire plant is edible from root to stem to flower. We favour the young leaves and flowers in salads, stir-fries and stews. It’s rich in amino acids and evening primrose oil is famed for its health benefits.
Since these plants can get quite big, we plant them as part of our food forest, in-between the main fruit tree guilds, so as not to crowd the fruit trees themselves.
Apart from edible and medicinal benefits, and being a great biennial volunteer for a food forest, they are a great chop and drop resource, and their stunning evening blooms attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
Plants that grow relatively quickly can be grown around the outer edges and in-between the long term plants of your fruit guild.
Think radish, beets, collard greens, lettuce and mustard.
Leave your mustard to go to seed and it, like dill, will happily volunteer new plants next year.
Read about our DREAM FOOD FOREST in the making.