Ideal Planting Conditions For Fruit Trees
You get one shot. One shot to get your planting conditions just right before you plant a tree in the ground. After that, it can be a slow process to adjust soil conditions, especially if you need to raise your soil pH (lime moves very slowly).
Haphazard approaches to planting when you need to bring in an income from this planting, will set you back to such an extreme, one might argue you that you deserve it for such carelessness. I would argue that one doesn't know, what one doesn't know. I was one of those.
It was more of an experiment at first, planting fruit trees in two different locations. Two different counties, two different types of topography, and soil types. You would not believe how much difference there was with the results after planting fruit trees. It was a day and night difference, amazing to say the least. A lot was learned. I learned that location, and prior to planting trees, preparation of that location and rootstock selection is so important.
Location and Preparing The Soil
A good location has slopes, where there is land that is elevated and land that is lower than where you would plant. It is on these slopes that you can avoid harsh winter winds on the hilltops and blossom-killing frosts in the bottoms.
There is an area that is between our orchard and our nursery (which are about 22 miles from each other), a huge low-lying area with no escape from the cold air that settles there. I have a customer that lives right in the middle of this and has planted apple trees there. He has not had an apple yet. Cold air needs to be able to clear the area where the trees are, especially when in bloom. Late blossom killing frosts happen somewhere every year, and some of this is preventable based on the location of the trees.
On south-facing slopes, if you have a choice, you could plant later blooming varieties because the sun will warm this up first causing the trees to bloom earlier than when you would like them to. North-facing slopes could be where you would plant earlier blooming varieties causing them to bloom a little later than normal. One of my orchards is planted mostly on the northern slope. I have a south-facing slope across the creek that will eventually be planted with later blooming trees.
When planting on north-facing slopes, consideration of tree hardiness and protection from northwest prevailing winter weather comes into play. Not much protection is available for my north-facing trees, and I have learned which ones are failures because of it.
What is available below ground also is very relevant. The texture of the soil, how deep it is, and drainage. Drainage, if there is none, would place a massive amount of action in play and would take careful planning to change what is.
In my experience, plums are usually put to death when in wet soils. They grow fast for a bit then tip over with what seems to be rotted roots. Apples seem to take it a little better, not much though, and pears, well they say pears can take a somewhat wetter soil than most, but I've no experience with trying that out.
The texture of the soil can determine what rootstocks you want to use. While some have a wide range of soil types they are ok in, some can be very specific and you can fine-tune your selection.
How deep the soil should be is a specious argument. I've not seen three feet of good soil very often in my life. A foot and a half sure, but not three feet like some say there should be, though wouldn't it be nice? That's why it is good to choose the correct rootstock for your location.
Taking soil samples to be tested in a lab (did I mention lab and not a do-it-yourself kit?), will provide you with where your soil is at. It is then that you can work on the soil to get it where it should be for the crop you are wanting to plant there. Again, that is your one shot to get it done before or at the least, right in the planting hole or trench.
The soil test results, when I first started paying more attention to them, I looked at the pH. Then I discovered that the pH by itself can be overrated so I started looking at the rest of the test report. I look to see what the text(ure) code is, which will let you know if it is sandy, clay, or somewhere in between.
The texture will determine what the Cation Exchange is, which will show up as the CEC. This is your soil's retention of and ability to release specific nutrients. This number does not generally change much. Helps to know this number when adjusting the pH with lime that is high in magnesium or one that is low in magnesium. For example, careful consideration when a low pH in clay soil, and you may look at using a Calcitic lime which is lower in magnesium. Magnesium brings soil particles together. You do not need any more of that in clay, sand sure, not clay. Pay attention to the CEC number, clay will be 15 or more.
Ok, now I will look at the pH. It can get a little tricky here. An example here would be if the pH is low, one's first thoughts are to get liming. However, if the pH is low, I need to also pay attention to the Ca (Calcium) and Mg (Magnesium). That can guide me to a Dolomitic Lime or Calcitic Lime based on the CEC number. It sounds complicated at first, but it comes around being obvious sooner or later.
Organic Matter OM is looked at as being important to the CEC. Decomposed and decomposing plant and animal parts. The higher a percentage you can get, the better. A soil test result that happens to be on my desk right now as I write this up, is from Elk Mound Wisconsin. His Organic Matter is at 1.3%. We need to work on that one and bring it up. One way to do this is to plant cover crops such as Sorghum Sudangrass, which quickly create large amounts of biomass. Managing such cover crops is also crucial to what it can do.
According to the SARE website, This Sudangrass, if mowed at 3-4 feet tall will create a massive root system that penetrates the subsoil and can improve drainage. But, on the other hand, mowing down and incorporating it into the soil immediately (like within hours), to my understanding will begin the release of nematicidals to not favor some pests and nematodes. I'm stretched real thin here so I'd better get back on track to what I've experienced. I'm still struggling with the good nematode, bad nematode.
It's hard to come up with the ideal planting conditions. For the most part, we know what the trees need to produce what we want them to. Just need to learn what we are dealing with to provide such conditions. I will be learning about this until I no longer have the interest, but every year there is something new to look at. Some new situations that might need a solution.