Part 4: Six Steps to Planting a Successful Fruit Garden
Now that you have chosen the types of fruit that you want to grow, and where you want to put them in your yard, it's important that you follow 6 basic steps if you want to plant a successful miniature fruit garden.
1. Test Your Soil Fertility
If at all possible, I suggest going ahead and having your soil tested for fertility and pH levels before planting – whether it's the soil you've purchased to use in raised beds, or the soil in your yard, if you'll be planting in the ground. A common mistake is to add any fertilizer, or too much fertilizer, to your fruit garden when it is not really needed.
Fruit trees don’t need the same high degree of fertility that your vegetable garden needs. Too much fertilizer can cause the trees to grow too quickly and/or delay fruiting. It can even make your trees more susceptible to winter freeze damage. However, low nutrient levels can be just as harmful to your plants.
Spending $10-20 for a soil test report is a good investment. When you send the soil sample, you can tell them you will be planting fruit trees or berry bushes. Most labs’ reports will tell you exactly what nutrients you will need to add for the best health of your plants, and how much you should add.
Most county Cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing services and recommendations at a low cost – often around $10-12. You will usually need to convert their chemical fertilizer recommendations into organic ones. You can also use a private company, such as Logan Labs.
When should you add fertilizer and lime? Any needed phosphorus and lime should be mixed into the topsoil before planting your trees, shrubs, or vines. Phosphorus doesn’t travel far within the soil, so it’s more effective to mix ground phosphate rock throughout the top 6-8 inches of soil before planting. Otherwise, most fertilizers can just be mixed into the surface of the garden bed whenever they are needed, though it won't hurt to mix them in the soil, too.
Nurseries usually tell you to not add fertilizers in your holes when you plant your trees, but this generally refers to chemical fertilizers that can burn the roots of your new plants. These fertilizers will also often leach away before your young plants grow enough roots to be able to absorb the nutrients. That’s not the case for most organic fertilizers.
2. Check for Invasive Plants
One other issue to check for is invasive grasses or weeds in the area you plan to put your garden. Some of these plants are extremely difficult to control, and you really don’t want to risk them invading any of your garden beds. Your young fruit trees will grow more vigorously if they don’t have to compete with grass sod or weeds.
My worst pest is quack grass. It spreads quickly by underground rhizomes (as much as 3-4 feet in one year), and it releases a compound into the soil that suppresses the growth of other plants. You can’t kill it by tilling it a couple of times like most lawn grass, as every single chopped-up piece of root will just grow into another plant.
I once tried blocking quack grass with 2 layers of cardboard topped with 4 inches of coarse sawdust, and the grass grew right through it within 3 months. I’ve seen these rhizomes pierce through a full-grown potato and heavy 6-mil black plastic, and grow up through 8 inches of soil in a raised bed.
There is no easy organic control method for this type of plant. If you want to control this type of plant organically, you’ll need to do ONE the following:
a) Thoroughly hoe or hand-weed your garden every single week for the entire growing season. You need to be fanatically religious about it!
b) Sift by hand, through a screen, all of the soil in your garden beds and paths to remove every piece of these roots – something I’ve done for small garden beds in the past.
c) Use an “organic” herbicide, such as those made with concentrated vinegar and plant extracts. However, you’ll need to apply it frequently on this tough weed, as it won’t kill the roots. It's also pretty expensive.
3. Decide if You Need Raised Beds
If you have nice, deep well-drained soil, there’s no particular reason to create raised beds for your fruit garden. However, there are three reasons I would recommend them:
a) Protection From Mower Damage
I have seen far too many trees and shrubs become badly damaged by being gouged by lawnmowers or weed-whackers. (I don’t even want to think about those plants that were completely mowed to the ground!)
By defining the edge of a fruit garden bed (raised or not) with a frame that can’t be mowed over, and by keeping the area inside the bed well-mulched and weed-free, you can protect your plants from being damaged by an overly-zealous spouse or lawn care company.
b) Poorly Drained Soil
If you have heavy clay soil, it’s a good idea to create a raised bed with better quality soil up to one foot high. Many fruit plants grow poorly in heavy, badly-drained soil – if they survive at all. It’s also not usually a good idea to dig a hole into heavy clay soil and fill it with improved soil, as the clay surrounding your hole could hold water like a pond during wet weather and drown the roots of your plant. (Read Do You Really Need Raised Beds?)
c) To Accommodate a Disability
Another reason to choose to use raised beds is if, like me, you have difficulty in squatting or kneeling for very long. I chose to make most of my fruit beds about 10 inches high, built from inexpensive concrete blocks. Retaining-wall blocks would also work and are more attractive, but cost up to 3 times more.
I can sit on the edges to do light weeding or mulching in the beds, and pruning or harvesting on lower branches. Our topsoil is only 3 inches deep above heavy clay soil, so the added depth of the beds provides great growing conditions for my plants. If you use a wheelchair, however, a raised bed may prevent you from getting close to your plants.
If you decide to use raised beds, you'll need to choose what to make them from, what to fill them with, and how you want to build them:
a) Select the Material
If you have decided to use raised beds, select the material you will use to frame the beds. You can create raised beds with wood, concrete blocks, stones, decorative retaining wall blocks, or durable commercial frames made from recycled plastic.
I tend to avoid using treated wood in my gardens, as the compounds used in treated wood are designed to kill soil organisms that will rot the wood. I want my soil organisms to thrive. If you use untreated wood, plan on replacing it every 5-7 years or so. I suggest using deck screws to make it easy to take the boards apart again.
If you only plan to raise your garden beds 3-4 inches, you could instead just gently mound the soil for your bed and keep it well mulched. My beds are higher, so I chose less-expensive concrete blocks that I can sit on. However, if I were planting a miniature fruit garden in the front yard, I would probably choose the more-decorative retaining wall blocks or attractive rocks instead. See my Pinterest board for more ideas.
b) Find a Source of Soil
I try to make sure that my miniature fruit garden has a 10-12-inch depth of good-quality topsoil, counting the depth of the original topsoil in my yard, plus the height of the raised bed on top of it. I use real soil (dirt) in these fruit beds, instead of the potting soil mix some people use in vegetable garden beds. Real soil is permanent, and the potting soil will decompose and disappear over time.
I have sometimes taken topsoil from a different part of my property to add to my raised beds. Other times, if I just needed to create slightly-raised gentle mounds, I took topsoil from my garden pathways to add to my beds.
More recently, I purchased the topsoil for my latest raised bed gardens. Be careful when you buy soil, though, as companies will sometimes try to sell poor-quality subsoil as topsoil, or the soil may be contaminated with long-acting herbicides.
c) Build the Beds
Wooden frames are easy to build, and they can just be set on top of the ground and filled with soil. When I had our concrete beds installed, I had the grass sod removed around the perimeter of the bed. This allowed the base of the blocks to be set a couple of inches below the soil surface, which helps keep the weight of the raised soil inside the bed from shifting the blocks out of place.
It’s a good idea to drape a heavy, commercial-grade weed barrier on the inside of the blocks, to keep the soil from sifting out between them. I had that problem with my first retaining wall project. Do not put the weed barrier on top of the ground under the soil in the garden beds. You want your plants to sink their roots deep into the ground.
However, if you are dealing with gophers, you might want to put down 1/2” hardware cloth (metal screening) to protect the roots of your young trees. In this situation, I would use a deep layer of soil (8-12”) above the screening, so most of your miniature fruit tree roots will be above the screen and protected. Metal screening will not last forever underground, though, so you’ll eventually need to start trapping the gophers, too.
4. Create Any Needed Trellises
I chose to use fencing T-posts to support the trellises for my espalier trees and grapevines. I created the trellises from sturdy livestock panels (available at farm supply stores). Although this may not be the most attractive support system, this combination is affordable, very quick and easy to install, doesn’t need any fancy bracing, and should last 15-20 years.
Some people choose to stretch wire between wooden posts or metal galvanized posts. This usually requires larger posts, better bracing, and more maintenance, but it can be more attractive. The book American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training offers more detailed directions on installing trellises.
Some of the dwarfing rootstocks are so weak that the trees will need to be permanently supported with a stake, even if you don’t need to use a trellis to create an espalier.
5. Plant Your Trees and Bushes
Dave Wilson Nursery in California offers a great series of short videos on how to plant your fruit trees. Most of the information also applies to bushes, though the first pruning may be different for bushes versus trees. I highly recommend viewing them:
This series also describes how to plant trees for growing fruiting hedges, espalier trees, miniature trees, group plantings, and more. Just be aware that many of the varieties they recommend are best suited for California.
The main precautions when planting your trees and shrubs include:
- Spread the roots out – don’t jam them together in a small hole.
- Plant them at the right depth, keeping any grafting unions 2” above the soil.
- Don't let the roots of your bare-root trees dry out while you’re digging holes.
- Water your trees and shrubs thoroughly after planting.
- Mulch them well, but don’t pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree.
- Prune your trees immediately, according to the training method you will use.
For more directions on how to plant and care for fruit trees, download the “Plant Owner’s Manual” from Raintree Nursery.
6. Attach Permanent Labels
Take my word for it, you will want to keep track of both the variety and rootstock of each fruiting plant that you have. It’s extremely important to attach permanent metal labels to your berry plants and fruit trees as soon as you plant them. I’ve made the mistake of putting it off too many times to count, and have seriously regretted it every time.
Plastic labels break off or fade over time, often very quickly. Labels written with “permanent” markers usually fade into invisibility within just one summer. You think you’ll never forget which variety you planted, but trust me – you will! Right now, I have an awesome variety of blueberry in my garden, and I badly want to buy more bushes of it, but I have no idea which variety it is! Don’t make my mistake.
Use metal labels (this is critical!), with wire (not string) to attach it to your plants or the trellis next to them. Write both the fruit variety and the rootstock variety, if available. One time, I had planted two rows of cherry rootstock that I planned on grafting, as I didn’t know which type would survive best on my site. One row died off completely, and the other survived just fine. BUT I didn’t use a metal label, the plastic label disappeared, and I ended up never knowing the name of the variety that survived!
Hang the label well above soil level, so it doesn’t get buried in the mulch. But you also don’t want it to disappear within leafy branches, so I usually put it down low, hanging from a lower branch within sight. If the tree is an espalier on a trellis, I usually attach it to the trellis instead. Branches grow a lot faster in thickness than you might think, so don’t tie the label on tight.
Leave a generous gap between the wire and the branch – and check it every year to see if it needs loosening or moving. It’s very easy to damage or kill a branch by girdling it with a tight wire. Fortunately, I haven’t done that – but it’s gotten pretty close a few times.
If you can’t afford or don’t want to pay for commercial metal tags, you can easily use aluminum pie pans. Just cut out a label-sized piece, punch a hole in it to attach a wire, and use a ball point pen to firmly write the information. Either way, you want it fairly deeply indented into the metal, not just a light scratch.
If you follow the 6 basic steps listed above, your miniature fruit garden will have an excellent chance to thrive. By providing your plants with deep, fertile, well-drained soil, your fruit garden will grow more vigorously, stay healthier, and produce larger harvests. In Part 5, I'll share more details about growing berries and grapes in your small yard.
Introduction: How to Grow Fruit (Even If You Have a Tiny Yard)
Part 1: Eight Reasons Why You Should Grow a Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 2: How To Design Your Own Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 3: How to Select Fruit Varieties That Will Thrive in Your Garden
Part 4: Six Steps to Planting a Successful Fruit Garden
Part 5: Growing Berries and Grapes in Your Mini Fruit Garden
Part 6: Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees in Your Mini Fruit Garden