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Why the correct choice of fruit tree is paramount to success, part 3 – soil


Photo courtesy of the Hanwell and Norwood Green Orchard Trail

Photo courtesy of the Hanwell and Norwood Green Orchard Trail

Soil is the home of the fruit tree, and as such, everything possible should be done to make it as pleasant as possible for the trees to live in and happily produce crops for the next 50 years or so. A basic error is made by just digging a hole and shoving the tree roots in the hole, covering them with soil and forgetting about it. In most cases this will lead to great disappointment, with trees desperately struggling to survive.

Fruit trees are very sensitive. Particularly the first year after planting. Usually if planting is carried out correctly, then the first step has been made to ensuring that the trees do well. It is often forgotten that the parts of the tree below ground level, the roots of the trees, must be able to function well, in order to support the numerous demands of all the remaining parts of the tree above soil level.

The importance of oxygen

If the soil is well drained, oxygen levels around the tree roots will be sufficient to create the energy enabling the roots to grow. If for whatever reason the oxygen of the air in the rooting zone is suppressed, trouble will be brewing. For example if soil compaction is the cause of limiting oxygen supplies around the roots, the tree will be struggling throughout its life. It will be subject to tree diseases such as canker. This in turn will greatly reduce the life span of the tree, apart from a serious reduction in the keeping quality of the fruit.

Micro-organisms help nutrient uptake

Secondly the depth of the soil and its organic content is of great importance. Without the cooperation of various beneficial micro-organisms surrounding the root tips of the tree roots, uptake of nutrients will become impossible. These micr- organisms work best if the soil has a good level of organic matter. All types of well-matured farmyard manure, are a real stimulus for all round good development of tree growth and regular cropping.

Soil pH

If you live in a location with soils where rhododendrons and azaleas do well, it is important to test the acid level of the soil. Fruit trees will do best with a pH of 6.3 to 6.6 . Outside these parameters, the uptake of certain nutrients may become be a problem. It is easy to determine the pH of the soil. In good garden centres for little money you can purchase a pH meter.

Regular nutrient application

Most soils will need regular applications of nutrients. Fruit trees do best in the long run if the soil nutrients are applied in the form of organic manures. Additional foliar feeding will be very helpful if certain elements are short. This is not a regular occurrence if the soil has been looked after over many years in the past.


Pure sandy soils are often problematic for fruit trees as the water-holding capacity is very low. At the other end of the scale, heavy clay is a difficult type of soil for roots to develop well. The closer the soil is to a deep loam the better the trees will perform. These soils will hold a lot of water between the soil particles. This is of great importance particularly during droughty conditions. After all, water is the life blood of the tree. Without sufficient water the tree will die.

Why the correct choice of fruit tree is paramount to success, part 2 – site

Why the correct choice of fruit tree is paramount to success – part 1

Fruit trees and the soil – case history

A good crop on a well-tended apple tree

A good crop on a well-tended apple tree

Here is an example of the sort of request that we get as part of our everyday tree sales business.

Dear Mr. Neuteboom,

Is it too late in the year to order fruit trees from you? I am looking to plant 12 trees in a space I have been opening out, but I am unsure of whether the trees will survive in the existing soil there. The soil on most of the site is a light coloured dense clay, and although your website states that the M106 rootstock can normally survive, I wonder how well I might expect the trees to cope with it?

The site is on an east-facing slope which gets lots of sunlight until late afternoon – though I may remove some of the trees which start to shade it then.

Although I am not certain about the cherries (I am looking for two sweet varieties with different fruiting periods), I think I would be looking at getting the following trees, but would apprieciate your opinions as to whether they would survive in the soil and whether the fruiting times of the apples which do not store well are at all separated:

Apples: Adams Pearmain
James Grieve
Annie Elizabeth
Bramley’s Seedling (x2)
Dr. Harvey
Cherry: Van
Merchant Lapins
Pear: Concorde
Plum: Denniston Gage
If it is indeed too late in the year to be considering planting these trees, we would still be looking at putting them in next year.

Many thanks,
P., Sussex,
Dear Mr. P,
To answer your questions calls for a look at the physiology of the fruit tree. Putting it another way; it is a help to have an understanding of “the way the tree ticks”.

The soil
Fruit trees can be grown successfully in any soil. As long as it is possible for the roots to take up water and the basic nutritional elements such as N, P and K, plus the trace elements, then the fruit tree can establish itself. Therefore a permanent SOIL MULCH in your particular case is of great importance. This needs to consist of old disintegrating materials such as old wet hay or straw. Or better still, farm yard manure. This will have to be topped up on an annual basis and to have a minimum thickness of 4 to 5 inches. To be applied around the trunk of each tree covering a soil area of a minimum of 1.5 square yards. It is of great importance that the mulch remains largely weed free and therefore is of 100% benefit to the tree and not the weeds.Leave a small ring around the trunk free from mulch as the trunk must remain dry and not permanently damp. This to stop fungi infections of the trunk.

Secondly, roots cannot grow without energy. This energy is provided by the 21% oxygen in the air. From this it follows that it is essential that the drainage of the soil is working reasonably well, particularly during the winter months. Roots standing permanently in water, as a result of impeded drainage, are death to a fruit tree. Particularly during the winter
months, roots have to grow significantly. This can only happen when sufficient oxygen is available in the rooting area. Therefore in your case, improve the drainage if it is suspect.

Lastly you will have to stake each tree. This because in your case surface rooting of the trees is very important due to the nature of the soil. Now if you take these basic principles in consideration you can grow fruit trees successfully.

What I would do in your situation is to plant now 2 apples, 2 plums, 2 pears. Definitely no cherries as these require more soil depth than any other fruit tree. This coming growing season you will then have the opportunity to observe the behaviour of these trees. Then on the knowledge gained, you can the plan next year’s plantings.

Provided you let me know within the next few days how many trees you will need, we will be able to supply the trees within a matter of days before the trees break into growth.

I hope this answers some of your questions. If you let me have your phone number and your full address we can always discuss further details by phone.

With kind regards,