Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: You’ll want to do this to get your fruit trees off to a good start

Hazel Muggy of Ferndale picks plump Jonagold apples in 2014 at Apple Creek Orchard.
Hazel Muggy of Ferndale picks plump Jonagold apples in 2014 at Apple Creek Orchard. The Bellingham Herald file

Question: When is a good time to plant fruit trees? What can I do to get them off to a good start?

Answer: Welcome to the soon to be thrill of picking fruit off a tree you’ve planted. Even better, your fruit trees should bear for years.

The best times to plant fruit trees, or for that matter any tree, are very early spring or the fall. Then you’ll find the best selection at nurseries, and rain will provide, at least partially, the needed adequate water to help a young tree flourish. It's too late to plant them now, though you can prepare the site and soil where the tree will go next fall.

When you go to buy your tree, ask for help in picking out the tree specimen most suited for our area. Find the employee who is most experienced and knowledgeable about fruit trees. Don’t be shy about asking. You want the best that’s available, and the nursery wants your continuing business.

Before you take your new tree home, ask the knowledgeable employee to do a light pruning of the tree, explaining to you the cuts being made and ask what they suggest for pruning in the coming few years.

The first thing to do upon arriving home is filling a bucket of water and immersing the tree’s roots. Let is soak as you dig a hole, and don’t stint on the hole’s size; it should be deep enough so that the roots fit without being squashed. Dig it twice as wide as deep.

There’s no need to add amendment, compost or fertilizer when you plant the fruit tree. It needs to start acclimatizing itself to the new home before being tempted by easily obtained goodies. You can add a diluted fertilizer tea or weak liquid fertilizer in a few weeks.

Of utmost importance is adequate and timely watering of your new tree. As soon as it’s safely planted, water it thoroughly. In other words, flood water over the planting area. No light sprinkles here.

You will need to provide your tree with regular water throughout its first growing year and maybe even into the second if we have a hot/dry summer.

Dragging a hose is no fun. There’s an easier way to ensure your tree gets water. Purchase a Treegator. You may have seen them surrounding many of the city’s newly planted trees. They are heavy green plastic pouches that fit around the tree. You fill them with water – at least a couple of gallons – and the water comes out small drop by drop, saving you a great deal of watering time. Look online for many choices.

There’s another way to provide water to a newly planted tree or shrub: Drill holes in a plastic pail’s bottom – very small holes. Drill a hole large enough in the cover of the pail, allowing you to insert a hose to refill the bucket when necessary. Bury the bucket completely with only the cover above ground close to the new tree. To avoid any injury to the tree, bury your watering bucket first, before you plant the tree.

Nurseries are now selling ceramic containers that accomplish the same thing as a buried bucket, but they’re rather pricey, especially if you have several trees or shrubs to keep watered. You can sometimes get free buckets (bakeries, construction sites) or buy new ones for just a few dollars at big box stores.

Q: I notice they’re selling both ladybugs and praying mantises at nurseries to help control destructive bugs. Is this something you’d recommend?

A: The problem is, nobody has yet found a way to tell the “good” (read expensive) bugs to stay put in your yard. When released, they go wherever looks the best to them, or maybe, wherever the wind blows them. I wouldn’t recommend investing in these wild-flying insects.

Studies have shown that one large rose bush needs two applications of 1,500 ladybugs, spaced a week apart, to control aphids. A purchased package normally holds only enough ladybugs to control aphids on a very small shrub or rose plant.

Further, research showed that 95 percent of ladybugs will fly away from where they were placed, even if their prey was easily available.

But don’t fret about aphids. The best aphid control is a strong stream of water from a hose. Strangely, once they’re washed off, they don’t climb up again and soon perish. There are also several organic insecticidal solutions; check with a nursery.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to