Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, discusses bare-rooted fruit trees. This is one of a series of articles she has written about growing fruit trees (see right hand sidebar). She has also written a number of articles about growing various vegetables, growing various herbs and general growing techniques.
Bare-rooted fruit (and nut) trees are grown in the paddock and dug up when dormant. 90% of their roots are trimmed off, and they are placed in bags of damp sawdust and sent to the nurseries for us to purchase. Only deciduous trees go dormant and thus only deciduous fruit trees (e.g. apples, pears, apricots, cherries, plums and peaches) can be obtained bare-rooted.
There are several advantages to planting bare-rooted trees. First, they are generally cheaper than potted trees. Second, planting them in winter allows them to establish while dormant and they will take off energetically in spring as long as they have been well-pruned at time of planting.
To plant, dig a hole as deep as the roots but twice as wide. If there are any broken roots, cut these off with sharp secateurs to prevent suckering. As Melbourne’s soil is mostly clay-based, add some gypsum (clay breaker) and some compost and then fan out the roots. Make sure the graft is above ground. Backfill and water. If you think it necessary to stake the tree, do that now and remember to use soft-tie to tie the tree to its stake.
Pruning is key. To balance the 90% of root removal, prune off 90% of the whippy branches. Your tree will come unpruned and if it is a vase shape you are after, cut out the central leader – that’s the vertical, centre branch. Select 3 or 4 side branches and prune these by about two-thirds, to an outward growing bud. The tree will look brutalised but this is necessary. In spring, you will reap the reward as the remaining buds burst into flower and the tree takes off.
Recently, I helped prune an orchard on a property purchased this year. It was clear that the fruit trees, which are 3 or 4 years old, were not pruned at time of planting. All have central leaders intact and this has adversely shaped the trees. Some of these leaders I was able to be prune out but others not and would require cutting at about knee height to allow new shoots to emerge. Over time, 3 or 4 shoots will need to be selected and developed with extra shoots pruned off so that a decent shape can be established. Vase shaped trees are not just aesthetic but allow sun to penetrate and air to circulate in the centre of the trees, keeping them free of fungal infections.
Many/most nurseries sell bare-rooted fruit trees.