Beginning Backyard Orchardist: Pre-Planting Soil Preparation
Without proper soil preparation, Grandpa never would have grown apples like these!
You may think you have “rotten” soil, but with a little evaluation and preparation you be successful with almost any soil.
When people call up Grandpa and ask for advice, one of the first questions Grandpa asks is “What kind of soil do you have?” Soil scientists have a complicated system for classifying soils. Grandpa even took a college class in soils, but still can’t figure out the classification system. It might as well be Greek to him, as he learned some Latin in school! Still one of Grandpa’s best farmer friends said “If you got dirt, you got to plant something in it!”
In Grandpa’s experience, you can raise fruit trees in almost any soil type, as long as it isn’t underwater part of the year. Before you plant in any soil, check the pH (acidity or alkalinity). You can do this by taking a soil sample to get tested at a commercial lab, at the cooperative extension service, by a friend who knows how, or even with a cheap test kit. Don’t get too concerned if it isn’t in the perfect range. If you are between 6.0 and 7.0 you are in good shape. If it is much below 6.0 then you may want to add lime to the soil to raise it up. If you are quite a lot over 7.0, then you may have to acidify the soil a little. It will be too late to try to effectively adjust pH after you plant, since most liming agents and acidifiers really need to be well worked into the soil profile.
If you have fairly well drained sandy, silty, or loamy soils, you are blessed! Fruit trees should grow well without much problem. Most fruit trees don’t like “wet feet”, so well drained soils are the best. Soils with clay also make good fruit soils, as long as they drain well enough and don’t stay soggy for long periods of time. In fact, a little clay in the soil helps with keeping and balancing nutrients better than sandy soils. Clay soils hold water longer through the season, so you may not have to irrigate as much or suffer from short-term droughty conditions as much. However, when they dry out, they are DRY!
Soils that flood often and/or stay flooded for more than a few days should be avoided. While some fruit tree rootstocks are somewhat tolerant of wet, soggy soils, they should be avoided because they usually are in low lying areas where cold air settles and they are prone to frost and cold temperatures. You should always try to plant your fruit on a higher relative elevation than the surrounding area.
If you have a soil that you are concerned is too wet, or have found out is wetter than optimum, then you can try planting your fruit trees on a little “mound”. Construct a little hillock or mound of top soil 6-12″ higher than the surrounding soil and several feet in diameter. This mound will give the soil an opportunity to drain better. The theory is like taking an ordinary sponge and soaking it with water. Lay it flat out and it will drain somewhat. It will usually stay very wet on the bottom, and a little drier on the top. Stand it on its end, though, and you will see the water drain out much better. The top will be much drier than the bottom. Mounding has somewhat the same effect. If you are thinking of planting on a river or creek bottom that floods every year or so, Grandpa doesn’t advise it. Save your tree planting money for fishin’ tackle or scuba gear!