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Ideal Planting Conditions for Fruit Trees
Don Albrecht, Chippewa Falls, WI

You get one shot. One shot to get your planting conditions just right before you plant a tree in the ground. After that, it can be a slow process to adjust soil conditions, especially if you need to raise your soil pH (lime moves very slowly). Haphazard approaches to planting when you need to bring in an income from this planting will set you back to such an extreme one might argue you that you deserve it for such carelessness. I would argue that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. I was one of those…

Location and Preparing The Soil

A good location has slopes, where there is land that is elevated and land that is lower than where you would plant. It is on these slopes that you can avoid harsh winter winds on the hill tops and blossom killing frosts in the bottoms. There is an area that is between our orchard and our nursery (which are about 22 miles from each other). It is a huge, low-lying area with no escape for the cold air that settles there. I have a customer that lives right in the middle of this and has planted some of our trees there. He has not had an apple yet. Cold air needs to be able to clear the area where the trees are, especially when in bloom. Late blossom-killing frosts happen somewhere every year, and some of this is preventable based on the location of the trees.

On south-facing slopes, if you have a choice; you could plant later-blooming varieties because the sun will warm this up first, causing the trees to bloom earlier than when you would like them to. North-facing slopes could be where you would plant earlier-blooming varieties, causing them to bloom a little later than normal. One of my orchards is planted mostly on the northern slope. I have a south-facing slope across the creek that will eventually be planted with later blooming trees.

When planting on north-facing slopes, consideration of tree hardiness and/or protection from northwest prevailing winter weather comes into play. Not much protection is available for my north-facing trees, and I’ve learned which ones are failures because of it.

Caution is needed if slopes are a little too much. Driving around with a tractor and trailer can be tricky, especially in rainy weather. I will never forget…late 80’s, during apple picking season in late fall: there were three of us. One was on the tractor, one was standing along the hay wagon that we used to put the picked bushels on, and I was walking behind the wagon. The tractor took a right and went between two trees and the wagon all but pinched the person standing there up against a tree. I saw the whole thing and of course being late in our teenage years, we all laughed about it. I can still imagine what the headline would’ve been; ‘Local High School Student Killed While Picking Apples.’ That was a close one.

What is Available Below Ground is Also Very Relevant

Texture of the soil, how deep it is, and how it drains are all very important. In my experience, plums are usually put to death when in wet soils. They grow fast for a bit then tip over with what seems to be rotted roots. Apples seem to take it a little better (not much though), and pears, they say, can take a somewhat wetter soil than most.

Texture of the soil can determine what rootstocks you want to use. While some have a wide range of soil types they are ok in, some can be very specific and you can fine tune your selection.

How deep the soil should be is a spacious argument. I’ve not seen three feet of good soil very often in my life. A foot and a half sure, but not three feet like some say there should be, though wouldn’t it be nice? That’s why it is good to choose the correct rootstock for your location.

Taking soil samples to be tested in a lab (did I mention lab and not a do-it-yourself kit?), will provide you with information on where your soil is at. It is then that you can work on the soil to get it where it should be for the crop you are wanting to plant there. Again, that is your one shot to get it done before or at the least, right in the planting hole or trench.

When I first started paying more attention to the soil results I looked at the ph. Then I discovered that the pH by itself can be overrated so I started looking at the rest of the test report. I now look to see what the text(ure) code is, which will let you know if it is sandy, clay or somewhere in between. The texture will determine what the cation exchange is, that will show up as the CEC (your soil's retention of and ability to release specific nutrients). This number doesn’t generally change much. It helps to know this number when adjusting the pH with a lime that is high in magnesium or one that is low in magnesium (for example: carefully consider when you have a low pH in clay soil, and you may look at using a Calcitic lime which is lower in magnesium. Magnesium brings soil particles together. You don’t need any more of that in clay, though you may in sand). Pay attention to the CEC number, as clay will be 15 or more.

Next I will look at the pH. It can get a little tricky here. An example here would be if the pH is low, one's first thoughts are to get liming. However, if the pH is low, I need to also pay attention to the Ca (Calcium) and Mg (Magnesium). That can guide me to a Dolomitic Lime or Calcitic Lime based off the CEC number. It sounds complicated at first, but it comes around being obvious sooner or later.

Organic Matter OM is looked at as being important to the CEC. Organic matter is defined as decomposed and decomposing plant and animal parts. The higher a percentage you can get, the better. A soil test result that happens to be on my desk right now is from Elk Mound, Wisconsin. His Organic Matter is at 1.3%. We need to work on that one and bring it up. One way to do this is to plant cover crops such as Sorghum Sudangrass, that quickly create large amounts of biomass. Managing such cover crops is also crucial to what it can do.

According to the SARE website, This Sudangrass, if mowed at 3-4 feet tall will create a massive root system that penetrates the subsoil and can improve drainage. But, on the other hand, mowing down and incorporating it into the soil immediately (like within hours), to my understanding will begin the release of nematicidals to not favor some pests and nematodes. I’m stretched real thin here so I’d better get back on track to what I’ve experienced.  I’m still struggling with the good nematode, bad nematode.

It’s hard to come up with the ideal conditions for planting. For the most part we know what the trees need to produce what we want them to. We just need to learn what we are dealing with to provide for such conditions. I will be learning about this until I no longer have the interest, but every year there is something new to look at. Some new situation that might need a solution!

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