The last thing on your mind in February is gardening. But this is prime time to prepare for a very important task: planting fruit trees.
Most people buy their fruit trees the same way they buy all of their other plants: in pots. But savvy gardeners know better. Fruit trees are cheaper and grow best when planted “bare root” — in other words, when dormant, without a pot of soil around their roots. That means planting them in winter, at least in places where the ground isn’t frozen. At the very least, you should buy them in winter and be prepared to plant as soon as the ground thaws, before the trees come out of dormancy. Here’s why.
Some local retail nurseries stock bare-root trees in winter, but usually they’re purchased by mail order. Companies like Trees of Antiquity (treesofantiquity.com) and Raintree Nursery (raintreenursery.com) offer thousands of rare heirloom varieties and unique specimens from all over the globe. Most begin accepting orders in early January, but the most popular varieties often sell out fast.
You’re not paying for a pot and soil, so you can usually get good-sized trees that are half the cost of comparable ones at a retail nursery, even after factoring in shipping costs.
Fruit trees planted from containers go through transplant shock when transferred to the ground and often languish until the following year. Trees planted while dormant, though, begin to grow in early spring without missing a beat.
When a tree sits in a pot for a long period, its roots begin to grow around and around in a circle, tracing the shape of the container. They soon stiffen into that shape and remain that way after planting. New roots will eventually grow out laterally, but like the first branches, the shape of the first roots dictates the lifelong form of the tree. The circling pattern of roots, called “girdling,” is associated with weak growth in the long term and early death. Planting bare-root trees avoids this conundrum, as the roots splay out naturally in the soil from day one.
The growing season is packed with endless gardening chores. You might not get around to planting a backyard orchard when you can barely keep up with your vegetable garden. But in winter, what else are you going to do in the garden? As is often said, the best time to plant a tree was yesterday.