The Journey of A Dormant Fruit Tree

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP- Green Thumb Nursery – Ventura

It’s January, the perfect time of year to plant dormant fruit trees! Peaches, Apples, Plums, Apricots, and Cherries are shipped from our grower without soil and once they arrive they go through the process of being healed into a soil mix. Today I want to provide you general insight of the journey a dormant fruit tree goes through before it reaches the nursery, then ultimately the arrival at the destination of where it is to be finally planted in its new home. I hope you will have a new found appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes.

Let me first explain what a bareroot fruit tree is. A bareroot fruit tree is a dormant (no leaves) fruit tree that has its soil removed from it so it can more rapidly acclimate to new soil conditions. The journey begins at our grower. Some fruit trees are started from seed in early spring. The seeds are harvested, separated, cleaned, and sorted from already mature (mother) trees planted on site. They are planted in greenhouses, then after they have germinated and are big enough, the seedlings after one season are then transferred to shade houses to grow for another season, and then they are planted outside. During the careful cultivation they need to be weeded and controlled against insects and diseases. Yet other fruit trees may be grown form cuttings from parent plants planted in the field. The cuttings are harvested in winter, planted in shade houses, and as soon as they have nice full new open leaves they are placed outside to continue growing. Still other trees are grown by grafting that were grown from cuttings or grafted in the field from already established mother plants. In the propagation stage many fruit trees are budded in June (June budded) this encourages low branching.

Thousands of trees are budded all at the same point on the trees. The caliper of the stems are very small right now. These small newly budded trees are grafted 4 inches above the soil. The grower lets the trees grow to a certain size then carefully prunes them back. All the while they are carefully cared for. When they reach about 18 inches high, a temporary stake is installed next to them so the young trees can grow uniform and straight. Usually in another month they remove that stake and replace that with a regular stake. During the summer heat in the Central Valley of California the trees can grow another 2-3 feet. The stakes and ties are bound loosely to the trees so they can flex and free flow in the wind giving the graft or bud union time to strengthen. In September, the trees grow another 3 -5 feet, the caliper of the stem has grown to 3/8 inch and these 1 or 2 year old trees from the time they we’re planted are almost ready to be harvested in a couple of months. Some 2 year trees may need to be budded in the field in mid October. Once the bud takes and is established they can take cuttings and plant those up for future crops or leave them on the trees for digging. In mid-November the trees grow another 2-3 feet the caliper has increased to 1/2 or 3/4 inch, almost ideal for retail quality. In approximately 30- 45 days from this point (mid-December or January) weather dependent, the trees will be cut back a few to several feet. Then start the digging, and shipping process. In the month of December, these 1 or 2 year old trees are then dug out of the ground with specialized digging machines that lifts the trees, shakes off the soil, and a crew of workers follow behind the tractor places them in piles. These machines can dig hundreds of fruit trees per hour. The work is noisy, dusty, muddy, and labor intensive. After the trees are set in piles, they are then put onto forklifts where they are brought to a processing yard where each and every tree one by one is graded for quality and standards, labeled, counted, and while all at the same time another crew is watering the fruit trees so they do not dry out. Once the fruit trees have gone though the quality control process, they are then taken to another area and mechanically bundled together in 5s or 10s. Then all the processes needs to repeat again and a again throughout the bare root season (2 to 3 months). Once that is complete, they are brought back and replanted (healed in ) in pre dug trenches where the roots are covered with sand, then watered, and waiting for the time when they are to be shipped to your favorite Green Thumb Nursery. Some growers may store the dormant fruit trees in cooling buildings until they are sold.

Some specialized and new fruit tree types take no less than 14 years of natural breeding, growing, testing, developing, and adapting before they are to be released to the general public. Our premier grower of fruit trees is conscientious about their quality, they provide care and attention to their clean trees that are not GMO, have no disease, bacteria or virus. They are very eco- conscious, sanitary, quality grown trees. Dave Wilson Nursery sells to organic growers both certified and backyard, wholesale nurseries, growers, commercial orchards, and retail nurseries like your favorite Green Thumb. They have many sections of fruit trees that are crosses of one another through pollination from one flower to another. They track the crosses, grow out the sections for several years then choose the best of the best from those selections after they have been trialed and tested for vigor, hardiness, and flavor. The entire process can take several years. It is all done naturally and the old fashioned way. They are not by any means artificially genetically modified. Dave Wilson trees are uniformly grafted and aesthetically pleasing.

When the day comes to finally ship the fruit tree order, crews load the soilless fruit trees onto a large semi-truck with the trees laying down and stacked up onto one another. Once the delivery truck arrives at its destination, a crew unloads the wet and muddy trees in a receiving area covered with shade cloth, separating each variety and type in an organized fashion, while at the same time inspecting the trees for quality. Hundreds of varieties and types of dormant fruit trees are accounted for according to the shipping manifest. The delivery and shipping process is now complete by our grower. Once the bare root process is done for the season they need to start to prepare for the next season and future seasons after that by planting, grafting, pruning, trialing, and breeding and so the process repeats again.

Back at Green Thumb Nursery. In the receiving area, a designated individual is assigned to water the trees then cover the roots with burlap, while other crew members are affixing in house made price labels, attaching picture tags to each individual tree while at the same time taking special care to not damage the tree, and continuing to sort the trees by variety. Other people are sorting out what needs to be potted up, go in back stock, or already pre sold. The items that are set aside for potting up are planted so they can be sold as container stock later on in spring. Other people are healing in the back stock fruit trees in already prepared soil. As the process continues, other crew members have flat bed carts ready and loads up the trees laying down and brings them over to the sales area. Here in this area, multiple crew members are busy with shovels digging trenches in already prepared soil. It is here where the bundles are cut open, any broken roots and branches are pruned off, and each single variety is placed in the dug trenches one by one, then the roots are covered with soil (healed in). Once one variety of fruit tree is complete then next selection is started, dig the trench in the prepared soil, and repeat the same process over 100s of times until it is all complete. The work is hard, laborious, dirty, muddy, and repetitive. The amount of beforehand work of preparing the soil bed, digging and shoveling in the soil, then healing in the fruit trees is exhausting, labor intensive for only slightly over a couple of months. After all the dirty work is complete, watering the trees is critical after healing them in keeping them sustainably moist but not soaking wet during the dormant season. The digging in of the fruit trees and processing them at our nursery can take 2-3 days. After al that work is done and continuing on for another 4-5 more weeks picture tags are continued to be attached to the plants, necessary pruning may need to be done, informational sings need to be installed, and re stocking back stock of fruit trees as product sells. With all the work that goes into the bareroot, its is fun and rewarding but you also stop to think the price you pay on the bareroot product is a real bargain without considering the labor and work that goes into it.

Green Thumb carries a wide assortment of dormant fruit trees that include, multi-budded fruit salad trees of Peaches, Plums, Apricots, Pluots, and Apples. We carry both semi-dwarf and standard sized individual fruit trees like Apples, Pears, Cherries, Persimmons, Peaches, Plums to name a few. We even have some  genetic dwarf fruit trees. The majority of our fruit trees do well in our area and many are quit adaptable to other areas. Please ask ahead if you have any specific questions on any of our fruit trees. I encourage you to get them now, while supplies last for the best section because the bare root opportunity is usually a window of time form January- to early March weather dependent. With some variety selling out faster than others. Towards the end of the bare root season when the weather starts getting warmer and during the time when trees start breaking dormancy any product that is left over we pot up in #5 or #15 pots using the soil mixture they were healed in so they could be sold as container stock when they are rooted in a few months. In spring, trees that were once bare root become available to be sold as container stock. Our containerized growers receive there order of bareroot product in the winter then pot them up so they can have a finished product for sale to Green Thumb in spring through mid summer. The container season for fruit trees is typically spring to early to mid summer with inventory available year-round but with lesser amounts during the off season. During the time of containerized fruit trees you would plant them like you do any other containerized plant.

Our knowledgeable nursery staff will help you choose your selected dormant fruit tree. We will gently pull up the quality dormant fruit tree from healed in soil, shake off the soil, dip it in water, place it inside a plastic bag, tie it up, and then you are on your way. We highly recommend you plant the fruit trees right away so the roots will not dry out form the air. Once planted in its new home, water initially, then don’t water again unit it begins to leaf out. The journey of a dormant fruit tree is almost done.

The final step before the end of the bareroot fruit tree journey is properly planted it in its new home. Double check that the root stock is compatible to the local soil. Make sure the soil drains well. To test the soil drainage, dig a test hole 1 foot deep by 1 foot wide let it drain. Fill up the hole again with water. After the 2nd filling of water it should be completely drained in 4 hours. When planting the tree, dig a hole that is cone shaped where it is deeper in the center and tapered on the sides. The hole needs to be wide enough to encompass all the roots. Mix in soil amendments with the back fill (the soil you removed to make the hole). No more than 50 % amendment and native soil mixed.

Set the tree in the center of the hole, hold it with one hand while scooping in the backfill mixture making sure the tree is straight and the graft is above the the soil. Never cover the graft with soil. As you are back filling you are packing down the soil so there are no air pockets. When done, the tree should be firm in the ground. When done planting, be sure to mulch around the area of the tree making sure the mulch does not touch the main stem of the tree. Prune if necessary. If the tree is really big with lots of top growth with small roots don’t be alarmed. To help the tree get off to a better start, prune the top back so it is in balance with the root system. Water thoroughly. The journey of a bareroot fruit tree is now complete.

I encourage you to head on down to your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and check out our wonderful selection of dormant fruit trees. We have them for a limited amount of time so don’t miss your opportunity.

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