Fruit Trees: How To Dig A Hole in the Desert

Dig A Fruit Tree HoleHi dear friends!

As promised, here’s the first post in my Fruit Tree How To series that is dedicated to helping all of you budding (and experienced) home orchardists out there who want to grow high brix/nutrient dense fruit. Especially those of you who live in a hot and arid climate like Las Vegas, Nevada and thought you would never be able to grow a fruit tree let alone quality fruit.

Just like my Orchard Calendar series, as I release each post, I will place a link to it in the top navigation bar under a new category called Home Orcharding.  This way, you can easily revisit each topic as the need arises.

I’m always experimenting and testing out new organic and holistic techniques and refining my processes in my orchard to both bump up my brix numbers even further and to enhance the health of my fruit trees. If something works well, I’ll be sure to share it with you by updating the related topic page.

Tools and Supplies

  • Demolition Jack Hammer ~ you can certainly rent one from a local home store or rental facility or purchase a Heavy Duty 1240W Electric Demolition Jack Hammer on Amazon or Ebay for a reasonable price with free shipping

Demolition Jack Hammer

  • Shovel attachment for the Demolition Jack Hammer
  • Rebar ~ 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch diameter about 3-feet to 4-feet long ~ use to mark the center of each planting site
  • Hammer ~ to hammer the rebar into the ground
  • Twine or String ~ a 2-foot long piece that can be easily tied onto the rebar or metal stake
  • A long Nail or Stake ~ to attach the twine/string to for use as a compass to draw a circle on the ground
  • 1 to 2 five-gallon Buckets ~ to cart off rocks
  • Shovel

Shovel

  • 3-foot long piece of wood or stick ~ to measure the depth and width of the hole
  • Heavy Duty Gloves
  • Protective Eye Wear
  • Ear Plugs
  • Plenty of water ~ stay hydrated!

Step 1 ~ Understand the Unique Growing Challenges in Your Area

When it comes to sifting through the myriad of fruit tree planting information available to us via the web, books, magazines, local nurseries and such, keep one very important thing in mind…

One size does not fit all

It’s a fact. Fruit tree planting methods that work for one area of the U.S. may not necessarily be ideal for the area you live in. This is especially true for Southwest gardeners and home orchardists. It’s a rare thing indeed to be able to find quality fruit tree growing information that is specific to gardeners who grow fruit in hot and arid climates. Following planting instructions initially intended for another area could lead you down a path of frustration and disappointment. Sure, your fruit tree may grow and even give you fruit, but it is unlikely that your fruit tree will thrive in its new home and produce high yields or quality nutrient dense fruit.

Home Fruit Orchard in the DesertNow, don’t get me wrong. The instructions I’m about to share with you will not produce nutrient dense fruit solely based on this step alone nor will it do so immediately. Fruit trees are an investment in time and care and as you build and nurture the soil beneath your trees, the higher the chance your fruit trees will produce nutritious and delicious fruit. Orcharding is a test in patience and understanding. In my opinion, the effort is well worth it.

A fruit tree can sometimes take a while to exhibit any negative symptoms as a result of an improper planting method or poor planting site. Or, in the case of improper drainage, its demise can be quite immediate. Fruit trees that survive the initial planting stage and continue to grow and leaf out, will definitely have at least a 3 year wait before you can begin to test the quality of your fruit and determine its potential yield. Think about it… that’s a long-term commitment. And if during that 3+ year period the fruit tree begins to show signs of poor health or appears to be struggling, one of the causes for this could be directly related to the hole you dug.

To me, it just makes sense to jump into this investment with your eyes wide open and armed with tested and proven fruit tree planting information specific to your area. Who wants to replace the same fruit tree year-after-year because one day they decided to plant a fruit tree armed with nothing more than a shovel and information from a book written by someone who lives in an area that receives tons of rain each year and summer temps that hover around 80°F.

F? Anyone? So, for those of you who are truly interested in producing high quality fruit and growing healthy fruit trees rather than just growing another tree in your backyard, please, continue reading.

This step, in combination with the other steps I will share with you throughout this series, will help guide you and improve your chances of success in growing high brix/nutrient dense fruit for you and your family’s health.

Nutrient Dense Fruit TreesSo, what are some of the challenges we face in hot and arid climates? Now mind you, all hot and arid climates are not created equally either and can be faced with its own set of unique challenges. But for the most part, they are similar enough that the planting and care techniques I will be sharing with you can be applied successfully in your area. But before you begin, it’s always a good idea to check in with your local Cooperative Extension to see if there are other unique challenges you may encounter in your area.

Regarding the use of local nurseries as a source of information. It’s been my experience that unless the nursery is committed to hiring quality well-trained individuals whose knowledge goes well beyond the basics and are well versed and has hands-on experience planting, growing and caring for productive fruit trees in your area… it’s best to seek advice elsewhere. Yes, there are nurseries out there who pride themselves in being a step above the rest ~ usually the mom & pop or smaller niche nurseries. If you’re one of the fortunate few who happen to live near one of these rare gems, by all means, check-in with them. But most nurseries are not as dedicated and typically regurgitate mainstream fruit tree growing information.

So what are some of the unique challenges Southwest gardeners may be faced with when planting fruit trees?

  • Caliche ~ this is a type of soil concretion and is very hard, impenetrable and cement-like
    • Restricts root penetration
    • Inhibits drainage causing slow draining “bowls” and restricts aeration of the roots
    • Restricted drainage also encourages salt accumulation on the soil surface
    • It’s common for desert soils to be highly alkaline (pH 8.0+). Combine that with the calcium carbonate in caliche = “lock-up” of iron making it unavailable to our plants and trees = iron chlorosis
    • Caliche deposits can be found throughout the southwest to include the California desert areas, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and parts of Texas
  • High salt soils and water ~ can cause lower yields and quality of fruit (restricts nutrient uptake), salt damage, and stress on your trees leaving them vulnerable to pests and disease. Poor drainage only exacerbates this issue.

All of this can spell “bad-news” for our fruit trees. Fortunately, there is a way to successfully work around these challenges and create an inviting home for your home orchard.

With that said, let’s get started!

Step 2 ~ Gather Supplies

Gather together all of the supplies you’ll need. Be sure to set up a convenient out-of-the-way yet accessible staging area. A place where you won’t be tripping over everything as you dig and move around.

How To Dig a Hole For Fruit Trees

Step 3 ~ Mark Your Planting Site(s)

This is where a metal stake or piece of rebar along with some twine or string and a long nail will come in handy.

Planting A Fruit Tree

Mark the center of where you plan to plant your fruit tree by hammering in a piece of rebar or metal stake into the soil. Tie one end of the string to your rebar or stake then tie the other end of the string to a long nail or a short metal garden stake. Make certain that the string is 1-1/2 feet in length after being tied. Your goal is to draw out a 3-foot diameter circle. The nail or metal garden stake will become your drawing instrument to draw out the circular outline into the soil. When you are done drawing, you should end up with a circle that is about 3 feet in diameter that will act as a guide when you start digging.

Keep the center marker (rebar) in place until you are actually ready to start digging the hole.

Step 4 ~ Before You Start Diggin’

Before you get started with your work out :D, let’s talk about a couple of things first. First… always contact your utility company before you set shovel to soil just to make absolutely certain there’s nothing that you’ll dig through. Something dangerous like a buried electrical line or a sewer line ~ yuck. Most times, these things are buried quite deep and should not be an issue, but an ounce of prevention is worth its weight in gold.

Here’s a link to the 811 website where you can find contact information specific to your state.

811 State Specific InformationSource: 811

Step 5 ~ Pre-Test Your Drainage

Before you go all out with your digging, I highly recommend that you perform a drainage test to make absolutely certain your selected planting site will work well for you and your fruit tree(s). To do this, do the following…

  1. Within your planting site itself, dig a hole l-foot deep and fill it with water
  2. Time how long it takes the water to drain completely

If it took about 1 hour or less to completely drain ~
you my friend have awesome drainage and are ready to start digging

~*~

If it took about 2 hours to completely drain~
it’s not the best draining hole around, but you’re probably still okay with planting there
you may need to adjust your approach on how much and how often you water your fruit tree

~*~

If it takes longer than 2 hours to drain ~
you have a drainage problem and
may want to reconsider your planting site or plan to dig deeper
(see below)

Step 6 ~ Ready, Set, Go!

With shovel in hand, start digging. From experience, it’s helpful to start the process by digging out the top 2 to 3-inches of soil within your marked circle to clearly designate the perimeter of your fruit tree hole. When done, the center marker you placed earlier can be removed and set aside so the real digging can commence. You can certainly skip this step, but since I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I find it helpful. Especially since lines drawn on the soil surface have a tendency to disappear once the digging process begins.

How To  Dig A Hole For Fruit Trees

Outline Fruit Tree HoleAlso, be sure to remove and discard any large rocks or bits of caliche.

Caliche and RocksWhen you’re done digging out the initial outline for your fruit tree holes, or not, the “question of the day” comes to mind…

How Deep Do I Need To Dig?

A lot of books, videos and such out there recommend digging down about 18″ deep or just a few inches beyond the height of the root ball or container size. That may be a fine approach if you have deeply amended loose soil and awesome drainage, but with our hardpan (a.k.a. caliche), it’s not highly recommended.

What is the recommended depth?  Here at the ole’ Asher homestead, we dig our holes 3-feet wide x 3-feet deep. This helps ensure we have proper drainage and aeration for our fruit tree roots, encourages the roots to go deep, and later, when we re-fill the hole with amended soil for planting, it ensures the soil surrounding the growing root system will not return to its previous cement-like status.

As we dig our fruit tree planting holes, we also make certain that the inside walls of the hole are kept rough rather than smooth. As the roots grow, the rough sides make it easier for the roots to penetrate into the outer soil. Slick sides can act as a barrier making it difficult for root penetration.

Planting A Fruit Tree

How To Dig A Fruit Tree HoleWe’ve been using this method successfully for planting bare root fruit trees directly into native soil for about 5 years now and our trees are doing fantastic! All 24 of them. Our fruit trees have had phenomenal growth over the years, are healthy with high yields and produce awesome tasting high brix fruit. We’ve never experienced an issue with the roots not penetrating out into the native soil due to the amended soil in the planting hole itself. The opposite seems to be true. Our carefully amended soil seems to ignite root growth.

Over the years, we’ve seen several different approaches to planting fruit trees around town. Some have had good success, but a lot of folks… they just seem to struggle year after year and go through an endless cycle of head scratching and planting and replacing the same fruit trees year-after-year.

The folks we’ve seen who plant their fruit trees in shallow planting holes in our desert virgin native soil, well, their fruit trees just seem to suffer for it. The fruit trees are small and never seem to grow and are less productive.

Now, I’m not saying that the planting hole in and of itself is the “magic” to our formula for planting fruit trees, but I firmly believe that it plays a key role in the process.

A special note on caliche/hardpan and/or poor drainage ~  For those of you unfortunate folks who have encountered caliche or poor drainage on your property you have two options…

  1. Select another site on your property that will work better for you and your trees, or…
  2. Dig deeper

Through my research, I’ve encountered recommendations from trustworthy expert sources that recommend digging down to 6-feet deep or until the hardpan is penetrated to allow for drainage. Personally, I’ve never had to do this and if I had to, I’d find another place to dig. If you find yourself in this situation, I highly recommend that you contact your local Cooperative Extension for planting advice in this situation.

Step 7 ~ What To Do With All That Dirt?

Digging a 3-foot wide x 3-foot deep hole will result is a large pile of dirt. As you dig, be sure to pile up the dirt a foot or two away, but not right next to the hole you’re digging. You will need easy access to this pile of dirt as you prepare the hole for planting. So for now, pile it up and keep your digging area safe by blocking off the area. It’s a pretty deep hole, so use your best judgement when it comes to safety and protecting family members and pets.

How To Dig A Fruit Tree Hole

Step 8 ~ Final Drainage Check

Once your hole(s) are dug, we recommend one final drainage check. This also allows the planting hole and surrounding native soil (deep within the hole) to be thoroughly wetted prior to planting.

Fill the hole to the tippy top with water and let it drain out completely. Again, as long as it completely drains out within 1-2 hours, your fruit trees will do just fine.

Fruit Tree DrainageFruit Tree DrainageFruit Tree DrainageHope you found this post informative and helpful. Next up in my Fruit Tree series is How To Prepare A Hole For Planting.

Fruit Tree Health

God Bless,

AG_Signature_Color_Transparent

 

 

 

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11 Comments

Filed under Fruit Tree How To Series, Fruit Trees/Orchard

11 responses to “Fruit Trees: How To Dig A Hole in the Desert

  1. I was curious as to how far apart you plant your trees?

  2. Heather

    I’m in hot CA Central Valley with clay soil. This stuff laughs at tillers. Most recent hole dug 2 feet deep in the area that drains the back yard stayed wet for 10 days. However, I’ve been able to grow some big plum trees and roses in this stuff by digging wide. I started off double-digging/improving 3 foot wide bands along the fences, hand-forking 18″ deep the whole way then deeper for the trees, so there’s some subsoil drainage going downslope and the planting holes are not isolated. It really helped to create wide bands so you get more drainage plus shallow roots can run wide under mulch along with the deep holes. I couldn’t begin to tackle it now, I was a younger person then! Second problem is that after 5 or 6 years the microbes burn through the organic material back to minerals, and you’re left with something closer to the native soil with some earthworms, unless you keep adding lots more for them to work on. I figure this soil/climate can easily eat 3-foot depth of compost/mulch *every year* or more. I’ve been mulching with everything I can, cut-grass/weeds and shredded paper and cardboard and scavenged cut-up Christmas trees in season etc. There’s never enough. I really want to add thick layers of wood chips, but I was concerned that’s going to encourage more snails, slugs, rollypolies, earwigs, beetles, etc.–though it may be no worse than the current paper and weed mulch. Your post discussing how the slugs and snails stopped bothering your veggies does encourage me to look into finding sources for wood chip loads. Have not yet read through your posts on soil-building but I want to do that too. I’ve also been researching biochar as a longer-term improvement but I’d rather not burn it myself, I’d rather buy it from sustainable sources where they’re also harnessing the syngases and heat, not just wasting that part. I’d be interested in your comments on that if you’ve looked into it.

  3. SJ Smith

    I’m curious if you have used green manures to improve the soil in your orchard? And do you know which ones work in the desert?

    • Green manures… great topic. I have done tons of research around this subject and actually have plans to test out this process in my garden in the very near future. Currently, I’m growing edibles in raised beds, but we will be turning over a section of our native soil and initially amending it with a quality vegetative/garden waste compost as well as vermicompost. Then in the fall, to help fortify the soil, I plan to grow either alfalfa, fava beans and/or clover to a certain point, then cut down and mix it into the soil. At least, that’s the plan for now. I’ll be sure to share my final plan and process when I’m ready to start.

  4. I’m so glad you mentioned this about the jackhammer. I think a power tool purchase is in my future, as we’ve got a lot of trees scheduled to go in this summer!

    • Hi Becky!

      The demolition jackhammer we purchased five years ago has more than paid for itself a hundred times over. If you’re growing lots of fruit trees, it only makes sense. It comes in handy for digging trenches for installing irrigation lines, too!

  5. Excellent info. I to am in Vegas. Luckily my home was built in 2004 in a developed area. My yard is 30 ft above my neighbors behind a retaining wall. So I have all back fill dirt in my yard. I’ve dug a few holes and its rocky but drains well. I won’t be planting my trees until next winter so I have taken an approach I came up with on a whim. I’m digging 18″ deep in my entire orchard area, screening out all larger rocks, then mixing compost with native soil 50/50. Hoping that when I then dig my my holes in 6-8 months the soil will be more suitable overall.

    • Hi Chris,

      Hello neighbor! Lucky dog ~ back fill dirt is way easier to dig in. The native soil can still compact down after a few good rains and drying out, plus if heavy equipment drove back and forth over it… but still easier than digging into virgin native soil.

      You have an excellent plan! We did something very similar in our front orchard with a rototiller, but only added the compost with native soil 50/50 into the planting holes themselves. We just did not have the funds at the time to do the entire orchard area. You could also think about tilling in a couple of different types of rock dusts at this stage to help prepare the area for growing nutrient dense fruit. Your plan is a great start and your trees are going to love you for it!!!

  6. April, this post is very timely. Wednesday we’ll have a little Kubota tractor to see how far down we can get.

    I already have an alternate plan, as recommended by Better Fruit:

    https://books.google.com/books?id=Cko5AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA4-PA8&lpg#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Hope that link works – it’s priceless! But where do I get dynamite? 🙂

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