First planting of our newly grafted apple trees

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Young graft of the mystery apple tree

It is now some four months since we made five grafts from our mystery apple tree. Although we did not expect them all to develop – especially as I was wasting time taking photographs for the blog instead of making the grafts with the normal haste – all five have survived and are growing away happily. Our neighbours have recently finished construction work on their property and had a beautiful baby boy. It seemed an excellent time for tree planting, so baby Max was the first to receive one of the newly grafted trees.

The normal time for tree planting is during the dormant season, with February generally being ideal. Potted plants, though, can be planted out at any time. It might have been beneficial to allow the new trees to grow on for another month or so, but we were quite pleased to see that the rootstocks, which were supplied bareroot, had developed a considerable network of fine roots.

Planting was done in the usual way. First, we excavated a much larger hole than needed for the rootball. We then forked over the bottom and sides, to allow the roots to penetrate more easily. The ground in our area offers a well draining, slightly acidic soil with little clay but much sand and silt, along with a fair amount of gravel. Although the soil can be light when plenty of organic matter is added, in its uncultivated state it is very much prone to compaction and tree roots in particular have a hard time penetrating. We observed this on our plot when we removed some stunted trees in the kitchen garden site; the roots had either wrapped themselves around the planting hole or had then travelled just below the surface of the turf, but had not in any case developed as they should.

Half a bag of horse compost was added to the planting hole as the soil in the area appeared to be somewhat impoverished. This was mixed well with the soil and a handful of bonemeal was added to support root development. The tree was gently removed from its pot, bearing in mind that the root ball would not have been as well developed as when planting a pot raised specimen from a nursery, which are typically rather older. After identifying the ideal position, a robust stake was hammered into the ground on the windward side using a sledgehammer. This was cut off fairly low down; one of the common misconceptions regarding staking seems to be the notion that the stake is there to support the tree and keep it upright, when its real purpose is only to prevent root disturbance by the wind. Flexure of the trunk in the wind is actually helpful in developing strength. Thus, one can tie the tree fairly low down. We will probably, after it has grown a foot or so further, head the tree and develop as a half standard.

The tree was positioned in the planting hole, ensuring that the planting depth remained as it was in the pot. The excavated soil was backfilled, but when two thirds full, we applied the hose, not to supply water to the tree, but to wash the soil between the fine roots; known as ‘puddling in’, this is, in my view, more effective and certainly more gentle than the usual stomping around, and I was particularly concerned not to harm the new root growth. The rest of the soil was filled in around the planting site and firmed gently. A mulch was then applied of a mixture of composted general green matter, composted bracken, and manure, with the intention of helping to retain moisture, discourage weed growth, and, of course, feed the tree as it is slowly broken down. Such a mulch must be kept clear of the trunk to prevent rots.

Puddling in

Puddling in

Finally, a spiral rabbit guard was wound about the trunk and the tree secured with what is at present a rather oversized tree tie. Lower leaves were pinched off where they would be covered by the guard. Once a little more growth has been achieved the tie will be repositioned at the top of the stake. Another soaking with the hose completed the planting.

Baby Max came to inspect his new tree – when the first apples appear in, perhaps, five years, he will be old enough to pick and enjoy them. There is always something special about planting a tree, especially when one can propagate one of the many traditional varieties, but this planting was particularly enjoyable.

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