New Here! Potting bench grafted trees in native soil

Hello everyone. I’m new here! I grew up in an orcharding area but have really just started taking up fruit trees myself in the last few years. I now live in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, another area that was home to many orchards, though their popularity has waned in the last few decades. I’m hoping to help reverse the trend!

To get to my question, I ordered some apple and pear scions and rootstocks to be delivered mid March. I plan to plant some of the trees on my property and maybe sell a few to neighbors. I chose a variety of heritage breeds that do well in southern Maine which has a similar climate to my area (though it’s wetter there).

For apples I choose rootstocks M111 and Antonovka for their hardiness and ability to adapt to different soils. For pears I chose OHxF97.

My primary question is what to pot them in. They will all be in grow bags for a season or two as I get my land ready for planting. A local orchardist and nurseryman who I admire plants in grow bags using our native clay soil mixed with perlite. I believe he also does a micorrhizal dip when he pots his trees. I am very impressed with how quickly the yearling apple trees I bought from him took off in my poor soil as opposed to the trees I got from a conventional nursery which struggled. Another orchardist in my area told me this is a terrible idea and that I should plant in plastic pots, use commercial potting soil, and forgo the micorrhizal dip, otherwise I’ll just have a bunch of dead trees. I’m not sure what is better or worse or just different. I definitely lean more towards the ideas of Michael Phillips vs. conventional growing.

Does anyone here have experience potting apples and pears in clay soil? It makes sense to me that they would be more acclimated to the regional soil, while the grow bags will air prune the roots and keep the clay soil from being too soggy.

My plan of attack:
-graft trees mid March. Keep them in the root cellar (around 40-45 degrees) till mid April.

  • Plant mid april in 5 gallon grow bags.
    -Use 2 parts native soil, 1 part coco coir or perlite as growing medium. Inoculate with micorrhiza. Top dressed with fertilizer?
    -Put out in hoop house mid April (last frost here is June 1.)
    -Keep soil moist.

Thanks for any help!

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Welcome to GrowingFruit!

Those apple rootstocks tend to grow laterally and in the long term are ill-suited for containers.

Pears have long been selected for acreage with poorer soils.

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welcome to the forum. you live i some beautiful country there. in your dry climate it will be difficult to keep anything in grow bags as they dry out quickly. id get some light colored solid pots to keep them in and set up a watering system to keep them watered or you will need to water them 3-4 times a day. mulch them heavy as well to keep in moisture. like Richard said, you want to get them in the ground as fast as you can. i grafted and planted in ground at the same time but i get alot more rain here and they all took. good luck!

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Hey, welcome! If you can manage it, I would work up some ground (like a small garden bed worth) and plant the grafts in that. Add compost, mulch with wood chips, and whatever amendments or manure you have kicking around. Then you can dig them up bareroot and sell or transplant from there. The root system will thank you for it! If you absolutely must grow them in pots, I would definitely inoculate the pots with some fungal compost, leaf duff from other orchards, or a commercial mycorrhizal inoculant. Mixing native soil in that is a good idea for moisture holding, and perlite is never a bad idea, within reason.
My friend pots his trees in composted wood chips, perlite, and a bit of kelp, and they seem to do okay in that for a couple seasons.

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I totally agree with Evan,
Create a small grow bed without pots or bags. Use that clay soil but mix in about 60 % compost, wood chips and even some river sand. Be certain it is well mixed so that your clay which is very moisture retentive and full of natural trace mineral is well dispersed. Innoculate with as many red wiglers, European earth crawlers, and leaf mold as you can find per the below articles
Role of Mycorrhizal fungi:

Space your plants in a sunny area so they can be transplanted without disturbing the remainder as you need them.
Then mulch your plantings well with a top coat of wood chips to keep them moist thru the dry months.
They will grow there easily for several years while you prepare the remaining spaces.
Good luck and welcome to the site
Dennis
Kent wa

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Native soil? That means leaf mold, sandy soil high in organic matter?

If so, plant in native soil to your heart’s content.

Luke
It occurred to me that if your soil is mostly clay, there may be a lack of drainage you need to deal with as you are preparing for all types of new trees. Depending on your geology your property may have formed what we refer to in clay soils as a hardpan. If that’s the case, here is what you should do:

  1. Determine how deep you can go as if you were going to immediately plant a fruit tree. If you go down 2-3’ without much resistance then any hardpan may be deep enough to not interfere with drainage.
  2. If you hit very hard rocky soil that is more like going thru concrete than normal soil, you will have reached your hardpan.
  3. Then you try using a pickax or some other form of sharp tool to see if it’s possible to penetrate the hardpan. On my property ( live on a glacial moraine) my hardpan is about 8”-12” thick.
  4. A simple drain test before your try to penetrate the hardpan will give you an idea if it’s an issue. With a 2-3’ hole, fill it with water and set your timer to see how long it takes to perk down to the bottom. If the next day it’s still not empty and you can still see a water surface, you know you have more work ahead to properly plan for each tree you wish to plant.
  5. Once you are done with the perk test, try penetrating the hardpan to determine how thick it is. Then repeat the perk test and that will tell you one solution to drainage for each tree. The alternative is to construct a mound that perches the tree high above the hardpan for drainage purposes.
    Doing this simple test before you establish your growing bed will assure that your new plants have good drainage.
    Good luck on initially exploring your clay!
    Dennis
    Kent, wa

Thanks everyone for the helpful advice. I will have to give planting them in beds a shot. I’ll also run a couple of experiments with grow bags and soils and report back. Thank you all for the thoughtful answers.

Dennis, although there is a lot of clay in our soil I have yet to reach any hardpan when digging with the tractor for running utilities. Ive gone down about 36" at this point in a number of places, so thats a good sign. I’ve planted a couple of pears and a couple of apples and did a perk test on each hole. All drained within a couple hours which suprised me. My 150 year old adobe (clay and straw) house was made with dirt dug from the back yard. When I need plaster for the exterior I just dig down a foot, mix up some mud and straw, and smear it right on the house!

Is it safe to assume that I can plant the trees out in mid april? They will likely still be exposed to freezing temps, but nothing below the 20’s at that point.

Thanks again all.

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Sounds like paradise…building codes stop most from building a mud home anymore.

I planted trees in pots in November and it’s been to -4F here…and they are fine.

But…as buds are expanding…and dormancy is going fast…the next 30 days if it gets to zero F there’ll be big damage to lots n lots of thing…even older trees.

thats another drawback to planting in pots. they heat up quicker and come out of dormancy earlier. i dont grow anything in pots anymore for all reasons mentioned above. if you dont have the acreage then you do what you have to but in ground is definitely the best.

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