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I have received many questions lately about fruit trees that have been in the ground for two or more years but don’t seem to be growing much.

I usually ask how they were planted, and in almost every case I learn they were just dropped into clay soil without any thought about drainage.

So, here are my rules for fruit tree planting – an excerpt from my book “Texas Tough Gardening.” If you follow them, you will wind up with a highly productive root system, and that will result in more growth and leaves.

While this is aimed at citrus trees, the protocols can be used for any fruit tree, including stone, pome, avocado, and fig – even fruiting vines. Essentially, it is a marriage or my “Building Beds” tip sheet for vegetable gardens and my guide for “Planting Trees & Shrubs.”

The when and where of planting is obviously important, but the manner in which you plant your citrus tree is ultimately the true key to success. If you know about the tree-planting technique I have espoused for years, and you know about the raised-bed gardening I have also touted, all you have to do is blend those two concepts together. In essence we are getting a slightly raised bed.

For the uninitiated, here’s a breakdown: Our trees must adapt to the existing soil if they are to have a fighting chance. But since our soils are so hard and clay-based, we have to give them a helping hand. So, I encourage digging a hole twice as wide and half-again as deep as a tree’s root ball. For example, if the tree’s container is 8 inches wide and 12 inches high, your hole should be 18 inches deep and 16 inches wide. Place all the soil you dig up on a tarp or drop cloth where you will mix it with a permanent soil amendment.

In the case of fruit trees, however, rose soil is more organically enriched than just a permanent soil amendment. So the blend for citrus should be about two parts rose soil and one part soil from the hole. Using our example of an 18-inch-deep hole, you’d normally shovel about six inches of your mixture into the hole’s bottom, pressed down firmly. Then, you would set your tree in the middle of the hole and back-fill around the edges with your mixture. With fruit trees, however, I’m going to add another 2-3 inches on top of that portion in the bottom of the hole. So in the case of our 12-inch-high container, we’d wind up with 8-9 inches of mixture at the base of the hole. And that will essentially give us a slightly raised bed for our fruit tree. That bed will also help provide proper drainage for your young citrus – many young trees are killed by over-watering in improperly drained clay soils. Use the rest of your mixture to fill in around the edges of the root ball, stomping it down firmly in stages so it’s never too loose.

Here are some cheats:

  1. You can do the entire hole in pure rose soil. Just make sure you press it in very firmly, so it is packed solid.
  2. You can include any organic citrus food in the soil mix.
  3. None of these measurements have to be precise. It can be 1 to 1, 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1 rose soil to existing soil. Don’t overthink it! Same goes for the hole’s depth and width. Just think in terms of the root system needing to move downward and outward in its first couple of years. You’re simply giving it space to grow and establish in a well-drained, organically enriched environment.

Sidebar Advice Specifically for Citrus

Okay, now that we have the citrus tree correctly planted, here’s a tip for nearly any type: REMOVE ANY AND ALL FRUIT FOR THE FIRST TWO YEARS! I know … ouch! But if you want good production starting in year three, remove all buds and all fruit at their smallest stages. That will allow the tree to focus all its energy on root- and leaf-development. Anyone who has succeeded with citrus will confirm that. And folks who didn’t follow that advice will probably verify that it took 5-7 years for success and that the first five years were very unproductive.