A primer: Planning and caring for fruit trees

  • Young trees with posts at Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield. Staking helps the tree grow vertically, Clark said. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Peach trees during the growing season at Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Ben Clark, owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Blossoming fruit trees during the growing season at Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Ben Clark is happy about the abundant peach blossoms in his Deerfield orchard in this file photo from April 27, 2017. Clark offered good advice on how homeowners can have a tree or two or start their own small orchard. Staff file photo/Paul Franz

  • Ben Clark is happy about the abundant peach blossoms in his Deerfield orchard. April 27, 2017. Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Published: 1/10/2022 6:47:50 PM

Seed catalogues are arriving and most gardeners are already putting their minds towards spring plantings. If you are interested in planting one or more fruit trees, now is the time to start looking at distributors, said Ben Clark, owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield.

“It’s good to be thinking ahead as you would want to plant in March or April,” said Clark, who suggests Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Fedco Seeds, particularly if you are looking for heirloom varieties.

The Clark family has been operating Clarkdale Fruit Farm since 1915 and still maintains some of the original trees. Clark offered good advice on how homeowners can have a tree or two or start their own small orchard.

Make sure you have an appropriate site

Clark said that you want to have a site with plenty of sun. “Especially in New England. You want to have a site that is well air-drained and not a hollow where frost can settle in,” he said.

Preferably you want a site that is a southern-facing slope.

“It’s ideal if you have elevation as well,” said Clark, explaining that apples and pears are more hardy, but peaches and other stone fruits benefit from the warmth at an elevated site. “They are more cold sensitive.”


“You want to have well-drained soil, loamy, and no clay,” said Clark, adding that if your site is wetter, the first thing you need to work on is improving drainage.

“Most fruit trees want to be well anchored, but not with clay,” he said.

Heavy clay soil also allows for water to pool too long around roots, which can lead to rot.

“Last year was such a wet year, a lot of plants suffered,” said Clark.


Obviously, you will want to select fruit trees that will provide fruits you enjoy. For homeowners, unless you have a very large property, you will want to select dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, Clark said.

“You want them to be 10 to 12 feet at maximum height,” he said.

The sapling will be typically two to three feet high and “bare root” — meaning it is in a pot with soil.

“You’ll want to be able to pick your fruit from the ground or only need a small ladder,” Clark said.

It is also important to factor in whether the tree is self-pollinating or if you need to have another flowering fruit tree reasonably nearby for cross-pollination.

“If, for example you planted Honey Crisp apples, you would want to have two distinct varieties or have another type of tree for cross-pollinating,” he said.

Clark added if you only had one or two trees but had a neighbor who has a flowering fruit tree, such as a crabapple, that would likely suffice. “They don’t have to be right next to each other,” he said.

Clark said that most of the stone fruit trees are self-fertile.


Clark said you want to have enough space around the tree so you can mow under/around it and be able to pick or prune easily.

“Twelve to 15 feet apart is a nice wide space and allows the trees to not have to compete for sunlight,” he said.

Clark said you would want to dig the hole for the tree so that the soil can be tamped down lightly by the base of the tree evenly. “You want to repack the soil so you aren’t leaving space,” he said.

When your tree is 1 to 2 years old, you will want to stake it with a wood or bamboo stake using twine or plastic ties, as the stakes will remain for a number of years. “Avoid using metal. It will just rub the tree and cause damage,” he said.

Staking helps the tree grow vertically. Clark said an 8-foot stake would work for most homeowners’ trees. Staking also helps when there are storms to keep the tree from falling over, especially if it has gotten top-heavy.

Mulching is helpful to keep the weeds down. Clark said to never use fresh wood mulch as it will drain some of the nutrients from the soil. Also don’t put more than a couple of feet of mulch or you will attract mice and voles.

The most important thing Clark recommends is to place a tree guard around the base of the tree.

“Rabbits and moles can girdle the tree and kill it,” he said, adding to take care weed whipping around the base of your fruit trees as that can also girdle and kill the tree.

Fertilizing and pest control

Clark said most homeowners can use a 10-10-10 mixture and to not fertilize until the tree has been in the ground for a week or two to avoid burning it.

“Just put about a cup of it around the root base. You only need to do that a couple of times a year, in spring and summer. Be sure to use the instructions on the bag,” he said.

In terms of pest control, Clarkdale uses an Integrated Pest Management system. In simpler terms, Clark said the goal is to use the least toxic and as little pesticide as possible.

Weather also is a factor depending on how much precipitation there is. Clark said to never spray trees in the winter.

“It would damage the trees if it were too cold. You want to wait until you have steady temperatures in the spring, when you are starting to see green tissue,” he said.

A horticultural oil and/or copper can be used to kill off insect eggs, and reduce bacteria and disease.

“You want to be sure you are using personal protective equipment such as glasses. Most people use a 2-to 3-gallon pump sprayer to apply,” said Clark.

For more in-depth information, Clark said the UMass extension agricultural services and the Cornell University website are good resources.


Again, your dwarf trees should only be 10 to 12 feet high and Clark said 8 feet is a typical height.

You want to maintain it in a pyramid shape, wider at the bottom and tapering up. Pruning in this fashion allows for the tree to receive the best distribution of light and air. It also helps to prevent disease he said.

Clark said when pruning to never cut more than a third of the tree and to plan for the following year in terms of how much you will be taking off. Always cut from a joint cleanly. If you cut in the middle of the branch (a stub cut) the branch will generally die. Having dead wood on the tree often leads to disease and infestation, Clark said.

You want to prune when the tree is dormant. Clark said February or March is a good time.

“You want to do less cuts but try to keep the growth controlled as well. You are directing the tree. Sometimes it’s really more art than science,” he said.

Cris Carl is an avid local gardener, licensed therapist and certified herbalist. You can reach her at cstormfox57@gmail.com.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy