Enhance soil or start over

jimfnc(7aNC)November 9, 2012

6 years ago I put in 3 dwarf apples (Bud 9 stock)suited for NC (local grower). My soil is hard / dry clay, so I added some additional organic stuff in the hole, and plenty of mulch. Fertilized decently, 6 hrs direct sun daily. The 3 are still "sticks", little growth, no apples, few blooms. This is the only sunny spot in the yard. Some posts suggest it doesn't take great soil. I know from digging other holes it is incredibly hard clay, no rocks, likely fill from roadbed. Even grass is hard to grow. Other trees in yard are giant oaks & hickory which seem to have no problem.

Idea is to wait till dormant, dig them out, change it to raised bed in same area, or at least dig to a sufficient depth with a tiller and not replace all the soil, but make it more 50-50. Is this a bad idea? May consider new healthy starters..

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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

It sounds like your trees are starved for water and nutrients, primarily water. So if you can improve the soil by digging down or building up you should be able to grow a proper tree. If it were my soil I'd want to know if there is a hard layer on top. You suggest there might be. If so breaking through that should allow better growth.

Commercial growers often either deep rip or dig a big hole with a backhoe. Maybe a backhoe is what you need.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 10:35PM
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water - that is part of the plan to add drip or soaker irrigation.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 10:43PM
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alan haigh

Except that trees in decent soil should grow in spring with just stored rain water. You don't improve soil by dumping amendments in the planting hole- this often does more harm than good.

With sand the tendency is too much air not enough water, with clay the opposite. Clay needs to be broken up (creating aeration) when moist, not soaking and it is beneficial to plant trees on raised beds. Compost can be generously blended into top few inches of soil but must go well beyond current root system to have positive affect. Soil also needs to be broken up well beyond existing root system when planted.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 10:27AM
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alan haigh


This is a decent handout of current science of transplanting trees.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 10:28AM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

Like you, I have heavy clay soil (wet all winter, dry/cracked and rock hard in the summer), and it's been a real struggle to establish new plants/trees. If you decide to remove the trees and rework the area, I'd suggest planting in raised mounds/beds rather than trying to heavily amend the soil (as harvestman suggested). I've used that approach with cane berries, figs, and few other fruits and have had generally good results.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 11:40AM
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So in the case at hand what is your opinion HM? Backhoe well below the root system, backfill partially with soil/OM mixture, then follow 633.pdf (shallow wide hole basically)? Also, does anybody here inoculate newly planted trees with mycorrhizal spores? Would it help the tree, and if so, short term or long term?

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 6:21PM
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alan haigh

I dig up the trees in very early spring, make raised beds and replant. If trees are spurred up I prune the little spurry shoots or at least remove all flowers and give them a couple of years- the first to return to vigor the second to get a decent size and the third to enjoy my first harvest.

A handful of forest compost should adequately innoculate soil with mychorizal fungi or just some soil at the base of an established tree if this is an issue.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 6:31PM
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Another concern of mine is expecting your new fruit trees to compete with giant oaks and hickory already in the same area. I would definitely go with the raised bed. At best you can expect your new trees to get a start in your bed before the oak and hickory roots notice the new fertile soil and invade it from below. Al

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 8:01PM
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Thankyou harvestman for the link to the Science of Planting Trees... it pointed out many of my mistakes.
One question - it indicated bare root trees have a much lower survival rate than potted trees, yet other posts on this forum (I thought) were indicating bare root was preferred in starting trees. Do I have it backwards?

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 10:34PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

Did you happen to buy 'Ballerina'-type apple trees? Their natural habit is fastigiate. They're going to look more like pencils than mushrooms.

And they're suitable for growing in containers...

You might be able to dig them up now, pot them up, and see what happens in spring.

And, when you do, look at the roots. If they've started to circle in the holes you made - they'll be starving by now. If they've barely made any root growth - I'd add plenty of chippy gravel (5-7mm) to the mix which will give drainage, air, and encourage the roots to branch out.

While they're luxuriating in their new homes - if your ground is still workable - and will take the weight of the digger without compacting the soil further - get it all turned over to around 24" once you've set aside that precious topsoil. Add at least 4" of ROUGH compost - with stems and chunky bits stirred up with old horse manure, if you can get it, and some blood and bone fertiliser.

You might be able to get a green manure crop going. If you can't - mulch the area for the winter.

As you dig - see if those larger trees have sent out roots to feast on the goodies you added. (I've met pine trees that will travel 30' uphill for such feasts.)

If they have - and you want to plant your trees in the ground, you will probably have to install some sort of root barrier. Otherwise, grow in the containers.

Make sure you have pot feet under the containers, particularly if you are using half barrels. And charring the inside before you plant seems to help to stave off rotting. (Sorry about the awful pun!)

Hope you have a better show of leaves next year.

PS You could consider adding water crystals to the mix if you know your summers can be droughty.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 11:14PM
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alan haigh

Jim, the guidelines are helpful but misinformation is included in everything, including that handout. Writers, even those that should know better, tend to want to infuse things with their own anecdotes, or incorrect interpretations of research. A potted tree may be more likely to be alive at time of transplanting but I transplant hundreds of bare roots every year and usually only loose a tree or two.

The advantage of a good bare root tree is that you usually get relatively more root for the money and that root is immediately established in the soil of the site instead of being in an artificial soil of a completely different texture than the native soil. Potting soil dries out quickly and contains very little native nutrition for the tree.

The handout also suggests that you only mulch the soil outside the existing rootball which is based on research but I still ignore the suggestion because I think the research only revealed the difficulty in getting water to penetrate the mulch. If you don't mulch there, rainwater will be funneled into the rootzone if the mulch is at all water repellent. If you make sure the soil remains moist under the mulch, it can only be helpful as long as it isn't piled against the trunk.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2012 at 5:44AM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

If I had clay, I'd dump a bunch of 5 gallon buckets or rock under my plantings (bottom of the planting hole) and plant on top of that.... Or I'd plant everything in raised beds with woodchips...lots and lots of woodchips.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2012 at 10:23AM
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alan haigh

I keep raised beds for trees raised by mulching annually with wood chips. Woven landscape fabric can also reduce erosion and you can also just throw dirt back up annually with a shovel, which is what I always do in my raised bed veg garden. The latter method maintains the loosest and most aerated soil of all and was the original "French intensive gardening" method. It duplicates the condition of a slow landslide where plants grow at most accelerated rate.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2012 at 11:44AM
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My soil is heavy clay that is dry most of the year, with average precip around 14 inches. Anything raised is a problem in this soil/climate combination, since clay is very difficult to wet once it has dried out (being raised dries it out faster), and all water tends to run off or penetrate only the top layer, even with mulch added (also exacerbated in raised situations). Instead, mulched SUNKEN basins are the key here.

I get the best results where the soil has been loosened over a wide and deep area (such as with a backhoe like fruitnut suggests), amended and mulched with organic material.

Nearly all of the trees that I initially planted in holes the size of the rootball (as many gardeners in other climates and with other soil types now suggest) in undisturbed native soil died or had to be moved, even with adequate watering. Their roots, and the supplemental water I was giving them, were never able to go beyond where I had dug the hole. Fortunately I've learned enough to have many thriving trees and shrubs today.

Jim, I realize much of the above may not apply to you, but hope it's helpful in gaining an understanding of your soil. But going back to your original post, I'd like to point out that those large native trees are not really dealing with the same soil you are, they likely have roots spreading over thousands of square feet of area, and so are not limited to the hard clay soil that as you guess was brought in for the road.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 2:43PM
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alan haigh

I have never found any difficulty in keeping raised beds moist that are well mulched with wood chips. The honeycomb affect of worms feeding on the wood but burrowing into the soil allows easy water penetration IME.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 4:26PM
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From my experience, a key to keeping your trees moist until they get established is to mound a 6 inch berm or moat around the tree 3 feet or so in diameter. That way, virtually all of the rain or supplemental water goes to the root ball. I did this when planting 25 fruit trees in my hard Georgia clay and last fall, planting the rootball about 2 inches above grade and filling the 3 foot area with wood chips. All the trees have done well.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 5:43PM
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H-man, your advice is surely more pertinent for jim, given that your on the same coast. I was just speaking of my climate and soils, which not many folks on this forum have first-hand experience with (I may be the only regular here from New Mexico).

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 9:38AM
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alan haigh

Yes, and when I give my advice I am only speaking from my experience and even though I contradict people rather bluntly (mostly for brevity, I hope) I realize that I'm only offering opinions and not the final word. I've worked the west and east coasts but still have a lot to learn about growing trees, even in the limited area where I work.

The idea of using berms to help catch water, whether from rain or irrigation is sound. I usually just settle for creating a flat mulched plot at base of trees and rain doesn't tend to run off that except when shredded wood mats up. I use an inverted berm for hose watering.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 10:55AM
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NC has bad soil that has been over worked, compacted and stripped of forest (back in the day). I have a friend down there whom constantly complains about the poor soils, and the work he has/have done to amend it. He has also been telling me about the lack of rainfall over the last few years (not so much this year).

He describes the soil as having a "thin laer of sand on top of really clay, compacted soil". You should maybe think of working the soil with organic materials (peat, compost, manure, leaf mold/half composted leaves etc). I also liek Harvestmans suggestion about adding some forest compost. IF there are any wild crabapple trees in your area, try and grab a small bucket of the multch/small amount of soil.

Since the soil is pretty bad, the addition of a nitrofying tree species may help loosen up soil, as well as build it. Using a ground cover of nitrofying plants/soil building plants wit deep roots will help as well (and so will adding organic matter, which invites worms, as Harvestman suggested).

You may also want to make a ring of soil around the tree to help guide water to the roots. This is usually dug right at the drp line, but a foot further out may be more beneficial, as there are some studies suggesting the roots go out much further in poor soil (has to go farther to find nutrients/water)

    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 7:54AM
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