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Published January 15, 2011

When ordering nursery trees, fruit growers often ask for large, tall, heavily-branched trees, and nurseries do their best to supply them. But Paul Tvergyak, marketing director with Cameron Nursery in Eltopia, Washington, said a ¾-inch caliper tree that’s six feet tall with numerous branches might not always be the best bet.

Those big trees might look really good, but the nursery uses the same digger for the large trees as for the small ones, so the big tree will have a relatively small root system. At planting, the limbs will need to be pruned off to get the tree back in balance with its roots.

“In my opinion, you’re better off dealing with a ½-inch or 5/8-inch tree,” he said. “The balance is already there. Don’t get hung up on ¾-inch trees.”

If you’re thinking of planting a new orchard, and have a specific rootstock and scion combination in mind, be sure to plan far enough ahead so you get the planting material you want, Tvergyak advises. Most trees sold in Washington are two years old, and the decision about the rootstock needs to be made two and a half to three years in advance. The nursery needs to know what scion the ­customer wants two years ahead.

Most nurseries grow most of their trees under contract. Growers should get a price break for contract trees, as it’s an advantage to nurseries to have them sold in advance and not have to speculate, Tvergyak said.

Bench grafts are quick to produce, and are usually made in January for planting that spring. The scion can be selected the previous fall, but the rootstock decision needs to be made earlier.

Order the rootstocks for sleeping eyes two winters before you plan to plant them, Tvergyak advises. Though it ties up your money, it’s better than gambling and then not being able to find what you want. The scion is budded on the sleeping eyes in August, just like two-year-old trees, but they are only in the ground for one winter.

Irrigate

From the moment the trees are dug in the nursery, they begin to dehydrate. Irrigate the ground before planting and again immediately after. This is particularly important with bench grafts or sleeping eyes, ­Tvergyak said. Mud them in to ensure good soil-to-root contact.

“Don’t plant today and irrigate tomorrow. Irrigate four hours after the trees are in the ground and keep the water on,” he said. “You don’t want to drown them, but you don’t want to let them dry out.”

Two-year-old trees and sleeping eyes are dormant when you receive them and can be planted as early as February. The bud union on a bench graft, however, is sensitive to cold, so bench grafts should not be planted until after the risk of frost. They can be planted any time from late April to June.

When planting trees that are on dwarfing rootstocks, plant them with the bud union at least five inches above the ground to avoid scion rooting. The trees will sink a couple of inches after planting. The dwarfing effect of the rootstock is lost when the scion roots.

Grow tubes can protect bench grafts and baby trees from herbicides, but the temperature inside the tube might be 30 degrees higher than the ambient air temperature, Tvergyak said. “That’s not bad if it’s 40°F outside, but if it’s 60°F, that’s hot.” The tubes will be on the trees for a year, and in summer, the temperatures can be extremely high. Usually, the tubes are on sticks, and lifting them three to four inches off the ground can help dissipate the heat.

Grow tubes will attract insects that otherwise probably wouldn’t be in the orchard, Tvergyak said. Cutworms and aphids love them. Insecticides need to be applied inside the tubes.