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DIRT THERAPY By Marianne Taylor
DIRT THERAPY By Marianne Taylor

By Marianne Taylor

My European mother raised us four kids with seasonal fruit. Back in the 1960s when most of my friends had pools installed in their backyards, ours was transformed into an orchard with a variety of commercial-size fruit trees, providing maximum yields from our apricot, plum, peach, kumquat and citrus trees. Our backyard looked more like a farm with fruit spilling over the walls.

From May to September, we knew exactly when each tree would deliver the delicious fruit. The neighborhood kids helped manage our abundant trees by climbing over the walls to grab the fruit. Looking back, our oversized commercially grown trees produced more than 300 pounds of seasonal fruit—enough to feed the entire neighborhood and make several dozen pies and canned jams. Good thing we shared with the neighborhood!

With today’s homes having patio-size gardens, homeowners have turned to smaller fruit tree varieties for care, maintenance and control of fruit production. Commercial-size trees are no longer used in backyard spaces; instead, standard semi-dwarf and dwarf trees have taken their places.

Planting a backyard orchard has never been easier when you plan, prepare the location and follow the right steps. Proper drainage, sunlight, mounds, soil amendments and mulch are key for successful fruit tree management and production.

Our good friends at Dave Wilson Nursery,, have a great guide to backyard fruit planting with successful ripening throughout the seasons:

Planning: Start with fruit tree varieties adapted to your area.    

Are you in a warm winter area that requires low-chill varieties? Are your summers too cool for some peaches? Be sure to consider varieties with known pest and disease resistance when available. Learn about fruit tree chilling requirements, especially if you live in a spring-frost or warm-winter climate.

Find a retail nursery that specializes in fruit trees chosen for your area. Ask specialists for ideas and recommendations about what to grow. See what’s in season at local farmers markets.

Test your drainage:

  • Dig a hole about l foot deep and fill it with water.
  • If the water drains within three or four hours, fill the hole again.
  • If it takes longer than three or four hours to drain on the first or second filling, you have a problem! 

If your intended planting site drains poorly, your options are:

  • Don’t plant there.
  • Plant the tree above the present soil line by constructing a berm, mound or raised bed.

Prepping: Berms and Mounds

  • Place the root crown (the upper part of the root system) to just below the soil line.
  • A 6- to 12-inch-high raised planting area (mound or berm) is sufficient to raise tree root crowns above wet soil. A 6-inch-high mound should be at least 2 and a half feet in diameter, a 10- to 12-inch mound or berm at least 3 to 4 feet wide.
  • Mounds should have as gentle a slope as possible to minimize erosion.


  • For the healthiest trees and tastiest fruit, choose the sunniest location available with at least 8 hours of sunshine.

Layout and Spacing:

  • Depends on how much fruit you want and trees in total space
  • Dwarf sizes are easier to control, maintain, prune, thin and harvest.
  • Plant as close as 18 inches apart for two, three or four trees in one hole.

Planting Fruit Trees:

  • No fertilizer is needed when planting a bare root tree.
  • Soil amendments help with poor drainage with clay soil and will help maintain moisture in sandy.

Planting Depth:

  • It’s important not to plant too low. Look at the soil line on the tree trunk in the nursery container.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree:

  • Dig the hole a little deeper than the root is tall and make it wide enough to accommodate the longest roots without bending.
  • Loosen the sides of the hole.
  • Backfill with native or slightly amended soil until the bottom of the hole is at the right planting depth for the tree. If multi-planting in one hole, backfill to correct planting depth for each tree.
  • Prune off any broken, rotted or twisted roots, making a clean cut.
  • Position the tree, spread the roots and refill the hole, tamping the soil around the roots as you go.
  • If planting in fast-draining soil, water thoroughly in order to finish settling the soil around the roots. In slower-draining soils, water a little at a time, over several days if necessary.
  • Usually, no further water is necessary until there is new growth of several inches.

Last Steps:

  • Apply mulch as a top dressing that will benefit plants and the soil; as mulch decomposes it provides a steady source of nutrients to plants and organic matter to the soil. It helps to stabilize and conserve soil moisture.

For more backyard garden talks, join us at the Eco Garden Expo April 23 and 24 in the Los Rios Park in San Juan Capistrano. More than 20 speakers and 60 exhibitors will be on hand promoting and providing everything you need to know to be successful in your garden. For more information, visit

Marianne Taylor, of San Juan Capistrano, is the founder and executive director of Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens, a 501(c)(3) teaching gardening and life skills as a way of empowering, engaging and connecting people.

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