Heeling-In Fruit Trees & Staking Grafts

Autumn is the ideal time to plant bare-root fruit trees. Once your trees have arrived from the nursery its best to get them in the ground ASAP. Sometimes this isn’t possible; this is when ‘heeling-in’ comes handy. Heeling-in is a technique used to store bare-root fruit trees temporarily until they’re ready to be planted. Its a simple procedure which basically entails digging a trench large enough to accommodate the roots of the tree, then placing the roots in the trench so the tree is almost laying on the ground, at about a 90 degree angle parallel to the ground. Fill in the hole with soil so the roots are entirely covered.

Situate roots in trench so they’re not circling.
Fill in trench and tamp down soil firmly over the roots of your bare-root tree.

Its best to do this in a shadier spot to prevent drying out. Bare-root trees are incredibly sensitive to drying out and they need to be treated with care. Don’t wait too long to heel in your trees if you’re not ready to plant them right away. Trees should generally not stay heeled-in for more then a month or two. With that being said I have managed to forget about heeled-in trees only to find them a season later well rooted with new growth. Don’t do this. Most of the time, however, I heel-in trees for a 1-2 week period until planting day.

One of the most exciting and interesting parts about gardening is you’re always learning something new. Each season new lessons are learned and knowledge is further refined. Its a never-ending learning process. As the garden grows so does the gardeners wisdom. This is experiential knowledge and distinguishes really knowing something versus just thinking something to be true. This year I learned something valuable about topworking trees. ‘Topworking’ refers to grafting high up in mature trees. This may be to switch over a variety or to add more varieties to a tree. I did a lot of apple tree topworking last spring. When grafting onto mature roots first year graft growth can be astonishing…and sometimes too vigorous. I’ve seen apple grafts grow 4+ feet in one season, same for persimmon and chestnut. That can be a big burden for a barely-healed graft union. While walking around the chestnut orchard at Nash Nursery a couple weeks ago I found a clever system they’d devised for staking 1st year grafts. This video shows that system:

Seeing these staked grafted was an Ah Ha! moment for me…thinking back to those apple trees I’d topworked last spring I’d realized this is what they needed. Just a couple days ago when walking through the orchard I came across one of the most successful topworking jobs from last spring…only to find one of the grafts had snapped off!  Needed those stakes…

Fortunately these bark grafts were done in fours on each limb to ensure at least one success.

Staking is good not only for providing structural support but also for directional training. From what I’ve seen these grafts want to grow vertically…staking them at desired angles and directions could be beneficial.