When you’re thinking about growing fruit trees, it can be daunting when you think about getting them to grow in less-than-ideal soil conditions. After all, clay isn’t all that great for growing so many plants and trees. So do fruit trees grow well in clay soil?
Only a few fruit trees can thrive in clay soil unless the clay soil is amended to improve drainage and overall nutrition capability. Clay soil can be amended with other soil types, mulches, compost, and other organic material so that fruit trees can thrive in amended and improved clay soils.
Ready to learn more about growing any and all fruit trees in clay soil – the easy way? Here’s my complete guide to growing fruit trees in heavy, clay soil – Utah style.
How to Know if You Have Clay Soil in Your Garden?
The easiest way to check the soil type is to look at it, walk through it, and pick up a handful of the soil. Clay soil will stick in large chunks to your shoes or garden tools. Clay soil, when squeezed, turns into a ball of dirt easily without falling apart. Clay also stays muddy easily while wet and cracks when dried out.
You can also send soil samples to any of the various agricultural centers or extensions that will do a detailed soil analysis for you. We sent a soil sample to Utah State University’s agricultural department for analysis even though we knew it was clay. Their analysis told us a lot of great information about how to amend our soil – and that it was too salty (we didn’t expect that!).
Clay particles are more than 1,000 times smaller than the smallest sand particles according to Linda Brewer of Oregon State University. This is the reason why it forms a big clod when it is wet because it holds a large amount of water in its particles and the reason why it cracks during hot seasons is that the particles shrink and pull more tightly to each other which makes it hard to dig into.
But clay soils shouldn’t stop you from achieving that perfect garden, right? To help you a bit, here are some of the fruit trees that can grow well in clay soil without much amendment.
The first thing that you should know is what type of soil you have in your backyard. All soils have different textures and properties in them so, knowing the type of soil is one of the most important things that you should consider when starting your own garden.
If you don’t know the type of soil that you have it will more likely that all your efforts will be in vain. You don’t want that right? Nope. We don’t.
So, here are the six types of soils that you should need to know about. Knowing these will help you know how to amend your soils to get that perfect garden soil where things grow so much easier.
Soil Type #1: Silty
The first type of soil in our list is the silty one, this soil is made up of particles left behind by bodies of water that solidified over time. It has a smooth texture and it can also hold water better than other types of soil.
The only downside to it is that it tends to become compact and hard but, don’t worry because if you mix it with some organic materials and provide better drainage for it, it will be perfect.
Soil Type #2: Sandy
This soil warms up quickly, especially during spring. This soil is also one of the hardest ones to manage especially during summer because it dries out fast. It has fewer nutrients in it because it tends to get washed away.
When it comes to the texture, this one is pretty rough and needs organic amendments in order for your plants or trees to grow well.
Soil Type #3: Loamy
This is a mixture of sand, silt, and clay which is the ideal type of soil that most gardeners want to have and achieve. This type of soil is dark, and crumbly in texture, and it is also full of microbial life which supports a lot of types of plants and trees. It can hold nutrients that make this soil more fertile and good for plants.
The only downside to it is that sometimes it can contain small stones, which can affect the growth of your plants or trees.
Soil Type #4: Chalky
This type of soil contains a large number of flints and limestone and it is purely alkaline which makes it hard to support deep-rooted plants. It is a struggle to grow plants and trees in this kind of soil because of its pH level, it can even lead to stunted growth of trees.
But you don’t need to worry because you can still balance the pH level of this soil by using fertilizers.
Soil Type #5: Peaty
Peat soil usually has fewer nutrients because of its composition. Unlike other types of soils, this one is much darker. It is also spongy when it comes to texture because of its high level of peat. It can retain water like crazy, creating a literal bog if there’s too much peat in one place.
Peat soil is great if it is mixed with other organic matter such as lime, which can help in reducing the acidity of this soil.
Soil Type #6: Clay Soil
And lastly our star for this article: clay soil. This type of soil is packed with minerals and nutrients which is important for plants to grow well.
Sadly, this type of soil is also very compact which makes it hard to dig in especially during summer. It does not end there because when the heat gets high the soil cracks, which is real misery even for expert gardeners.
Even in the rainy season it still brings problems because it turns into a sloppy mess in your backyard.
Fruit Trees That Grow Well in Clay Soil
Some fruit trees will grow well in clay soil without you having to do anything about it. Based on my research, those trees can include the following.
- Stone fruit tree
- Yellow Mombin
Now, there are definitely some of those trees that aren’t going to grow in Utah. And that’s okay. Some will only grow and bear fruit for some years (I’m looking at you, apricot trees! Darn those late spring frosts that destroy blooms!).
In any case, these ones should grow fine in clay soil based on my research and literature reviews of various agricultural extensions and research papers.
That being said, they’ll all still grow fine (if not better) if you amend the soil first. Don’t worry – we’ll talk more about how to amend the soil in a bit. But first, let’s get a list of trees that have to have amended soil to grow well.
Fruit Trees That Need The Clay Soil Amended to Grow Well
Here are some of the fruit trees that you can grow in your backyard with amended clay soil. They won’t grow well at all if you just put them in pure clay soil.
- Citrus trees
- Fig tree
- Passion Fruit
- Sour Cherry
- Surinam Cherry
Pro tip and spoiler alert: you can grow just about any fruit tree in your yard if you amend the soil first.
Again, not all of these trees can be grown in every location.
I can’t grow the more tropical fruit trees here in Utah – it’s too cold in the winters. But if I had a big enough greenhouse that had healthy soil? Then I could probably do it. But a greenhouse is a project for another year. 🙂
How to Amend Clay Soil for Best Fruit Tree Growth
All in all, the regular amendment of your soil can improve the structure and overall health of your clay soil into healthy garden soil. Amendment can also lead to much easier working soil the next time you are going to plant in it.
Just remember, amending your soil takes a lot of time and patience, but it is more than worth the wait! By now you already know how frustrating clay soils are so, what can you do to amend this type of soil to achieve that perfect fruit backyard?
You don’t have to search anymore because here is a list of how to achieve it. You’ll want to mix and match these tips – or even use all of the tips like we did when we planted our trees.
Tip #1: Add compost to your soil
Adding compost is one of the best things that you can put into your clay soil. It can be kitchen scraps from fruits and vegetables, it can be leaves, twigs, and even animal dung is a big help. You can mix it with your clay soil when you are planting or you can just spread it on top of your soil.
Tip #2: Mulch your soil with worm castings
After placing some compost into your clay soil, you can now put some organic materials into it such as fertilizers, mulch, and even some worm castings.
All of these amendments have their ways of helping; just like the worms, they can burrow through your clay soil and aerate it which can help in improving the structure of your soil.
Tip #3: Use additives like gypsum
Gypsum is s a soil conditioner that is composed of calcium sulfate dehydrate. Gypsum helps improve the salinity of your soil and also adds calcium to it, which is good for your trees.
Gypsum can also change the structure of your soil particles which makes them loose and have better drainage and water retention.
Tip #4: Add beneficial fungi
Adding beneficial fungi to your tree roots wasn’t my first thought as we were planting our little orchard, but thankfully my husband knew this trick – and he made sure I remembered to look into it during the research phase of writing this article. Thanks, love!
Mycorrhizae play an important role in a fruit tree’s nutrition. Planting it near your fruit tree can help it obtain more moisture and nutrients which is good for your tree in the long run. Ideally, add it to your fruit tree roots when planting.
When we were planting our fruit trees, we bought fruit trees that had soil and a root ball. We scored the root ball to help it expand more easily – and then liberally coated the root ball with beneficial fungi per the instructions on the box.
Tip #5: Mix the soil with other soil types
If your soil has too much clay, consider adding other types of soil to the mix. Specifically, add in a little bit of sand to help break things up.
As we planted our trees, we sprinkled layers of sand and peat moss in with the existing dirt. This way, we could jumpstart the transition from pure clay to beautiful garden soil.
Sure, it meant that we had to buy some sand and peat moss – but our trees have matured and grown so much faster in better soil. And, more importantly, our trees were able to put down solid roots in the amended soil.
Our part of Utah has winds that hit 70-90 miles per hour, so we need our trees to have strong enough roots despite the clay to withstand that kind of weather.
How to Plant Fruit Trees in Clay Soil
Planting in clay soil is the most challenging part that you will ever experience but, no need to worry because here are some tips on how to plant fruit trees in this type of soil:
Step 1: Pick your tree
The first step is to properly choose the type of tree that you will plant in your backyard. Make sure that the tree that you are going to choose is adaptive in clay soil and appropriate for the temperature where you are located.
Step 2: Prep your location
The next step is to prepare the place where you want to put your plant. Location is very important as it will tell if your trees will thrive well. Call any utility companies to make sure your preferred dig site isn’t over any utility lines or pipelines.
Step 3: Dig a hole
This is the area to plant your fruit trees. Depending on where this is, you may also want to till and aerate the area around where you’re planting the tree.
- Dig the hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the root ball. Make sure the hole gradually slopes out.
- We’ve been reading new research that says sometimes a square hole does work well, depending on the type of tree or plant. We’ll test it on the next tree we plant.
Step 4: Amend the dirt
Mix the dug-out dirt to amend it. Seriously – do it now. Otherwise, you’ll forget and have to dig it back out and mix it back in later.
We like to mix it in the wheelbarrow as we’re digging the hole for the tree. That way, we aren’t mixing a huge pile of clay with other things. We’re all about easy!
Step 5: Plant the tree
Don’t forget to loosen the tangled roots, ok? And sprinkle on the beneficial fungi while you’re at it.
Step 6: Fill the hole
Refill the hole in layers or by mixing the regular soil with the amendments.
For best results, fill the hole with already-amended soil from the wheelbarrow. You can also layer the amended clay soil with peat moss, mulch, and sand to help things even more.
Then cover the soil with the rest of the clay soil and top it with organic materials such as mulch to help the overall health of your soil and fruit tree.
With every layer, don’t forget to compact the soil. This will help the tree stay planted firmly – and get used to fighting through some of the compacted clay it’ll experience soon enough.
Step 7: Water and wait
Water it and let it settle for a few days. As time pass by, the soil will sink, what you need to do is fill it up again with soil until it levels with the ground surface.
If you compact the soil well enough in the last step, then you won’t have to add any more soil during this step. You’ll just need to keep watering it.
Step 8: Take care of the tree
Take good care of your tree. Mulch and water your fruit tree as needed to help it grow.
As you dig your hole in step number three, I’ve got two more pieces of pro advice for you.
First of all, make sure you follow your local rules about calling your utility companies to check for any buried wires or lines before you dig. In Utah, we have to call “blue stakes” before we dig anywhere. They come out and mark where any buried utility lines are so that we can avoid them.
In many places, if you don’t call the companies to come mark lines for you, then you’re responsible for any damaged lines. But if you do call them? Well, trust me. Call them.
In our last house, we called before we planted a tree in our backyard. Only, somehow an electrical line wasn’t in the spot where it was marked. As a result, our power flickered and our AC unit stopped running in the middle of the summer. But thankfully, because we’d called before planting the tree, the utility company came out and fixed the wires – we weren’t liable for repair costs. I think we did have to move the tree over a few feet was all.
In any case, call the utility companies first. If you’re lucky, you’ll just have to call one number and they’ll send all the various companies out to mark where not to dig.
The second piece of advice – dig the proper shape of the hole. Now, I’m not a graphic designer. So please excuse my sad little graphic here.
But don’t just dig a hole big enough to fit the roots of the tree. Dig a hole that’s twice as wide and twice as deep as the existing root system and dirt of the tree. It’s more work upfront, yes. But this way you’re amending the soil around the tree so that it’s got time to adjust from the beautiful soil its root ball is into the clay mud around it.
That way, it’ll have the energy to break through into the regular soil instead of getting root-bound inside of the hole you dug for the tree.
So the tree will go from its beautiful garden center soil to the amended soil to the clay. It’s a much better transition than just from garden center soil to pure clay. It’ll give the tree more growing time and strength to break into the clay and have strong roots – so that it can survive better.
12 More Tips on Proper Planting of Fruit Trees in Heavy or Clay Soil
So, by now, we are sure you already know how to plant fruit trees in clay soil. But here are twelve more tips on how to properly plant fruit trees (and trees in general) in clay soil.
Tip #1: Pick the right location
Location is very important in planting your fruit tree; as it will define if your tree will grow well.
Choosing a perfect place where your tree can receive at least 8 hours of direct sunlight is very important. Well, it’s important if the tree needs full sun, anyway. Some trees prefer partial shade. So here is the next tip!
Tip #2: Pick the right tree for the spot
Clay soils have more alkaline in them so, choosing the right fruit tree that can handle the pH level of this soil is very important. So be sure to look at the right tree for both the soil in the spot and the sunlight that spot happens to get, too.
Tip #3: Don’t over-till clay
Tilling is the process of preparing and cultivating the soil for planting. As much as possible, though, you should avoid excessive tilling the clay soil wet because it can make the soil compact even more. This is especially true if it’s still wet – and it may bind up your tiller to boot!
Clay soil that is too compacted will then lead to poorer drainage, fewer nutrients, and poorer tree growth. My rules of thumb for tilling clay are these.
- Till as little as needed when the clay has dried at least 1-2 inches deep.
- Till the clay enough to get in the amending agents and then quit tilling as soon as you can.
- Till as infrequently as possible.
- Switch to a no-till methodology as soon as it’s possible.
You can do no-till gardening with clay soil, but expect the full amendment process to take years (if not decades or longer). This is one of the times I’m okay with using tilling to get things going faster. I’m fine spending 3-5 years getting the soil improved, but decades before I can properly garden? Ouch. That hurts!
My philosophy: I’ll spend 3-5 years tilling (as little as possible) to get the clay improved to where I can garden – and then I’ll continue improving the soil over the next few decades, too.
Tip #4: Dig the right-sized hole
When digging the clay soil in your backyard, you should make sure that the depth of the hole needs to be at least twice as wide as the diameter of the root ball of your fruit tree. The depth should be twice as deep, too.
Yes, it’s more work – but it’ll lead to a healthier tree a whole lot faster.
Tip #5: Don’t dig too deep
Remember to not dig too deep, though. Digging too deep can cause water retention and it can cause a cut-off of air supply into the roots which can leave the roots of your tree to rot.
Digging too deeply can also cause soil erosion and other diseases to your fruit tree. That’s why, when you are digging the clay soil in your backyard it is very important to make it as wide and shallow as possible in order for your fruit trees to have more space and for it to have proper water disposal.
In my experience, digging twice as deep as the root ball of the fruit trees isn’t too deep. Digging more than that? That’s too deep. We don’t need to reach Moria or anything. #nerdjoke
Tip #6: Test the hole size
When the hole is already ready, one way to test it is to fill it halfway with water. If the water does not drain within 1 – 2 hours, then it is not the perfect place to plant your fruit tree because it only means that it has a serious drainage problem.
But, if it drains within a few minutes, then it means that it is perfect for planting your fruit tree.
If you can’t plant the tree elsewhere, consider digging a little bit deeper to improve the soil for drainage issues before planting the tree.
Now you know why we dig our holes twice as deep as the root ball – it’s to improve the drainage! Our soil is pure clay, folks.
Tip #7: Loosen the roots
When you remove the fruit tree from its container, please make sure to loosen all the roots so your tree will grow properly.
We do it by gently raking the sides of the dirt with both a knife (to score the roots and encourage new growth) and a small shovel (trowel). This way, the dirt is loose enough for new growth.
Tip #8: Keep the tree straight while planting it
When we plant our tree and pack the amended soil around it, we use a level to make sure we’re planting our tree plum (at a good, 90-degree, perpendicular-to-the-ground level, or “plum”). One of us will be on tree-plumbing duty while the other compacts the dirt.
By having one person on tree-plum duty, we can make sure that the tree won’t be planted at some weird angle – and we drastically reduce the need for stakes for the tree by compacting the dirt around it. Which is the next tip. 🙂
Tip #9: Compact that dirt around the tree when replanting
If you take the time to compact the dirt around the tree during planting, then you won’t have to add more dirt later. And you may be able to skip tip #12, which is to stake the tree. We rarely have to stake trees anymore – even with hurricane-strength winds here in Utah.
All because we jump up and down on the dirt while replanting our trees. Yes, we look silly. But yes, it works really well. Our kids love planting trees with us – they love being on jumping duty. This is good because then we can have an adult on tree-plum duty.
Tip #10: Don’t plant the tree too deeply
Remember how you dug a hole that was twice as deep as the roots? Yeah, don’t plant the tree that deeply. You’re going to need to backfill that hole with amended soil.
Make sure the planted tree sits a little bit higher than the ground. This is especially important if you’ve got a dwarf tree via a graft. If that graft gets covered? You’re going to end up with a full-sized tree (and definitely not a dwarf tree).
Mixing some compost and other organic materials into the clay soil is also a big help in making your fruit trees grow healthier.
Tip #11: Water your tree regularly and appropriately
You can now water your tree. Be careful not to overdo it as it can make your tree suffer from overwatering. Watering it once or twice a week is enough. Make sure that the hose that you are going to use has a slow soaker sprinkler attached to the end.
You want your water to dig deep into the clay for water – so don’t flood the area with water – or you’ll end up with a tree with shallow roots. And those trees tend to blow over during even a gentle breeze, let alone a proper Utah wind storm.
Tip #12: Add supports if needed
Adding some support to your fruit tree is also a big help when the tree is first growing, especially if you are from an area that is windy all year round. Staking your tree can also help your fruit tree in case of any unpleasant weather conditions.
If you do stake your tree, use supports that won’t dig into the trunk or bark.
In our experience, you don’t need to stake the tree – as long as you plant it properly. Oh, and if you do stake the tree? Don’t forget to remove the stake once your tree no longer needs it.
Final Thoughts on Planting Trees in Clay Soil
Planting trees in clay isn’t hard – once you know how to do it. We’ve planted a lot of trees in clay – mostly because where we live is pure clay. But as we dig each hole and amend the soil? To date, we haven’t lost a single tree from wind or soil issues. I’m sure that, given enough time, we’ll lose a few trees to the canyon wind storms we get here.
But we’ve loved having our little orchard – and that we can plant the fruit trees we want, even if we’ve got pure clay soil. Sure, we’re working to amend and improve the soil in our whole yard. But it’s going to be a decades-long process to improve the whole half-acre.
So in the meantime, we’re focusing on improving the areas where we’re growing food – specifically, the areas where we’ve got our fruit trees and garden planted. And amending the soil as we planted our trees? It’s made a world of difference in seeing how much faster our trees grow and thrive by following the steps and tips I’ve outlined for you here.
But seriously – don’t even cover the graft on a dwarf tree. Or you end up with another full-sized tree (when you wanted a dwarf). We’ll have to cut down that peach tree later – and replant it with another dwarf tree.
In any case, make sure you read my article on growing fruit trees in pairs next. It’s a good resource – and a good read!
Or if you’ve already got your trees planted, here are my tips on pruning – as well as whether or not you can prune in summer and fall (the answer will surprise you!)
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- Brewer, Linda. “There’s No Break for People Who Garden in Clay.” Oregon State University Extension Service, 18 May 2020, extension.oregonstate.edu/news/theres-no-break-people-who-garden-clay.
- Montgomery, Peggy. “Kiss Clay Soil Problems Goodbye with These Tips.” Better Homes & Gardens, 9 June 2015, www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/soil/fix-clay-soil/.