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Can Fruit Trees Grow in Rocky Soil?

As I’m from Florida, I was surprised at how rocky the soil is in Texas. It seems that you can’t dig without hitting a rock in most places. I was curious about how this affected gardening, and more specifically growing fruit trees. So, I did some research to find out more. Can fruit trees grow well in rocky soil?

Fruit trees can grow in rocky soil since they typically have shallow roots. However, their growth can be limited based on the number of rocks. Rocky soil can prevent root growth as well as draining too much water. For best results, grow shallow-rooted fruit trees or plant in raised mounds and add plenty of soil.

Many times, gardeners with rocky soil will find they can only dig less than a foot into the soil before they reach either too many rocks or large sheets of rock. This can definitely be discouraging, but is rocky soil really that bad for fruit trees?

Is Rocky Soil Bad for Fruit Trees?

rocky soil near my house

The two main disadvantages fruit trees get from rocky soil include the water draining quicker than other soil types and that the rocks can physically block the roots from reaching deeper water and nutrients. This also means the fruit trees won’t be anchored well. However, you can fix these with raised soil or beds.

While many fruit trees prefer a loamy soil with a pH between 6.0-7.0, they can still grow in rocky soils with the proper techniques (more on this later).

On the other hand, fruit trees have adapted to many different and difficult growing conditions, and rocky soil is not a stranger to them. However, some fruit trees are better adapted to handle rocky soils than others. Let’s take a look a some of them.

The Best Fruit Trees for Rocky Soil

The best fruit trees to plant in rocky soils are fig, olive, some stone fruits, and berry bushes. These plants have relatively shallow roots and don’t need as much soil. However, with the proper soil amendments, you can grow most varieties of fruit trees in rocky soils.

Generally, the best fruit trees to use for rocky soil include:

  • Fig
  • Olive
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Berries

Keep in mind that while many trees can generally grow well in rocky soils, their growth still depends on how much rock is in the soil. For example, if you’re planting a fruit tree in just a few inches of soil, and there’s an impenetrable sheet of rock just underneath, it’ll naturally have issues growing.

However, most fruit trees have shallow roots, so they typically don’t need much soil at all to grow—about 90% of a fruit tree’s roots will grow in the first 2 feet of soil.

Most roots are found close to the soil surface, with 90% or more of all roots located in the upper 60cm. Whilst the typical depth of tree roots has been exaggerated, root spread has often been underestimated – they usually extend outwards well beyond the branch spread (‘drip line’).

Trees.org

So, if you’re hoping to grow other fruit trees that are not on this list, there are still ways to grow them (assuming your hardiness zone supports it)!

How to Plant Fruit Trees in Rocky Ground

The best way to plant fruit trees on rocky soil is to add at least a 12-inch layer of dirt, compost, and mulch. This is also called the “no-dig” method. By doing so, you’re providing the fruit trees with a growing medium they can use to effectively root and access nutrients.

Let’s take a look at some of the top methods of planting fruit trees in rocky soil, starting with the least effective.

Use a Pickaxe

pickaxe breaking clay and rocky ground

While using a pickaxe is an obvious option, and one that will take a lot of work, it’s still an effective way of breaking up the rocks. However, I wouldn’t recommend this option unless you only have a couple of larger rocks.

Use Raised Beds or Containers

my large fabric potting container
A large fabric container I recently purchased

Raised beds have been popular for a long time since they can be placed just about on any terrain: hilly, wet, and of course—rocky.

Aside from being able to be planted anywhere, raised beds can help you maintain control over the soil and its drainage.

However, one of the biggest cons to raised beds is their price.

I’ve seen many raised beds that cost hundreds of dollars, and it doesn’t really make sense to me.

I like to use fabric for my containers, but for raised beds, I’m moving to a mound and Hugelkultur approach (more on this next). If you’d like some DIY ideas for raised beds that won’t break the bank, check out this post by apieceofrainbow.com

Use the No-Dig Method

raised mound of soil and compost in my garden
A “No-Dig” experiment I did for clay soil in my parent’s garden

No-dig means instead of tilling or digging, you’re using mounds of dirt, mulch, and compost to build the soil up. You can then plant in these mounds, giving your plants plenty of access to valuable soil and nutrients. This works great when combined with tougher soils, such as clay or rocky soils.

Here’s how you can use the no-dig method for your fruit trees when dealing with rocky soil:

  1. Mix equal parts compost and dirt
  2. Apply in a 12-inch layer throughout your garden, or just use in mounds where you’ll be planting your fruit trees
  3. Plant the fruit sapling in the new dirt
  4. Apply a 1-2 inch layer of mulch on top of the soil
  5. Supplement with 1-2 inches of compost every month or two

No-dig is similar to using raised beds, just without the frame.

To keep it even easier, you can combine this method with Hugelkultur, which is using trunks, branches, and leaves first, and then covering them with dirt. Not only do you use less soil, but the nutrients from the plant matter will decompose and provide amazing nutrients and hold moisture well for your fruit trees for years to come! Hugelkutur can even be used in raised beds.

burying logs in a hugelkultur mound
Logs about to be buried in a Hugelkultur mound

There’s a reason why the no-dig method has been exploding in popularity recently.

Why No-Dig Is Best for the Soil

Digging and tilling exposes the beneficial microbes and fungal layer (called mycelium) in the soil, exposing them to the elements and killing them. This is the fastest way to turn soil into dirt. By not having this beneficial layer in the soil, plant nutrients are limited and soil erosion is greatly increased.

While it may be tempting to fight against nature and force the rocks out of the soil, this can actually do more harm than good (not to mention all the work, time, and cost required).

In Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil, he learned firsthand why conventional farming didn’t work on his ~1000 acres in North Dakota. And one of his biggest lessons learned? Digging and Tilling.

In summary, digging and tilling kills the beneficial life in the soil. This is the same soil life that provides valuable nutrients found deeper in the soil in exchange for sugar given from the tree’s roots.

Unfortunately, tilling is also the primary reason why so much topsoil is lost from farms.

As Gabe mentioned in his book, no-dig is what nature does, well—naturally. Think about it, have you seen anything in nature that flips and tills the soil as we do?

So, by not digging in rocky soil, and instead—grow the soil upwards, you’re saving yourself a lot of time and effort. You’re also providing your fruit trees (and other plants) with amazing nutrition and health, meaning—more fruit for you!

If you’re looking at ways to further improve your garden’s health and productivity, I highly recommend Dirt to Soil (it’s also on Audible). I won’t even provide an affiliate link for it in this post because of how helpful it was for me in understanding how soil really works.

Final Thoughts

It might seem that you’re stuck with rocky soil, but know that instead of digging down, you can build the soil up.

Most of the time, it’s too difficult to clear rocky soil. Instead, consider using raised beds or the “no-dig” method to provide your fruit trees with soil that they can work with. With this, their roots will find their way around the remaining rocks and take the path of least resistance. As you add more soil to the mounds, the rocks will become more scarce and gardening will be easier.

While rocky soils can be a downer, many gardeners said they prefer rocky soil to clay soil as it’s easier to amend, so keep that in mind!

If you’re not a fan of any of the solutions above, know that you can still grow your fruit trees in containers or primarily use berry bushes (since their roots are especially shallow).

Remember—you don’t need to buy a lot of soil. There are ways you can get fill dirt for cheap or even free! You can also use any spare logs or prunings in Hugelkultur beds.

If you’d like to learn more about Hugelkultur, and see what happens to logs when they’re buried in raised beds, check out this awesome video by Self Sufficient Me:

It’s a good idea to check how rocky your soil is before buying fruit trees. If you’d like more information about what to know before buying a fruit tree, make sure to check out my recent post: 7 Things to Know Before Buying a Fruit Tree.