You might think there's zilch to be done in the garden but you'd be wrong – there's still time to plant bare root fruit trees this month and next. These plants get a head start when put in the ground in late autumn as young roots begin growing before dormancy kicks in during winter, but this is only possible if your tree arrives while the weather is settled with no immediate risk of hard frost.

Unpacking new trees is always exciting and they benefit from a good drink of water after their journey. My bare root plum trees arrived just before Christmas, when I couldn’t drive a fork into the ground, so I had to soak the roots and give them a temporary home in the polytunnel.

Choose a sheltered and sunny spot for fruit trees, since you want the blossom to be protected from cold winds or frost and the fruit to ripen well.

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Good drainage is also essential. If you’re worried about whether your preferred site is suitable, check by digging a hole slightly deeper than the root system. Cover it then inspect it 24 hours later – if it fills with water, the ground’s too wet. If necessary, break up a clay or stoney base with a fork and fill the hole with water. If it drains away by the next day, it’s safe to plant.

Then widen the hole so it’s three times the root spread and break any compacted soil round the edge with a fork. This will allow the roots to travel sideways easily.

To encourage root growth, don’t overfeed the soil. Simply mix in two or three spadefuls of homemade compost and sprinkle Rootgrow to encourage the roots to travel horizontally in search of nutrients.

Although you can plant single-handedly, it’s easier to have someone holding the tree upright, while you replace the soil. The tree should be held so the graft is above soil level. The graft is the short, thicker part of the trunk where your chosen variety is grafted on to the rootstock that controls the height and vigour of your tree. If you cover the graft, the stronger rootstock will grow instead of the variety you want.

As one person shovels, the other should gently shoogle the tree so the earth mixes through the roots. Periodically tamp the ground gently round the roots and finally firm the soil on top. It will still be higher than ground level, but should gradually settle down.

If your tree is free-standing, you may want to stake it for the first two or three years to prevent rocking while the root system is establishing. If you’ve chosen a sheltered place then this shouldn’t be necessary and the tree will be stimulated into developing stronger roots and a sturdier trunk if subjected to a little rocking. You can also damage a trunk by over-tightening the tie or leaving it on for longer than is needed.

If you are planting in an exposed place, pick up four 120cm-tall stakes from a garden centre. Drive the stakes into the ground at 45 degrees and attach them firmly, but not tightly, with a special tree tie or bind in a figure of eight with a strip of material.

Fruit trees normally require cross-fertilisation with nearby ones and, although some varieties such as Egremont Russet, James Grieve or Victoria are described as self-fertile, they always produce heavier crops if near to one flowering at the same time.

So, unless you’ve only got room for one tree, which must therefore be self-fertile, always plant close to one in the same pollination group.

The soil round young trees should be kept weed and grass-free to reduce competition. It should also be kept moist and an organic mulch helps conserve this.