Starting an orchard is itself a large topic. You are building not only a long term foundation in soil but also in trees. To be sure starting an orchard and fruit requires a large initial investment of time. There isn't any obvious payoff for many years. When that payoff comes, however, it makes up for any loss. Not only is the fruit of the tree delightful, but there are multiple distinct and unique advantages gained through the process.
Certainly different varieties of fruit grow in different parts of the country, however, the diversity of fruit that will grow even in relatively cold climates is amazing. While our orchard naturally includes common fruit trees as well as bushes and canes, we always refer to our nut trees as a part of the orchard, as well.
We started our orchard of 20 trees almost 20 years ago. Year by year as we cleared more land, another row of trees would be planted. Boulder and stump removal were the difficult early projects, followed by soil building with wood chips, leaves, manure, hay and lime.
Once established, the trees' needs shifted to pruning, fruit thinning, and pest management. We attempted to stay organic, but with bad cases of brown rot in the stone fruits, we sometimes use slightly harsher chemicals. One year we tried grafting, but never got the knack of it.
Some things we would do differently, were we to do this again:
New England is too cold for apricots - we learned that the hard way. The blossoms all get frosted. Cherries have not done well for us either. So today my preferences would only include apples, peaches, pears and Japanese plums. Be sure your varieties are compatible in terms of pollination. Disease resistant varieties are a benefit. Also we have attempted to restore an old apple tree on the property. It is coming along, so we are hopeful. Our orchard is planted on a hillside, so drainage is no problem. Fruit trees do not like waterlogged roots. One disadvantage to our orchard is the tall trees on the east and west. The neighbors land is on the west, and my wife's favorite Maple tree is on the east, so our orchard gets less full sun than I wish. But it is what we have.
When the saplings are first planted they will need special training to give them a strong shape which they will hold for the rest of their lives. I mention this lower in the section on tree maintenance, however, this is a need requiring special and thorough consideration prior to putting the trees in. When fruit trees are young they take on the shape they will usually hold for the rest of their lives. Thus at this stage they all need special training which differs for different types of trees. Many factors play into how you want to train your trees which all will affect maintenance later on. Having properly trained trees can make many jobs connected with them much easier. For example, if a tree has many branches near the ground you may not be able to get a ladder anywhere near the center of the tree.
An orchard is largely an investment in the future. Like many other things, the longer the benefit you expect to get the longer you must invest before you will see a result. Peaches are a good choice early on. Within 5 years you will start to get fruit, and by 20 years the trees will be dying off. You will probably need to prop your branches. Apples are a longer-term commitment. Expect to wait 10 years before you get a good crop of apples, but they will live to be 100. Pears live around 80 years; note that they tend to get quite tall. We use ladders now to pick our pears. (Two extension ladders with the tree in the middle makes a kind of stepladder).
All the fruit trees need thinning or they will injure themselves. Kiwi should be one of the faster fruits but it took ours over 7 years to set a crop. We transplanted them 11 years ago which really set them back but this year we did get a fair sized crop. However it was only about 10% of what the bush could produce at full size. In many ways blueberries are more like a tree than a bush. Again about 5 years to the first real crop.
Tending an orchard includes both care for the trees on the one hand, and on the other, general land maintenance, which includes the soil, groundcover and weeds.
Maintaining the orchards can be interesting. Our fruit orchard has been turned over to the chickens for many years. They have devoured all the plants they like, leaving the less succulent weeds for us to remove. They also remove the bugs that would otherwise plague our orchard. While we still have an insect battle on our hands, it is nothing like it could be. The one side effect of having chickens in the orchard is that ours like to dig, like a dog. They take dust baths and over time can create quite the excavation.
In our nut orchard, we have to wrestle with the encroaching woods. We have cot frames arranged around the trees to prevent the deer from dining on their branches. It seems that orchard trees must be more tasty than their forest neighbors as the deer always try to eat the domestic trees first (apples are the worst). The rest of the space we try to mow regularly.
We have some contact with local farmers, and import chicken and cow manure. We have found that a good bed of leaves (around 8 inches thick) with a light cover of manure will break down over winter and make for nice soil next spring.
For mulch we use mainly hay from broken and damp bales. In the orchard you must be careful as mice will hide in the hay, and chew the bark on the trees. After the tree is girdled in this way, it won't live very long. Having chickens in our orchard, this is no longer a problem. However, the chickens do scratch the hay all over.
Every seven years we rest our gardens at which time we usually plant a ground cover. We also keep some ground cover in the orchards. We like to use alfalfa or red clover for this, and we have not had any significant trouble with volunteers the next year.
The trees, bushes and canes need training in the form of pruning, and the fruit they put on often needs thinning. Even with the reduction in weight that thinning provides, it is still necessary to support the branches of weak trees like peaches. Alltogether, putting time into maintaining your trees will give you stronger healthier trees, able to resist disease more effectually and to produce better fruit.
The maintenance trees need every year is very important. While different trees need pruning at different times of the year, most is done in the spring. Removing all broken and diseased branches as well as branches which interfere with one another, is necessary every year for all trees. Branches, which shoot straight up from limbs or the trunk, usually very fast without branching out, are called suckers. I have seen them grow in excess of 6 feet in one year. These will only produce leaves for several years while using up large amounts of a tree's energy. As they usually interfere with the branches over them they must be pruned off. Some trees put out too much growth each year, which makes the branches long, thin, and thus weak. Pruning these will make the branches shorter and stronger.
Raspberry canes also need attention here. Because raspberries only produce on second year canes, the old ones need to be removed every year. We have tried cutting just the old canes out by hand and also mowing alternate halves of the patch each fall. Cutting the canes by hand is time consuming, however, mowing half the patch means we only get fruit from half the patch, which is ok for us as that is still plenty of fruit. Raspberries are very prolific.
Thinning fruit is the removal of a portion of the small fruit from a tree. We do this only to our peaches, which will produce enough fruit, if not thinned to break their own branches. Thinning also allows each tree to put more energy into the fruit which remains, thus producing larger fruit.
Tip: With a little supervision young children can help with various aspects of pruning and thinning. Like any other task, whether or not a child can do this is dependant on their individual ability and our commitment to teach them.
Pest, varmint and desease controle is closely associated with tree maintanence.
Like in our garden, we prefer to stay organic in our orchard. The main things we have to contend with are worms in our apples and brown rot in our peaches and, of course, squirrels stealing everything before it comes ripe. To cut down on disease we try to pick all the rotten fruit off the trees and from off the ground on a regular basis. A good ground cover also helps keep spores from dropped bad fruit from making it back up into the tree. In the spring we try to prune off all the dead and diseased branches so that nothing can spread through them.
Tips: Pick up fallen fruit or rototill it under so the fruit is not left on the surface. If you don't mold will quickly spread. You may want to remove all thinned and diseased fruit from the property.
When Dad and Mom first arrived here nearly 20 years ago they set to work clearing land. After sufficient land was cleared, fruit trees were set out. A large quantity died yet many lived growing into our 2 large orchards that cover about one acre of our yard - the nut orchard and the fruit orchard. The nut trees have yet to bear nuts but the fruit trees flourish producing fruit in their season as God created them to do almost 6,000 years ago. Several years after planting, the first harvest was gathered, for fruit trees do not begin to produce until well established. Depending on the kind determines how long till they bear. The peaches started at 3 years from the nursery, the apples at 10 and the walnuts should start at 40, along with many others in between
Some of our trees have reached 30' tall. Therefore to harvest them we use pole pickers and ladders. We own 2 fruit pickers. One is home made and stands 20' tall. This one is very unwieldy but it reaches the tops of trees we could not otherwise pick. The other is store bought standing 6' tall. We use it a lot because it is so handy. Ladders are good at many different heights. We us 6', 8', 10', 16' and 40' ones depending on what we need. Particularly on the 40' extension ladder we use a produce apron, it is a really great tool that permits you to climb and /or pick with both hands. This is handy especially with large trees such as ours. In the past 20 years we have made many mistakes and learned much. There has been a lot of hard work, but I think considering all it has been a worth while investment of time, effort and money.
Tip. Use a produce apron. They save a lot of effort and time.
Tip. Set out trees as soon as possible so that they can start to get established.
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