Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Backyard Orchard: Choosing a Site

There is something nostalgic about an orchard in bloom or during the harvest with the branches bending over heavy with fruit.   My father and a family friend purchased 30 acres in New Harmony, Utah.  On the property were  pear, apple, and peach orchards.  These were standard fruit trees, large and beautiful.  The orchard was so inviting with spring blossoms and wonderful harvests and vivid fall colors not to mention the spectacular view of Kolob Mountains.  We did not live on this property, and I was in high school so I rarely helped with the hard work required to maintain the orchard, but I enjoyed the fruits of my dad's labors Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Jonathon apples, pears, and peaches.....yum!  It was my first introduction to truly fresh fruit.  My dad sold this property while I was in college, but my husband and I have been fortunate to move back on 5 acres in the area.

One of my first priorities after purchasing the property was to put in an orchard.  (Not sure that was my husband's priority.  He was trying to build our home.)  I enlisted the help of my son and we planted bare root apple, pear, cherry, plum, and apricot trees and today enjoy the fruits of our labors.

Planting fruit trees seems to be a priority with a lot of new home owners.  Whether it's a few trees or a more ambitious effort there are important considerations in planning and establishing a home orchard in order for it to be productive.

The first thing to consider is the site. This is VERY IMPORTANT because it is a permanent planting. Give consideration to tree spacing, sunlight, microclimates, shelter, and water when choosing a site.

1.  Spacing

The space needed for a fruit tree depends on the rootstock of the tree.  Fruit trees are grafted into a rootstock.  The rootstock determines the size, disease resistance, and soil requirements.  The scion or top of the tree determine the fruiting variety, fruiting habit, and disease resistance.  Tree size is either standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Standard are full size trees 25-30 ft tall if not pruned.  They have a long life span and produce loads of fruit.  Standard size trees will require ladder work for pruning, thinning, and picking.  Also a good mechanical sprayer to reach the top of the trees.  The advantage is they are beautiful old heirloom orchard trees that provide shade, beauty, and fruit for generations.  Their size is also nice if you have deer and an unfenced orchard.  A common rootstock is MM111 for apples.  A standard apple tree can yield 20 bushels (42lbs).  the distance between the trees will be same as the height of the tree.  In a 30'x30' area you can plant one standard tree,  4 semi-dwarf, or 9 dwarf.

Semi-dwarf trees are a good compromise between a standard and dwarf.  They reach a height of 16 ft.  so ladder work will still be necessary, but easier to manage than with a standard tree.  They bear fruit sooner than a standard tree. Semi-dwarf trees can produce up to 6- 10 bushels of fruit. They do not need to be staked like a dwarf tree.  They live longer than a dwarf but much less than a standard tree.  M7 or G11 are common rootstocks for semi-dwarf.  These are very common in a nursery.  If you purchase from a local nursery you rarely know the rootstock.  With bare root most companies let you pick your rootstock which for me is important.

Dwarf trees are becoming more popular in commercial orchards.  They produce fruit soon after being planted and no ladder work is needed.  They can be planted close together; 8 feet apart and only reach a height of 8 feet.  Rootstock is M9 and BUD9.  They produce 3-6 bushels per tree.  The disadvantage is they need to be staked especially if winds are an issue.  They are short lived.

Another thought on spacing in the orchard.  Even if you plant smaller trees you want to be able to get equipment around in your orchard.    Take into account if you will be using a tractor, consider your spray set up and plan accordingly.  You will probably regret too close of plantings.

2.  Sunlight

Fruit trees need sunlight for blossom development, pollination, fruit set and production, and healthy growth.  Eight-10 hours is ideal.  Fruit trees need no less that 6-8 hours of sunlight.

3.  Soil

You do not want to plant where there is poor drainage.  So it is a good idea to do your own percolation test.  Dig a hole 1 1/2 to 3 feet deep and 12" wide.  Fill the hole with water and let it drain.  Fill the hole a second time and time the drainage rate per hour.  One to 2 inches per hour is ideal.

Consider the texture of the soil.  A sandy loam is ideal.  Too much sand does not hold water or nutrients well and too much clay creates drainage issues and compaction.

You can do a soil test also.


Elevation, slope, and surrounding structures and vegetation can create a microclimate.  On a calm night cold air will settle in the lowest point of your property causing fruit and blooms to freeze so avoid putting an orchard there.  You want good airflow but some protection from high winds.  Natural vegetation can provide a wind break or a fence which allows airflow.  


Plan out how you will irrigate your orchard.  To do this you will need to know what size trees you are planting.  We use bubblers with very large tree wells.  The tree wells should extend to the drip line of the tree.

It pays to plan out an orchard and not rush into planting.  Research tree varieties.  Talk to locals in your area and consider the time you have to care for your orchard.  To get quality fruit orchards are a lot of year round work.  Next post will focus on planting and variety selection. 

Before determining the size of you orchard I advise you to read this post so you are aware of the work required to have a healthy orchard.  

Here are some additional posts on orchard care:

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