How to Grow an Orchard

How to start an orchard

The first step to starting a small (or large) scale orchard is planning. It’s a lot easier to plant an orchard than it is to move it. Having an orchard can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. If you’re someone who loves a good apple, pear, or cherry, then you might be interested in planting a few fruit trees. Besides providing food for you and your family, fruit produced by your trees can also help supplement the diet of your animals. Not to mention that you only have to plant a fruit tree once, yet enjoy the fruits of you labor for decades.

Obviously, not all fruit trees will thrive best in your climate/region. As such, it’s prudent to check and see which trees and varieties grow best in your area. For this your local nursery will be your best resource. Given the time and care that it takes to grow a fruit tree, it’s best to not try and be a rebel. There is probably a good reason why no one else in your Northern region has tried growing mangos.

Things to Consider When Planting:

  • Certain fruit trees thrive better in certain climates. For example, fruit trees such as apples, pears and cherries do well in northern regions. Whereas fruit trees such as oranges and peaches thrive best in southern climates.
  • Fruit trees need a lot of sun. Because of this you should plant them in open areas where the sun won’t be blocked by larger trees.
  • Some trees need a pollinator in order to produce fruit. It’s important to do your research.
  • When planting a fruit tree, you should dig a hole twice the size of the root ball. Fill the hole with water and let it drain before planting the tree. In some instances you may find it advantageous to plant young trees alongside a long stake to help give it support. When you plant the tree, the top of the root ball should be near the surface of the soil. It should not be over the top of the soil or too far down.
  • When trying the tree to the tree stake, be careful not to tie it too tight. You should leave enough slack that the bark is not damaged and that it has enough leeway to grow.
  • Generally speaking fruit trees tend to fare better if they are regularly pruned. Pruning promotes better production from the best fruiting branches while also removing any growth that may lead to problems.

When planted, the soil line should come up just below the trees “graft line.” The graft line is recognizable by a change in the bark color at the base of the trunk. This line indicates the spot in which the root system meets the tree trunk.

Once you have planted you fruit trees it’s important to use mulch to lock in moisture, add structure to the soil, and provide nutrients. The best mulch for young fruit trees are high in carbon. This includes such things as leaves and straw. I have personally used composted horse manure since it’s high in nutrients and retains moisture.

After you have planted your fruit trees it’s  important that you take care to protect their trunk from insects, weather, and small animal. Rodents have been known to show fondness for the bark of young trees. If they “girdle” the tree (strip the bark all the way around) it can easily die. During the winter months the cold nights followed by warmer sunny days can cause the bark to crack. These cracks can be an entry point for various diseases that can harm the tree.

There are several methods for protecting your trees’ trunk. I have seen some orchardists use chicken wire that is fastened around the base of the tree (not nailed to it). Another popular method that I have seen used with some frequency is to paint the base of the tree with a thick coat of white latex paint. The white paint prevents the base of the tree from cracking due to exposure from the sun, and also perturbs small rodents.

Watering and Fertilizing

How often you water depends a lot on where you live and the time of year/weather. A good rule of thumb is that you should water your fruit trees enough to where the grass around them is lush and green. If the grass around the trees is dry and brown then there’s a good chance that your tree needs some water. This is especially important in your tree’s first year.

Pruning:

The main purpose of pruning trees is to get rid of diseased or damaged branches, encourage new limb growth which will typically start producing after their second year, control the height of the tree in order to make the fruit more accessible, as well as develop good limb structure, maximize fruit production, reduce the need to prop up fruit-laden branches, and promote an overall healthy tree.

Although fruit trees can be pruned any time of the year, they are typically pruned in the late winter. This is because the fresh cuts won’t be exposed to the sever icing and cold temperatures of mid-winter, and you can influence the tree’s spring growth. The two exceptions to this are plumb and cherry trees which should be pruned in the summer months, the reason being that they are susceptible to silver leaf disease which is more prevalent in winter.

The first step in pruning a tree is to focus on removing any branches that are dead or diseased. It’s also advantageous to prune branches that cross the tree trunk; the reason being that an open center will help increase air flow and allow greater distribution of sunlight.

Young trees generally won’t start producing much fruit until their fourth to fifth year. In their adolescence fruit trees will devote most of their energy into promoting good root and limb growth, rather than producing fruit. You should focus on pruning to produce a strong tree.

Apple trees in particular have two different ways of setting fruit buds.  These two ways are known as tip-bearing and spur-bearing. Most apple trees are spur-bearing.  However, older varieties of apple trees tend to be tip-bearing. Knowing which of these applies to your trees is important since you don’t want to cut off the fruiting wood. If you aren’t sure which applies to your tree you can look it up provided that you know the variety of your apple tree.

As previously stated, new branches will start producing after a couple of years, after which time they will produce well for 3 to 5 years before tapering off. Branches that are no longer producing well should be pruned back in order to promote better growth in younger branches. In doing so, this will help you have a more steady crop over the years.

Pest and Disease Control:

When it comes to tree pests it’s important to focus on prevention and early detection. In my youth I had a plumb tree that got a fungal disease which caused leaves to start to curl and shrivel up. After some research I found that it was treatable, except in extreme cases such as mine where I had waited too long.

Fruit such as apples and pears can become a breeding ground for insects. Some of these insects can be harmless, while others can be harmful to your trees. As such, one should remove/discard any fallen fruit to your compost area/animal feed.

A great organic method for preventing insets is to allow your chickens (if you have any) to free range around your fruit trees. Chickens will eat insects, in doing so keeping them from getting out of control. I have heard of a winery that uses a large number of ducks for the same purpose.

Another method for preventing insects from infesting your tree is to wrap the trunk of your tree with “tree tape.” Tree tape works by trapping insects that are trying to crawl up the tree trunk. Another method is to use Saran Wrap and a product called “tanglefoot.” Wrap a strip of Saran wrap around the tree’s trunk and add some tanglefoot. The invading insects will become stuck and won’t be able to proceed up the tree.

I have also heard of a different method (not sure how well it works) that is used on aphids and other insects that uses the same philosophy. This method is to make a “tree paste” by mixing equal parts sticky clay, cow manure, and sand. Mix the ingredients together and apply it to the tree.

Birds:

In my experience birds aren’t a major issue when it comes to apples, pears, and plums. However, they do tend to love cherry trees. I have observed several local orchardists who have developed several methods for deterring birds. These include tying brightly colored stringers from the trees that move with the wind. I have also seen the cutout and models of large birds (such as hawks) being used as well. The orchard near my childhood home took to using firecrackers in order to scare them off.

Bug spray for fruit trees:

Recipe 1: Mix 2 quarts water with 1 teaspoon of horticultural oil and 2 quarts of isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol will kill any insects on contact and the horticultural oil will make it stick around to perturb  other insects.

Recipe 2: Mix one tablespoon of cooking oil, two tablespoons of baking soda, and one tablespoon of Ivory soap into a gallon of water. Add to spray bottle and spray trees. Be sure to shake often since the ingredients with separate.

Fungal Disease:

Try mixing two tablespoons of baking soda with 1 gallon of water.  Liberally spray the affected areas every couple of days. If this does not suffice. you may need to buy something at your local gardening store. From personal experience I can tell you that fungal disease can spread quickly and kill a fruit tree in no time at all. As such, it should be treated quickly and vigorously.

Grafting:

One of the many great things about growing fruit trees is that one tree can grow different varieties on one tree. That isn’t to say that you can grow cherries on an apple tree, but rather you can grow different varieties’ of apples on one tree. This is done by a process called “grafting.” Grafting is done by taking a cutting from one variety of fruit tree and attaching it to a different tree. Although there are a number of grafting techniques they generally involve taking a section stem with leaf buds and inserting it into the stock of a tree.

There are several advantages to grafting. One advantage is that you can have a greater variety of a given fruit without having to plant multiple trees. Another advantage is that with little trouble you can extend your growing season. For example, some varieties of apples grow earlier/later than other varieties. As such, a single apple tree can produce appled for much longer. Not to mention that a grafted branch will start producing faster than a tree grown from seed.

Grafting Terminology:

  • Topworking: This involves cutting back the branches on top of an established tree and grafting branches or buds from a different tree onto it.
  • Scion : A small branch that is about 1 year old that has three or four buds. This small branch is cut and inserted on the stock or “understock.”
  • Understock or stock:  The part on which the scion is inserted. Also known as the “rootstock.”
  • Cambium: Cambium is a cellular plant tissue and is located between the tree’s wood and bark. Cambium can be found both on the wood surface and on the inner bark.
  • Dormant : A time (winter months) when a living tree is at rest.
  • Budding : A type of grafting that involves inserting a single bud into a stock. This is typically done in late July and August, towards the end of the growing season.
  • Budstick : A shoot of the current season’s growth used for budding. Leaves are removed leaving 1/2 inch of leaf stem for a handle.
  • Cultivar : A cultivated type of plant.

Popular Grafting Techniques:

There are many different ways to graft trees and plants. For the purposes of this article I will focus on the simplest and most widely used methods with a proven track record of success. These methods are the “Cleft Graft,” the “Side Graft,” and the “Budding Graft.”

Cleft Graft:

The cleft graft is typically used for “topworking” older established apple and pear trees. This method works best for branches that are around 2 inches in diameter and is typically done in late winter when the tree is still dormant. These grafts are best made within 2-3 feet of the trunk and no more than 4 to 6 feet from ground. If they are made any higher then the new growth with be too high off the ground.

Cuts:  The cuts should be made in a place that is free from knots.  Cutting off the stock should be done with a saw. Cutting the cleft should be done with a large knife. You should also be careful to avoid splitting. After a few trials you will learn the proper depth of cleft.

The scions should include three buds, and should be cut to form a wedge of about 1 1/2 inches in length. One side should be cut slightly thicker than the other so they don’t grow too far apart and split. Also a sharp scion wedge will not fit the cleft as well as a wide one.

Union: Open the cleft (the cleft being the cut you made to insert the scion) slightly with a knife or screw driver. Insert a scion on each side, and make sure that the inner bark of stock and scion are in contact. Also make sure that the thick side of the scion is facing out.

It’s important to note that the bark of the larger stock is thicker than the scion bark. As such, it’s advantageous so make sure that the scion is slightly tilted to insure that the cambium layers cross.

Tying and covering : There is generally no need to tie this type of graft unless the stock is small and does not bind well. However, it is a good idea to cover the union with a grafting compound to help protect it.

 Modified Cleft Graft: 

The “modified cleft graft” is similar to the cleft graft. The biggest difference is that instead of grafting two cuttings (scions) you are only grafting one. For this the single cutting should be the same size at the branch your are grafting it to. Also, unlike the “cleft graft” you will most likely have to wrap it with either grafting tape or with electrical tape.

The Side Graft:

As the name would suggest, making a side graft involves grafting your cutting into the side of a branch. In my opinion this is somewhat easier than the “cleft graft” and can be done on lower branches.

Cuts: Select a smooth place on the branch that you will be grafting your scion (cutting) to that is at least a foot from the trunk. Make a slanting cut into the branch that reaches almost to the core of the branch. Whittle the scion to a short, yet sharp wedge that’s about 1 inch in depth with one side being thicker than the other.

Union:  Bend the branch back slightly in order to open the cut. Press the scion in to the point in which the cambium layers of the stock and scion meet on either side.

Tying and covering – The area of the graft should be covered with grafting compound in order to protect it. You may also find it advantageous to use grafting tape in order to make sure that the graft remains firmly in place and stands up to birds and wind.

Bud Grafting:

Budding Refers to a form of grafting in which a single bud is used rather than a section of stem. It’s a common method that is popular with nurseries and can be used with most fruit trees including young apple trees, pear, peach, plum, and aricot.

This type of grafting is typically done in the summer, usually from mid-July to mid-August. This time of year is when the tree’s sap is running and the bark of the stock slips easily and there are well grown buds.  Mature  buds that are desirable for grafting are typically a slight brownish color. Also, the best buds are ones that are from the present years growth since they have the best chance of taking hold and propagating.

The first step in bud grafting is to clip off all the leaves as soon as the bud sticks are cut. You will want to have about 1/2 inch of leafstalk for a handle. You will then want to wrap the bud sticks in moist cloth such as burlap or paper to prevent drying out. Branches that are the size of a lead pencil and up to 1/2-inch diameter are desirable for this method, the reason being that the bark of larger branches is too thick for budding.

Cut : Make a T shaped cut into the bark of  a healthy branch about 15 inches from the trunk. Then using a knife, carefully lift the corners separating the bark from the wood. When this is done, cut a bud from bud stick. Be careful to just cut the bud off. but also take a healthy amount of bark with it that is also small enough to fit under the flaps of the T cut.  Put the bud under the flaps of bark until it’s securely in place with the flaps slightly overlapping the park that the bud’s attached to.

Tying: For best results it’s a good idea to tie the bud to the branch. As previously stated, you can use grafting tape or electrical tape.  However, it’s important that you don’t cover the bud in the process. In about 2-3 weeks you will want to remove the tape. The bud should remain dormant until the next spring.

Protecting Your Graft:

After you have made your graft you will want to secure and protect it from the elements, insects, and disease. To secure your grafts use a tape that is both adhesive and elastic. For this you can either use special grafting tap or use electrical tap. There are also specialized pastes that can be applied to grafts, cuttings, and pruned branches that will help protect them.

Categories: DIY

1 Comment

  • Dexterite says:

    Of course, you may be lucky and have an orchard site with soil of good enough quality to use just as it is. What you want is a nice medium loam rich in organic material, but also with some sand. If you have straight clay or heavy sand, start digging. Even if your soil is ideal, prepare to spend a bit of time with a pickax and shovel. The minimum size for a tree hole is three times the size of the root ball. In the case of fruit trees, the bigger the better. Usually one no smaller than three or four feet in diameter and two to three feet deep is dug. Pile the topsoil separately, since this is what should go back into the bottom of the hole along with well-aged nitrogen-rich compost and ground rock phosphate and rock potash. Don’t use fresh manure. Spread most of the extra subsurface soil elsewhere and grow a cover crop over it.

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