We have 11 apple trees that our grandparents planted on our smaller portion of the larger family homestead. I can’t even begin to count how many plum trees we have. There’s a double line of russian olives that act as a wind break. At the time that we began thinking about putting in an actual orchard, that’s all there was.
If we wanted serviceberries, chokecherries, elderberries, pears, or other produce, then we needed to forage for them. Some fruits that we desired weren’t even available to forage and we had to purchase or barter for them if we wanted them.
We decided when the family started growing and our economic situation allowed us, that we would start growing an orchard. We had to answer questions such as, How much do we plant? What do we plant? Where will we put it? and How will we water it?
After we figured this out, we realized we couldn’t plant an entire acre (the portion of land we chose) all at once. We needed to add trees each year. Two more questions that we now needed to answer came up. Where do we start? and How do we keep the weeds away?
Here are our thoughts and the answers we came up with during the process.
Where Do We Put Our Orchard?
There were so many things for us to consider when we tried to figure out where to put our trees.
Could we plant them so they offered additional environmental protection to the corrals?
Should we keep them away from the main entrance? (More and more we have tourists who stop and pick large harvests from some of our areas. I’m guessing they may think this is public land instead of private.)
Where is the best spot for them to receive their nutrients and water? (See below.)
Could we plant them in such a way that when they were mature the animals could still come and graze around them after the harvest?
Where would they be more protected from the wind?
(Related reading: Starting Out With Fruit And Nut Trees: What To Consider)
We finally decided on a one acre spot to the south side of the corrals. This was our best option for watering (see below). It’s also an easy place to open the corrals to years from now, so animals have a good spot for grazing. Just south of this area are 2 rows of trees serving as a wind break. It is also out of sight from tourists driving by, thereby removing the temptation.
How Will We Water The Orchard?
Orchards take a lot of water in their early years. I’ve heard of a lot of people that get new fruit trees, plant them, and then can’t keep up with the water for the first couple years and they die.
We knew before planting a single tree that it would require a lot of dedication. Running a hose off electricity from a house is not an option for us.
We were left with two options. We could try to run some hand-pipe off the adjacent field of ours. Or, we could run passive water from our pond. These were the two best options for us, but neither was foolproof.
Both options mean that we have to have water either in a canal or in a pond. We live in the high desert where rain is not frequent. If either of these didn’t have water (which happens consistently a few times every year), then we would have to find a way to transport water.
If there is not enough snow higher up in the mountains, our water sources run low. There has not been as much snow in recent years.
The hand pipe option carries another factor to it. We turn the water on and off as it’s needed for the crop on that field. If we are growing hay that year, then the water is turned off for cutting, raking, baling, transporting, etc. This means there is no water in the pipe during this time. If we are growing wheat that year, then during spring work, planting, harvest and fall work, there is again no water available.
What we started off doing was using passive water from the pond. When there was water in the pond we watered deeply and kept our one hose end moving from tree to tree. We have a back-up plan to haul water in if/when the pond is empty for long periods of time.
This is the first year we are also using the hand-line.
What Do We Plant In Our Orchard?
We had two main goals when deciding what to plant. We wanted species and varieties that would thrive here. We also wanted to grow what we would eat.
While there may be trees that I could “make work,” I find that there are certain dangers to bringing those in. They can bring diseases with them (that although they could fight off or be resistant to, native trees might not).
I also want trees that can thrive on their own after they mature. I’m not trying for a manicured orchard. I want all the trees to blend with the homestead.
We need trees that can get through a -30° winter. We need trees that don’t need a ton of sun in the winter. We need trees that won’t break if we get 6 feet (or more) of snow. And we need trees that will thrive in the summer even if it never gets past 85° that year, or there isn’t a single drop of rain and the pond and canals are empty for extended amounts of time.
After we figured out what we could and couldn’t have, we took that list and did some serious brainstorming. For each fruit and nut tree, we made a list of when it would mature and thus when our harvest would be. We then asked ourselves how long the harvest would last and how we would preserve each.
Some fruits just don’t preserve well. It’s no use to have 10 trees of something you can only harvest for one week and then have no way to preserve.
Also, if the harvest is heavy at a time of the year we don’t have time to harvest, then we may not harvest much. For example, currants are in season during our first hay cutting. The hay harvest must get done. Once hay starts to get cut, we can’t take a day or two off to harvest/preserve. For this reason, we’ve never worked on growing our currant bushes. Very rarely, we have a few hours to harvest and we’ll just forage for them down in the canyon. Most years we don’t even have time to get even a handful. No need to grow those.
We picked fruits that could be harvested/preserved at convenient times in large amounts that we would use large amounts of throughout the year.
How Much Do We Plant In Our Orchard?
This was a hard question for us. We know, for instance, that we can forage 5 gallons of cherries each year from an old homestead no one uses anymore (with owner permission of course). However, we ration these cherries and they never last a year. When we asked ourselves how much we would eat if we had an endless supply, it was really hard to figure out how many trees we wanted.
What we finally decided was to start with 6 cherry trees. One has since died. We decided that if it was too much for us, we would simply sell the surplus, or barter with them.
Since selling and bartering with the surplus is an option for us and we have the land to plant with, we picked conservative amounts of trees that are appealing to the taste buds of those around us.
How Do We Start Our Orchard?
We couldn’t afford to plant an acre of fruit trees in the same year. Nor would we be able to keep up with the water demands.
We decided to take up to 20 trees each year as they became available and as we could afford them. When someone announced they had extra cherry tree starts they didn’t want, we’d negotiate a fair price/trade and got what we could afford and take care of.
We planted 11 trees last year, and have 6 that we will transplant this year. Some years we get more, some less.
We have lists of what should be planted by other trees and which shouldn’t. There are six rows of trees and we started at one end and are slowly working our way toward the other end. Not all the rows are even as not all trees should be by each other.
Another decision we made when considering that some trees can be close to each other and some can’t, was to stick with a grid pattern. I know this may not be the best utilization of space as we could have put some of the trees much closer, but everything is close enough for proper pollination, and it will be easier to maintain with the equipment we’ve got.
How Will We Keep The Weeds Out Of The Orchard?
The most important part of weed control for us was to get a good circle of mulch properly around each tree. (This also helps with the watering issue.)
This leaves all the land between trees as well as the land that is yet to be planted in trees.
We want to nurture this soil as much as possible and keep the weeds down, so we’ve rotated planting smother crops and green manure. Last year we planted it in peas, oats, radishes, turnips, and vetch. This year we planted it in corn, beans, and pumpkins. Next year, who knows?
Since we’re only adding 6 trees this year, we’ll still have to come up with a nourishing plan for next year–and honestly for the next few years.
When Will The Orchard Be Finished?
I’m not even fully sure what a finished orchard will mean for our family. Each year a new tree or set of trees gives us good wholesome fruits and nuts. This year we will be enjoying cherries and nectarines from our own trees we haven’t had before. Next year will add something else to the list.
We haven’t had enough left over yet to barter with or sell. Perhaps at that time we will stop expanding and turn the tree-less land that’s left into something else. Or perhaps we’ll just keep expanding and add it to the homestead income each year.
I can say without a doubt, that thoroughly doing our research, making plans and back-up plans, and going slow are all some of the best decisions we could have made for our family orchard.