Jane Kuhn - May 22, 2017

Starting an Orchard (Part II)

The previous post began outlining initial steps for implementing an orchard starting with assessing your skills as a grower and getting acquainted with what qualities to look for when selecting a site. With these basics squared away, next steps are to make decisions around design, sourcing, and scale.

Design & layout
Fruit trees come in different sizes as influenced by the rootstock (primary contributor), scion (secondary contributor), and the grow power of your site (soil, climate, etc.) Based on the size of trees you intend to plant, calculate tree spacing, both in row and between rows. “There’s no hard and fast literature that tells you exactly what your row spacing should be,” says Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at UCSC, “just consider what kind of equipment you need to get down the alleys and how dense of an orchard you’re willing to manage.” Stick to patterns of squares or rectangles to keep the layout maneuverable, and if possible plant North to South to absorb optimum sunlight.

You can buy trees from a nursery or graft them yourself. Grafting on your own costs roughly $1 per tree, but it will take 2-3 years of coddling before they're ready to be planted in the orchard. If you buy them in they can cost as much as $35 per tree depending on the size of your order. Trees are measured and sold by their caliper rather than age in years. Orin’s recommendation is to source trees with ½” caliper or more. “You’re not going to save any money if you go any lower” he advises, due to the extra time it will take for the whip to grow and take off. Somewhat similarly, sourcing trees larger than ¾” caliper also might not be a savings based on the “law of diminishing return.” Quality organic trees are difficult to source, but Trees of Antiquity has a wide selection. Additional nurseries Orin recommends include Stark Bothers, Raintree, and Van Well.

Time to plant!
Establish a fertility plan, ideally budgeting around 1-3 years to prep the ground. Cornell offers a slew of great resources on nutrient and fertility management for fruit trees. Orin advises sowing a heavy cover crop and applying compost at 5-10 tons/acre every time you turn the ground over. “You only have one chance to prepare the soil before you stick a tree in the ground for 50 years, so make sure you do it right.” You can either plant by hand or with a PTO powered auger. If going the mechanical route, proper soil moisture is imperative. Should the soil be too wet, you’ll end up with slicks on the sides of the hole creating a compaction layer that will be extremely difficult for roots to break through.

Other suggestions
Talk to your neighbors, check in with locals (professionals, hobbyists, and ag extension agents) about what has been grown in your area historically. “Don’t be afraid to experiment, but if you’re growing on a commercial scale find out what’s reliable and proven satisfactory in your area and plant that.” Orin recommends starting small, and as you see plantings succeed then continue to expand. Scale matters. Orin’s opinion on scale and the ability to produce high-quality fruit via organic practices in a biological way is:

3-5 acres “is do-able”
5-10 acres “probably”
20+ acres “I don’t know!”

With enough planning and preparing, the best time to plant a tree (or many) is now!

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.


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