🍎 I Started An Orchard 🍎
The first apple trees are in the earth
If I’ve learned one thing in the course of this project, it is to start small. I’ve got some grand plans for a permaculture orchard, which you can read about here. But that can’t all be done at once.
To get started, I planted two special heirloom apple trees and worked at clearing what will be the rest of the orchard. These are the test trees before I commit to a project that’s out of my league.
Clearing The Orchard Area (Again)
This has been a constant project. Every year, I work to clear this overgrown section. Then it grows back, just slightly less chaotically. I learn a lesson from the land and adapt the plan.
I was able to mow a bit of it this year, which is progress! This year, my plan has evolved to a chop-and-drop strategy. Once the cut trees die back a bit and drop their leaves, I plan to rent a wood chipper and shred the trunks back onto the orchard area. This retains the organic matter, which will rot down into soil.
This trip, my uncle came up to work with my dad and me. He brought two chainsaws and my dad has one too. We spent a few hours cutting saplings down and dropping them in place. With all three of us working, we made a ton of progress before getting rained out. Here’s what it looked like before we cut the saplings.
We cut all the stumps at knee height. This is a lesson I learned the first time we came though. I could cut things to a few inches off the ground, which is perfect stumbling height. Those little stumps catch on the mower, trip you up as you walk and hide in the grass. After we chip the trucks, the stumps can then be cut closer to the ground, or even ground down to the ground with a stump grinder.
Later this summer, I’ll be chipping the wood and cutting this grass back. That will get us closer to doing to earth works - adding swales to help manage water on the hill and keep the orchard self-watered. More on that later.
How To Plant An Apple Tree
I did lots of research on this one and found some helpful resources that guided me. I’ll share those at the bottom of this post.
The first step is to keep the bare roots moist while waiting to plant. If I were planting the same weekend they came in the mail (yes, they ship live trees), I could have just stuck the roots in water overnight. Since there was a week or two before I could get there, my mom “heeled” the trees in gardening soil and kept them watered. I wish I could have planted to tree a bit sooner in the spring, before they began to bloom. Oh well. I can prune them more next year.
Next we dug some quality holes. After picking out a future-proof spot, we dug two holes about the size of an apple bushel. It was deeper than it needed to be and about three feet wide. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soil. I thought I had thick clay soil. Instead, it was more rocky, had some nice organic matter content and also a mix of clay. We dug deeper than needed to backfill and give some room for the roots to grown deeper more easily.
When backfilling, we used mostly the native soil, adding a shovel-full of good potting soil here and there. It’s important NOT to over-feed or coddle the young trees, since they need to reach out roots deeply and widely, searching for water and nutrients in order to be well established.
Especially in clay soil, adding too much compost or nice soil in the hole will create a buried bowl, which could drown the tree or cause it to become root-bound and die within a few years. I want these trees to last for decades, if not a century.
For planting, we kept the graft point a few inches above the soil. This is the prevent the scion (the apple variety) from rooting over the root stock (the bottom part of the graft). The root stock is what determines the size of the apple tree that will grow, so burying the graft defeats the purpose of the root stock and creates a weak tree.
We also secured some hardware cloth fencing around each tree and partially buried it to prevent voles and deer from munching on them. Because of the hill, I think the 3 foot high protection isn’t going to protect well from deer. My parents are going to check on the trees and add some deterrent sticks, poking out from the wire. Like any other creature, deer don’t like getting poked and will move on to other snacks. At least that’s the hope.
Semi-Dwarf Yellow Transparent Apple
The first heirloom variety I planted is a type of apple my Gramma grew up with on her farm. I learned her apple pie recipe from her and she told me about this apple. When I saw it for sale at the nursery, I knew I had to get one. It’s an heirloom originally from Russia, used for baking. It’s cold-hearty and became popular in northern states. It’s an early producer too, fruiting in early June.
The root stock is semi-dwarf, which means the tree will only be about 6 feet tall. I’ll prune it well for fruit production but it will stay at picking height. This tree is not self-fertile, which means it needs another apple tree to be pollinated and produce fruit. It’s already flowered, so I may need to add another early-blooming tree to get apples from our friends the bees.
I doubt I have to tell you about Honeycrisp apples. They’re objectively the best eating apple, bred out of University of Minnesota and they’ve become very popular. They’re sweet, juicy and crisp. It’s right in the name, for godssake.
The root stock of this one is 90% of standard, meaning this tree is going to be huge. I’ve read that honey crisp are fickle to grow, so we’ll see how this goes. I’d love to have a huge tree of my favorite apple though. This tree is also not self-fertile, so the bees have to do some work to get the apples to bloom.
The reason I’m starting small is to try and answer some of these questions before planting hundreds of trees.
Can the rain sustain apple trees without me being there to water them?
Will the apple trees be pollinated? Do the varieties line up in timing?
Do I like standard, semi-dwarf or dwarf apple trees?
How do the trees hold up against animal pressure in the ecosystem?
Can I manage orchard diseases while coming to the land every month or two? Or do they need more active management?
Orchard Planting Resources
As promised, here’s some of the resources I read to learn before embarking on this project.
Youtube videos about planting. There are a ton of these, many with conflicting advice.
Cornell Orchard Guide for Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
So, is two trees an orchard? It is to a man with a plan. Like I said, we’re starting small. It will be a few years before these trees bear fruit, so starting early is key. Eventually I have more apples than I know what to do with.
If you have any experience with fruit trees or orchards, I’d love to hear your advice in the comments.