The onset of winter weather signals the beginning of one of gardening’s most enjoyable past times: dreaming! If you dream of providing your family with healthy, organic fruits as well as vegetables, if you’re craving to grow your own apples, pears, or peaches, if your desire for sustainability means buying less and less conventionally-grown produce from grocery stores, then now’s the time to begin planning a backyard orchard.
Most fruit tree growers, especially in northern climes, prefer spring planting (though fall can be a possibility where conditions and the availability of nursery stock make it practical… some actually prefer it). Whenever you start your orchard, the time to think it through is today.
The first thing to do is consider the space you have available. This will help you determine what it is you’ll plant: full-sized trees, dwarf or semi-dwarf trees? Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser warn in their book Grow Organic that its a common mistake to underestimate the space that little sapling you’re sticking in the ground will need when its full-grown. They recommend some 30 feet of space between full-sized trees, at least eight feet between dwarf and semi-dwarf trees.
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Remember that trees don’t have to go side-by -side in your home orchard. You may have room for a full-sized apple in the corner of the backyard, a dwarf cherry on the side of the house, and a couple of plum trees in the front yard. You might even consider starting some fruit trees, such as figs, in pots. Think creatively with your space. But keep in mind the conditions that trees need ahead of when you’re planting. Best is an area with full sun and good drainage. Not only does this encourage growth, it helps prevent the common fungi that can scar fruit and damage trees. Low lying areas, where frost can gather, should be avoided. Nothing does more to harm fruit production than a spring frost while fruit trees are blossoming.
Another important consideration — and the one responsible for the best dreams — is to analyze what you’re hoping to get from your fruit trees. Do you want apples for fresh eating? Or for cooking, canning, and making pies? Do you want early season cherries? Peaches to put up? Plums to make jam? All these desires suggest specific varieties of the fruits you intend to grow.
But that’s not the only consideration when choosing which variety of fruit tree to grow. Talk to friends, neighbors, your local nursery folks, and the nearby university extension service if you’re lucky enough to have one about which trees do best in your locale. They can recommend ones best suited for your conditions, which have the best resistance to disease and other problems common to your area, as well as which ones will give you the kind of fruit you crave. You may have to make some compromises between your wants and needs. But as my grandmother used to say, there’s no such thing as a bad piece of fruit (which explains that worm we once found in a jar of her canned peaches).
The other thing to consider is the work you’ll need to do. As in all organic growing, soil is the key to success. And, once you’ve done your layout, that’s something you can get started on now, well ahead of planting, if the ground hasn’t frozen. It’s not enough to dig a hole out of your clay soil and fill it with compost. The tree roots will just circle around in the hole and eventually strangle the tree. Dig a wide hole after you’ve spent time conditioning the soil around it with cover crops, compost and other soil-condition amendments as required. Remember: good drainage means good rooting conditions. And the healthier your soil, the more nutrients and organic matter it contains, the better your tree will be able to resist disease, fungus, and insect invasion.
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