If you consider fresh fruit to be one of life’s best simple pleasures, you may want to consider establishing your own home orchard. While it does take time to plan and to maintain, a home orchard can reap some significant benefits: the availability of fresh fruit for your family and friends and the pleasure of the beauty and shade fruit trees bring. Here’s how to get started.
First, think about your property and where you will plant your trees. Even a small orchard of four to five trees can produce a significant amount of fruit, but the location will play a big role in the health of your trees and the bounty of your fruit.
Today’s dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees are a good choice for the home orchard. Not only do they need less space than regular varieties, but they begin producing fruit sooner and are easier to maintain. Plan to space your dwarf trees by at least 12 feet. If you have room for more than one row, you will need to separate your rows by at least 18 feet. Spacing is critical for pollination, sunlight and ventilation of the trees.
- Pollination – Bees need to be able to work their magic with fruit tree blooms. You can select from different apple tree varieties, for example, but you need to have at least two to three trees blooming at the same time for cross pollination.
- Sunlight – Fruit trees need plenty of sunlight in order to produce a healthy crop of fruit. Look for a site that will get full sun for half of the day or more. Check for shadows from other trees and buildings.
- Ventilation – Look for an area that will allow the trees plenty of room for growth without the interference of other tree roots. Seek ground that has good water drainage. A slope is ideal for fruit trees. A southern slope will speed up blooming and the appearance of fruit over a northern slope location. If you live in an area that is subject to having an early frost, choose fruit varieties that bloom late and ripen early in the season.
Check your local university extension service for suggestions of trees that grow well in your area. Apples, peaches, pears and cherries do well in many parts of the country. If you live in a warm climate, consider citrus trees. Think of what your family enjoys eating and drinking. For example, if you are planting apple trees, consider whether you want to enjoy the apples fresh, baked in pies, in sauce, or in cider.
Planting Your Trees
Visit a reputable nursery to choose your young fruit trees. Carefully inspect the trees for damage or discoloration of the bark or of the leaves before purchase.
Most trees are sold in plastic containers. After you transport the tree to your orchard location, carefully remove the container and loosen the root bottom. Encourage root growth by breaking up the root ball with a knife.
If your soil is sand or hard clay, you will want to improve it with other soil, compost, manure, ground rock phosphate and/or rock potash. Next, dig a hole that is deep and large enough to hold the entire root system. This can be easier than it sounds, as the hole needs to be about three feet deep for a dwarf tree and up to five feet deep for a regular-sized tree.
Keep the bud union – the bulge that is located at the base of the tree – above the ground. Water the soil in the hole well before replacing and compacting the soil around the tree to eliminate any air pockets. Try to leave a shallow bowl or a dip around the tree for the first season to make it easier for it to get water and rainfall. Then re-water.
Depending on rainfall, water the tree at least once a week. During the important first year after planting, take care that the soil around the tree does not dry out completely. Adding a layer of mulch around the base of the young tree can be helpful in reducing both the amount of weeds around the tree and the evaporation of water.
If you live in an area where deer have access to your orchard, you need to think about deer fencing right away. Hungry deer can decimate a young orchard in a single season. Some orchard owners have success with hanging bars of soap, containers of human hair or other deer repellants from their trees, and many rely on the family dog, but the best – and quietest — way to keep deer out of your orchard is with fencing. Again, your local extension service and your local nursery may be able to assist you with what types of fencing will work for your needs and your budget.
Timing and Maintenance
As your fruit trees grow, they will require trimming to stay healthy and productive. You will need a good ladder and some trimming tools to keep your trees in shape. Some trees will not produce fruit unless they are trimmed and pruned regularly. Another advantage of dwarf trees is that you will have to do less climbing and reaching to keep them trimmed.
Even organic gardeners spray their trees, not with DDT or other chemicals you might see used in commercial orchards, of course. Organic gardeners use a miscible oil spray. This spray is applied twice a year – once during the tree’s dormant phase and once just before leaves begin to emerge. The spray doesn’t poison insects, but rather suffocates those insects already inside the tree by providing a protective seal. With a new orchard of healthy trees, miscible oil spray should keep most of your insect problems at bay.
How much to fertilize your trees is a matter of opinion and has much to do with the soil in your orchard. At planting time, do not fertilize around the root ball. Instead, you can use a water-based fertilizer product after several weeks. As your trees grow, work a high-nitrogen fertilizer into the soil around the tree about a month before it starts to bloom.
Now comes the waiting game. Dwarf trees will produce edible fruit in two to three years, while full-sized fruit trees will take significantly longer.
There is a wealth of information about starting your own home orchard on the Internet and at your library. Here are a few sites to get even more information:
- Growing Tree Fruits and Nuts in the Home Orchard , by Oregon State University Extension Service
- Home Orchard Management  by West Virginia University Extension Service
- Small Fruit Crops for the Backyard , by the University of Illinois Extension Service