Starting Your Backyard Fruit Orchard
by Robin Snyder, Tumalo Garden Market
Can’t you just imagine fresh fruit from your own yard? With our renewed interest in self-sufficiency (growing gardens, raising livestock for food and produce), we should consider investing in fruit orchards on our small farms and in our backyards as well. It is a time investment that, over the long-term, will yield in sweet rewards.
Farmers planted orchards on their acreage and preserved fruit, fermented and ate what they produced. With large acreages, they could have lots of space for bigger trees and equipment, even housing hundreds of workers during the harvest season. Today’s urban farmer may have a very small acreage, postage stamp lot or even just a tiny backyard they want to take out of grass production to produce food.
No plants give sweeter rewards than fruit trees. From cold-hardy apples and cherries to semi-tropical citrus fruits, fruit trees grow in most climates. Growing fruit trees requires a commitment to pruning and close monitoring of pests, and you must begin with a type of fruit tree known to grow well in your area.
Types of Fruit Trees to Try
Even fruit trees described as self-fertile will set fruit better if grown near another variety known to be a compatible pollinator. Extension publications and nursery catalogs often include tables listing compatible varieties.
Apples (Malus domestica) are the most popular tree fruits because they are widely adapted, relatively easy to grow and routine palate-pleasers. The ideal soil pH for apples is 6.5, but apple trees can adjust to more acidic soil if it’s fertile and well-drained. Most apple varieties are adapted to cold-hardiness Zones 4 to 7 (if you don’t know your Zone, see “Know Your Cold-Hardiness Zone” later in this article), but you will need high chill varieties in our Central Oregon climate. No matter your climate, begin by choosing two trees that are compatible pollinators to get good fruit set. Mid- and late-season apples usually have better flavor and store longer compared with early-season varieties.
Cherries (Prunus avium (sweet) and P. cerasus (sour)) range in color from sunny yellow to nearly black and are classified in two subtypes: compact sweet varieties, such as Rainier, and sour or pie cherries, such as Montmorency. Best adapted to Zones 4 to 7, cherry trees need fertile, near-neutral soil and excellent air circulation. Growing 12-foot-tall dwarf cherry trees of either subtype will simplify protecting your crop from diseases and birds, because the small trees can be covered with protective netting or easily sprayed with sulfur, horticultural oils or kaolin clay.
Peaches and nectarines (Prunus persica) are on everyone’s want list, but growing these fruit trees in Central Oregon require an excellent site, preventive pest management and some luck. More than other fruit trees, peach and nectarine trees need deep soil with no compacted subsoil or hardpan. Peaches and nectarines are best adapted to Zones 5 to 8, but specialized varieties can be grown in colder or warmer climates. Peach and nectarine trees are often short-lived because of wood-boring insects, so plan to plant new trees every ten years.
Plums (Prunus species and hybrids) tend to produce fruit erratically because the trees often lose their crop to late freezes or disease. In good years, plum trees will yield heavy crops of juicy fruits that vary in color from light green to dark purple. Best adapted to Zones 4 to 8, plum trees need at least one compatible variety nearby to ensure good pollination
Pears (Pyrus species and hybrids) are slightly less cold-hardy than apples but are easier to grow organically in a wide range of climates. In Zones 4 to 7, choose pear varieties that have good resistance to fire blight, such as Red Bartlett or Stanley. In Zones 5 to 8, Asian pear trees often produce beautiful, crisp-fleshed fruits if given routine care. Most table-quality pears should be harvested before they are fully ripe.
For the greenhouse gardener: Citrus fruits (Citrus hybrids), including kumquat, Mandarin orange, satsuma and Meyer lemon, are among the easiest fruit trees to grow organically in Zones 8b to 10 or in heated greenhouses in winter in Zones 4 to 7. Fragrant oils in citrus leaves and rinds provide protection from pests, but cold tolerance is limited. Meyer lemon trees may occasionally need to be covered with blankets when temperatures drop below freezing, but winter harvests of homegrown citrus fruits will be worth the trouble.
Tumalo Garden Market has nine varieties of semi-and dwarf apples, five varieties of plums, four varieties of pears and two varieties of cherries, as well grapes, apricots and peaches.
How to Plant, Mulch & Care
The best time to plant fruit trees in our high desert hardiness Zones 3 through 5 is early spring, after the soil has thawed. Fruit trees that are set out just as they emerge from winter dormancy will rapidly grow new roots. Choose a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil that’s not in a low frost pocket. Dig a planting hole that’s twice the size of the root ball of the tree.
Carefully spread the roots in the hole and backfill with soil that has been amended with 1/3 portion of sterile compost. If the tree is still “balled and burlaped” (roots and soil wrapped in a ball of burlap for ease of transport and regrowing small feeder roots), set the ball “as is” in the hole. Set trees at the same depth at which they grew at the nursery, taking care not to bury any graft union (swollen area) that’s on the main trunk. Water well and protect the trunk from insects, rodents, sunscald and physical injuries. Stake the tree loosely to hold it steady.
Mulch over the root zone of the planted trees with wood chips, sawdust or another slow-rotting mulch or compost. Stay three inches away from the trunk and graft. Water particularly well during any dry spells for the first two years including monthly in winter when no snow is on the ground. Plan on cutting the top string of the root ball approximately six months after planting.
One year after planting, fertilize fruit trees in spring by raking back the mulch and scratching a balanced organic fertilizer into the soil surface (follow application rates on the product’s label). Then add a wood-based mulch to bring the mulch depth up to four inches in a four-foot circle around the tree. After two years, stop using trunk guards and instead switch to coating the trunks with white latex paint to defend against winter injuries. Add sand to the paint to deter rabbits and voles.
Pruning Fruit Trees
Pruning is a key aspect of growing fruit trees. The goal of pruning fruit trees is to provide the leaves and fruit access to light and fresh air. The ideal branching pattern varies with species, and some apple and pear trees can be pruned and trained into fence- or wall-hugging espaliers to save space. Begin pruning fruit trees to shape them in their first year, and then prune annually in late winter, before the buds swell. Pruning a little too much questionable growth is better than removing too little.
Many fruit trees set too much fruit, and the excess should be thinned. Asian pear trees should have 70 percent of their green fruits snipped off when the pears are the size of a dime, and apples should be thinned to six inches apart before the fruits are the size of a quarter. When any type of fruit tree is holding a heavy crop, thinning some of the green fruits will increase fruit size, reduce limb breakage and help prevent alternative bearing (a tree setting a crop only every other year).
Pest & Disease Tips
Some types of fruit crops attract a large number of insect pests and can succumb to several widespread diseases for which no resistant varieties are available. For example, all of the stone fruits are frequently affected by brown rot — a fungal disease that overwinters in mummified fruit. Apply early-season sulfur sprays to suppress brown rot and other common diseases. Some apples have good genetic resistance to scab and rust, but you will still need to manage insect pests, such as codling moths.
Allowing chickens to forage beneath fruit trees can help suppress insects. Many organic growers keep their fruit trees coated with kaolin clay during the growing season to repel pests. Horticultural Oil (also known as Neem oil, dormant oil) can also be used effectively before the buds have opened when the tree is dormant and after the flowers have blossomed and been pollinated.
Know Your Cold-Hardiness Zone
The “Zones” referred to in this article come from maps published by the United States Department of Agriculture that show the average minimum winter temperature for each region. Some types of fruit can tolerate more winter cold than others, so your area’s cold-hardiness is important to know before you choose which fruit trees to grow. In addition, fruit trees need ‘chill hours’ to help set fruit. Low chill hour trees can be grown in warmer climates and high chill hour trees in colder climate.
There is a right and wrong time to fertilize your trees. Just before bud break is the perfect time. This is when your trees are beginning their annual growth cycle and ‘eat’ the most food. You can fertilize up to a month before this — or if you’ve miss the ideal moment and the trees have already begun to bloom — you can still fertilize until June. Do NOT fertilize in late summer or fall, though, because the new growth put on by the tree can be damaged by frost. If you’ve waited too late in the year and still want to feed you can mulch them with compost and top-dress with soft rock phosphate; however you should avoid all nitrogen fertilizers.
Remember Some of These Key Elements in Orchard Maintenance
Mulch helps improve fertility and health of your soil and should be applied in the spring or fall as it protects trees from cold winters, keeps moisture in and weeds down. As the mulch decomposes, it provides necessary nutrients to trees. An ideal mulch is large woodchips or larger compost chips which haven’t been treated chemically. Another good option are “bio-fine” compost from recycling activities locally. A good rule of thumb is to spread a thick layer of mulch/compost (three inches or so) in a three-foot diameter around each tree. Keeping the mulch at least three inches away from the trunk of the tree and its grafted rootstock.
2. Prune Fruit Trees
Winter is the generally the best time to prune fruit trees when they are dormant. You need to prune to remove diseased branches and to direct proper growth of your trees. A well pruned tree will produce more flowers and fruit! And if you prune to allow sunlight to reach the interior of the tree you will keep the tree drier and help ward off fungus. However, summer pruning which is part of back yard orchard culture program can help you see which limbs are the fruit producing limbs and help keep trees smaller. Remove baby fruit to allow your trees to grow bigger and nicer fruit. It will also help keep your tree branches stable. As you inspect your trees in the spring and remove fruit, make sure to support any branches that may be sagging with too much fruit. Otherwise, you could lose the branches, and all the fruit, in a big storm/wind.
3. Treat Any Diseases
Keep a close eye on your trees and take corrective action right away if you notice problems. Be on the lookout for spots on the leaves, broken branches or oozing from the trunks which can indicate problems with fungus or pests.
A good preventative step might be to coat your trees with kaolin clay during the growing season to repel pests. Kaolin clay keeps Japanese Beetles away and all sorts of other pests as well. It’s safe to apply right up to harvest and it doesn’t harm pollinators. Horticultural oil is sprayed when the tree is dormant to kill pests like aphids and other problem insects on trees. It is safe for food crop use but must be used when bees and other insect pollinators are not present. You will want to invest in good hand pruners, a sharp limb saw and telescoping tree pruners to properly prune.
You need to know what nutrients are at acceptable levels in your soil and learn which amendments you need to add. Soil testing gives you this information. State Extension Offices can run tests on your soil if you send them samples. To find a state lab in your area. Simply choose your state and get a list, take a sample and send it off. The report will tell you how to amend your soil for optimal performance.
Please be sure to get the next issue of HomeSpun Magazine when Part 2: Details of Pruning your Fruit Trees will help you get your orchard ready for spring.