Many people dream of having a home orchard but keep putting it off. One reason is that there can be such a long time (and a lot of work) between planting and your first harvest of delicious fruit. Another reason is that so many things can go wrong in the meantime. Fear of the unknown discourages many homeowners from planting fruit trees. Lack of basic knowledge causes many who start home orchards to fail.
It’s true that raising fruit at home takes effort, but probably not as much as you think. The key is doing things the easy way instead of wasting time and effort. It’s possible to have edible fruit the same year you plant, or the next year. The key is starting with real, living nursery-grown fruit trees instead of ordering “sticks in an envelope” from mail order catalogs. Mail-order trees are unlikely to succeed for many reasons. Instead, start with the biggest, healthiest fruit trees you can find. They’ll cost more initially, but they are more likely to thrive and you’ll have fruit years sooner. If budget is an issue, start with just two trees and add one or two each year.
Your choice of which fruit varieties to start with will be determined by pollination. You’ll need two different apple varieties that bloom at the same time, to get apples. Pears, apricots, some plums and some cherries need pollinators also. Peaches are self-fertile, so you only need one. Make yourself a list of the fruits you like best and research them to find out whether you need a pollinator for each one, and if so which pollinators work best.
Tree size, hardiness, and soil preference are determined by the rootstock, not the variety. Look for apple trees with semi-dwarf rootstocks ideal for southern Ohio. “Semi-dwarf” fruit trees, which grow 12 to 15 feet wide and perhaps 10 feet tall, make harvesting easier. Look for “Certified Virus Indexed” (CVI) fruit trees, grafted from certified virus free trees. CVI means you’re not bringing someone else’s fruit tree viruses into your orchard.
A key to success with less effort is choosing newer, disease-resistant varieties. Modern hybrids reduce the maintenance required for healthy, delicious fruit. Everyone knows the familiar grocery store names, but the best apples for home orchards probably have names you never heard of, like “Freedom” and “Zestar”. These newer apples have been carefully bred to require less spraying to produce healthy fruit.
Don’t waste time and effort trying to start an orchard “on the cheap”. It will ultimately cost you more in time and effort, and probably in dollars also. Each tree should be securely staked, fertilized, mulched, and protected from deer. If you budget at least $100 per tree you’ll have enough for 3 or 5 gallon container trees of decent quality, and the materials you’ll need. You can find larger trees (field-grown “ball-and-burlapped” or containers ranging from 10 to 25 gallons), but the instant results will cost you a lot more.
You only get one chance to prepare the soil before planting your trees. The root zone of a mature fruit tree is as wide as its branches. The larger an area you till, mixing peat and a good fruit tree food like Espoma Tree Tone, the better a crop you’ll have. Then, prevent grass and weeds from competing with your trees by maintaining mulch circles around each one. Your fruit harvest will vastly better if your trees are well nourished, and there’s no point in letting weeds and grass steal the tree’s food.
If you already have fruit trees, you should be doing some maintenance right now. Dormant oil spray kills many fruit tree pests before they even hatch, but you need to do it before the buds open. Remember to feed your trees each year. Simply scattering some Espoma “Tree Tone” under the trees will give them a boost and improve fruiting. Do it now.
After bud break, professional orchardists spray their trees every two weeks. The early-season spray applications do the most good; once summer comes you can relax a bit more. An all-purpose fruit tree spray will control most insects and funguses. Mark your calendar to remind yourself about the two-week cycle, and keep the spray concentrate on hand. It only takes a few minutes to spray a young orchard.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.