Planning an orchard is very exciting. You’re already dreaming of baskets of sun-ripened fruit and blossom-laden trees. But good harvests start with good planning and this short guide will set you on the right path. An orchard is something that will be with you for quite a while, so a 10-minute read is a good investment to get it right.
What do we want to eat?
Only plant what you like to eat. There’s no point putting in one of everything to tick a box if you like only some of them. If plums are your thing plant plums, if you’ve got room for an avocado tree plant one. Make a list of the fruit you love first and then go through the steps below to work out if you can, and want to, grow it successfully.
Does it grow here?
Before you buy trees ask your neighbors what grows well in their orchards and see what fruit local growers at your farmers market have for sale. Talk to growers about what does well in your region and what soil type they’re on. This can vary a lot within a region and affects what will and won’t grow. For example, walnuts don’t like heavy clay soils, avocados don’t like wind and frost.
When does it ripen?
If you choose your varieties carefully you can plan to have some fruit ripening for most months of the year in your orchard, even in the depths of winter. Talk to your neighbors and local growers at the market each week to build up a picture of local ripening times in your region and use this to pick your selection of trees to plant.
What can we maintain?
It’s easy to put a large orchard together on paper but it’s not so easy to look forward 3, 4, 10 years hence and think about who is going to mow, prune, spray, weed, do the frost protection, put the bird netting on, do something with all the fruit …you get the picture. Try and look past the jars of bottled apricots and think through what level of maintenance and processing you can cope with in the time you have before you order your trees. If I’d done this I wouldn’t have planted more than two plum trees.
Preparing the Site
Your site is your site, you can’t change it greatly but what you can do is improve drainage if that’s a problem, plant or put up some shelter from the prevailing wind, chop back trees that may shade your orchard from the sun, bring in or make a load of good well-rotted organic compost to plant with your trees. Get rid of any heavy weed and grass growth before planting. Goats are never compatible with new orchards either.
How do we come up with a layout?
Try and plant the evergreen trees in a spot that won’t block the path of the sun from your other deciduous fruit trees.
Spacing is important. It sounds ridiculous allowing 6m between stick like plum trees but trust us, in 3 years you’ll see why. You need to allow for mowing and moving room between trees for pruning and harvesting and airflow to avoid fungal diseases. Larger trees like walnuts, avocados and chestnuts will need around 10-15m space between them and the next tree. Plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots allow 5-6m at least. Smaller trees like olives, hazels, feijoas will cope with 3-4m.
If you want a few berry bushes, try and put these close to the house and treat them more like part of your veggie garden than your orchard. Berries need more hands on care and attention than other fruit trees, more pruning, watering, covering up from birds etc. and the closer they are to the house the better your chance of getting the fruit. A dedicated site for your orchard is good but don’t be afraid of poking fruit trees and berry bushes throughout your garden. For example hazelnuts or feijoas are perfect screening on a driveway or boundary, while a grapevine will cover an ugly fence or drape over a veranda.
Irrigating & Protecting New Trees
Baby trees are a lot like children. Get them off to a good start in life and they’ll be trouble free motoring down the track. Here are 6 things you must do for your young orchard, in order of importance:
• Irrigate frequently, a good soak every week or two, over the summer months for the first 2-3 summers until their roots are down deep enough to find water.
• Stake and tie them up from the prevailing wind if they are tall sticks for the first year until they get their roots in.
• Pick immature fruit off the trees for the first season or two to let the trees get established before using energy producing fruit (especially citrus).
• Protect tender trees from the frost until they get to a couple of meters in height.
• Keep the weed and grass growth down from around the trees by mulching with tree mats or bark.
• If you are rural put guards on to stop damage from rabbits stripping the bark.
Dwarf Trees & Growing in Containers
Don’t try and grow full sized fruit trees in containers for a couple of years while you wait for your patch of land. You won’t get a meaningful harvest and any growth advantage will be lost with the transplant shock when you try and replant a large tree into the ground – they tend to sulk for several years.
There are a number of dwarfing fruit trees available if space is at a premium. These are trees that are either grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock or are naturally low growing varieties. Before going into dwarfing trees check that your soil type is suitable for dwarfing trees. They don’t do well in heavy soils.
Dwarf trees are also suitable for container growing, however, you will need to water very regularly over the summer months and keep a lot of fertilizer up to them as trees in containers quickly exhaust available nutrients. You also need to spray dwarfing trees much more diligently with anti-fungal sprays like liquid copper because the dense habit of foliage leads to greater levels of fungal diseases.
Good luck with your orchard planning. An orchard is an evolving, living thing and it will reward you with fruit if you reward it by taking the time to understand its needs and care for it as it grows. Don’t think of it as a one-off purchase of a few trees, think of it as an investment in food production for years to come, an asset for you and your family and friends. Everyone makes a list of fruit trees they want to fill up their garden with right away and that is great but leave room in the scheme for what you don’t know you’ll want yet. Experience shows that in a couple of years you’ll be saying, I wish I had room for an earlier ripening apricot and a white-fleshed nectarine … or a cutting from that great fig tree from Mrs. Smith down the road…