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God is not willing to do everything, and thus take away our free will and that share of glory which belongs to us.
Niccolo Machiavelli

Starting an Orchard

What? A ton of fruit isn't enough.

I've gotten three calls this year from people who wanted to plant an orchard. This is a brain dump of some thoughts on how to do this.

Spacing

Basic spacing for standard size trees:

Now a lot can be done with pruning to reduce this spacing.

Dwarfing root stocks.

Pears and apples are often sold on dwarfing root stocks These decrease the amount of pruning it takes to keep a tree at a given size. The small root system limits the tree. Which results in problems if you miss watering. It can also make for trees that blow over easily. Do NOT use a root stock that is rated at below 75% unless you are setting up automatic irrigation.

Fencing

Deer love fruit wood, and will eat your orchard during it's early years. The only sure way around this is a fence. Make it 8 foot high. Put a secondary fence of finer mesh at the base, folded outword in an "L" with about a foot to 18" flat on the ground. Put enough dirt on this to hold it down. This keeps Bambi from nosing under the fence. It also keeps rabbits out.

Deer won't attempt to jump a fence that they can't see over. You may be able to get away with a 5 foot fence and plant it thickly with willow.

If you have moose you need to also run cables along the fence.

When you set up your fence, rent a post pounder. Places like UFA and Co-Op rent them for about 150/day and they will handle the 12 foot posts you need for an 8 foot fence. There is a whole technique in setting fences up, dealing with hills and dips, changes in slope, and corner bracing.

Irrigation.

Commercial growers have a sprinkler per tree. They are odd sprinklers with a 300 or 320 degree watering pattern. They are set to NOT water the trunk. Apparently watering the trunk too often results in fungal diseases on the tree. They are usually about 2 feet off the ground to stay above any grass.

Weed control.

Commercially the area close to the trees is kept bare root, and the aisles are mowed. This is a compromise between water supply for the trees, and not having muddy aisles for the equipment. Whichever combo you do, you want to be able to pick up windfall fruit. Failure to do this can spread disease, as well as result in large numbers of wasps and yellow jackets. You may be able to do some of your fruit clean up with chickens and pigs. (Pigs should have nose rings to prevent rooting) Alternately look at machinery similar to the devices used to pick up golf balls on a driving range.

Organic or chemical

This is a tough call. Whenever I've tried using chemical pest control (weeds or insects) I've ended up killing things I didn't mean to. On the other hand appropriate chemical use can save a lot of work. At present I use small amounts of glyphosate for spot weed control, chemical fertilizers, dormant oil, lime sulfur spray, and soap.

The yearly cycle:

Pruning

I've heard mixed advice on this. Generally Apples are done as the snow vanishes. I don't know why it's not done in the fall. Most fruit trees can be done whenever dormant. Stone fruit MUST be done when dormant, as black knot is inactive at that time.

Early spraying.

Lot of bug control can be done with either dormant oil or lime sulfur. There are risks to using both too close in time apart. Timeing is critical. You will see references to "green tip" when buds are just starting to open. Your window for some of these is very short.

Pollenation

It can help if you keep bees. Usually it takes 4 hives to over winter reasonably. You want to have neighbours that do NOT use neonicitinoids.

It can also help if you create habitat for wild bees. Bumble bees are active as soon as the temps are above freezing -- 10 degrees before honey bees are active. There are a raft of other bees, some forming small colonies, some solitary.

Grafting

This can be so that you can add different cultivars to your collection, or you can buy root stocks cheap, then graft known good cultivars onto them. This generally happens when leaves are just opening.

Thinning

The tree's objective is to put seeds out there. You want fruit. If you let the tree turn every blossom into a fruit you end up with small fruits. The tree does some of this on its own. You will get a zillion BB to pea sized apples then suddenly 90% are on the ground. Still too many. With apples you thin down to 1 to 2 apples per fruit spur. Pears likewise. I don't know if stone fruit are thinned.

Harvest

You have to pick all the fruit. This is a good reason to keep your trees pruned short. A 10-12 foot tree can be managed with an 8 foot step ladder. And look at getting actual orchard ladders. They are wider at the bottom, but have only a single leg on the back. Easier to manoever in the trees.

Processing

What are you going to do with all the fruit. Apples, if you choose the right ones, will keep for months refrigerated to just above freezing, and even longer if you replace the oxygen in the fridge with carbon dioxide. This is the way the big commercial storage units work. (Caution: Going into a Controlled Atmosphere storage facility without breathing apparatus will kill you.)

Marketing and sales.

One option is U-Pick. Most people want the experience but get bored, tired, hot, thirsty, and come to you and ask if you have any pre-picked stuff. You need to be ready for this.

Hire high school kids to harvest for you.

Cold Storage You will also want cold storage for your fruit. This has two to three components:



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Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.