Organic Orcharding Part 3






Chapter 2: What to Plant Where

A time-honored way to start an orchard is to buy a bunch of trees to which nursery catalogues ascribe almost supernatural powers of fertility, plant them helter-skelter around the house, and then spend the next few years moving the ones that survive to other locations as the mood dictates. Another favorite method is to plant the trees carefully and studiously, then a year later move yourself to a different location. Neither method, I can vouch from experience, puts much fruit in your cellar. Until some small measure of wisdom came to me in my middle years when I realized the fruitlessness (oh, those puns) of wandering from place to place, I was a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting fruit trees wherever I set my suitcase down long enough to get an order back from Stark Bro’s.

The decision to start an orchard involves a decision to stay put. The first plant you want to get rooted in the earth is yourself. That’s what makes home orchards so valuable; where they abound, they speak eloquently of a stable and responsible community, the first necessity of a healthy civilization and a happy culture. The decline in home orchards between 1930 and 1970 parallels almost exactly the increase in social mobility and consequent deterioration of family life and local institutions. As a result, we claim a population of very important people who tell their psychiatrists they do not know who they are. Not having recognized the natural habitat of Homo sapiens, or having ignored it, they wander the country over, hoping to find identity in money, badges, awards, or “rooting” for equally rootless professional sport teams.

But having decided that wisdom might come to you while sitting under an apple tree (look what Newton discovered), your next step must be to face mundane matters: how to go about establishing this “Edenic” grove of trees.

To grow an orchard requires plans, but trees are living things, not bridges or houses. One should not blueprint a home orchard and then follow the plan too literally like a bureaucrat with a new regulation. There are reams of general information to help you select your trees, but none will be as authoritative as your own experience in your own place. Your own peculiar combination of climate, soil, luck, and preference will not be quite like any other grower’s, so be ready to change any plan you put on paper. Besides, if you have any imagination and curiosity at all, sooner or later – and usually sooner – you will throw advice and caution to the wind and plant a tree that is perfectly ridiculous in your locale. That’s how new discoveries are made, sometimes. That’s also the way so many nurseries stay in business.

The limiting factors as to which fruits, and which varieties of a given fruit, you can grow or cannot grow are mainly two: temperature and moisture. Both factors work in several different ways to limit your orchard selections. Regarding temperature, your main problem in the North is too much cold weather, and in the South your problem may be not enough cold weather for temperate trees to break dormancy. As for moisture, too much produces poor drainage in the soil and humidity in the air – a humidity that contributes directly to the danger of developing blights and other fungal diseases. Too little moisture, of course, means that nothing will grow. But given a choice, a very dry climate with adequate irrigation combined with a mild, but not too mild, winter provides the best environment for temperate zone fruit culture. That’s why California, Oregon, and Washington produce so much tree fruit. To choose the proper fruits for your area, you need to consider certain climatic factors in great detail.

Cold hardiness

Chill requirements

Humidity tolerance


Chapter 3: Planning Your Grove of Trees

In planning your home orchard, try to weigh all of the purposes and advantages of various trees toward the comfort and health of your home environment. That’s not easy. There’s no neat, step-by-step procedure by which you can fashion a haven for a whole community of living things. Ecology does not proceed with linear, logical cause and effect, but by a dynamic implosion and explosion of interacting events only dimly understood.

You may achieve success sometimes not by action at all, but by inaction – that is, allowing nature to resolve the problem its way. For example, when we first moved to our homestead, my impulse was to remove the brush and weeds in the woodland so that it would look neat and parklike between the tall trees. So I mowed several times before I came to my senses and realized that I was clipping off the seedling trees by which the woods renewed itself, a renewal that guaranteed me a steady supply of fuel forever. Left alone, the seedlings grew thick and tall, blotted out the weeds and grass, and eventually thinned themselves into a productive stand of timber. Moral: the first consideration in developing your grove of trees is to consider considerably before doing anything.

  1. The amount of time and space you have available for orchard care will influence your planning.
  2. Growing backyard orchards and groves of food trees can be handled along with a full-time job without difficulty.


Evaluating conventional orchard management

With limitations of time, space, and climate in mind, the backyard orchardist should proceed in his planning with a questioning attitude toward the conventional platitudes of commercial orcharding. Hardly anything most of us amateurs have heard about tree management is completely true. Most of it is true, or at least “factual,” only under modern, commercial situations. Rules of the factory orchard do not always apply in the home orchard, nor vice versa. Here are some of the usual remarks the home orchardist hears, and how he should respond:

  1. “Seedling trees – those grown from seed – are worthless because they do not come true to the parent stock.” Answer: A few fruit trees do come true from seed most of the time. Seedlings often do produce poor quality fruit, and hence the five-year period growing them to bearing age might seem wasted. But if the seedling is hardy, you can graft on a good variety and have fruit in two years. Seedlings produce good fruit often enough to justify a steady planting of a few at all times, if you have the space. The expectation of a real discovery adds much interest to orcharding.
  2. “Dwarf trees are the only size worthwhile planting today. Standard trees are on the way out.” Answer: That depends. Standard trees have some advantages over trees with dwarfing rootstock trees.
  3. “You have to prune hard and strictly by the book to get a good crop.” Answer: Whose book? If you ask the five top professional orchardists how to prune you backyard tree, you’d most likely get five different sets of instructions. A tree’s first five years or so are more for training than pruning, and excessive pruning at this time encourages vegetative growth but delays fruiting. Start pruning to shape from ages five to ten.
  4. “An orchard site must be tilled deeply and frequently for at least a year before the trees are planted.” Answer: That is standard advice for anyone starting commercial orchards. The advice is not necessarily essential and in some cases would be utterly disastrous. Whatever extra growth such pre-preparation obtains will hardly be worth the cost to the homestead grower of a grove of tree to live in. What’s more, deep tillage a year in advance cannot be practiced on steep hillsides, which are eminently suited to tree culture. All the soil would wash off into the valley.
  5. “Keep the orchard floor cultivated, or the sod will rob trees of water and fertility.” Answer: Some commercial orchards will grow better, or crop better with a dirt floor, particularly in dry regions or where the soil will erode. Better to mulch under trees with old hay, straw, grass, and clover clippings, and a little manure. In steep orchards, even the ground under the trees must be kept in sod.
  6. “If you don’t spray insecticides and fungicides on a regular professional weekly schedule, you might as well forget about raising fruit. Answer: Then why is it that I know personally of so many backyard fruit trees that produce without any spraying? For the backyarder, a combination of less toxic, so-called natural spray materials a few times a year with intelligent use of various biological and mechanical controls and resistant varieties will suffice most of the time.
  7. “You have to apply extra fertilizers to orchards just like you do any other crop if you want to get a high yield.” Answer: I like to fertilize my trees, though I know the manure and wood ashes and bone meal are actually making the soil too rich around some of my trees – particularly too rich in nitrogen. Harold Schroeder in New Jersey has a large commercial orchard, described earlier, in which no extra fertilizer of any kind other than clippings from the orchard grass has ever been applied to the trees. He believes and has fairly well demonstrated that skillful pruning produces better quality fruit without fertilizer. Dr. Elwood Fisher, in Virginia, grows hundreds of fruit trees as a hobby, and uses no fertilizer, either, except grass clippings as mulch.
  8. “You have to arrange your trees very assiduously into blocks in which pollenator varieties are spaced ‘just so’ next to the self-unfruitful varieties. Otherwise you will not get a crop.” Answer: In large commercial orchards, especially where Red Delicious apples are grown in quantity (Red Delicious is self-unfruitful – that is, it needs another variety to pollenate it), the spacing of pollinating varieties requires careful planning. The idea is to use as few pollinators as possible in favor of the more marketable Red Delicious. In a naturally managed grove of trees, an abundance of bees and other pollenating insects will do a fine job for you so long as the trees are reasonably close to each other.
  9. “Plant fruit trees on hillsides where they will enjoy good air drainage. Keep trees out of frost pockets.” Answer: That is standard advice printed and reprinted by every horticultural writer. What if you don’t have hillsides? I think low-lying areas that get labeled as frost pockets are bad for fruit and nuts because such low ground is often poorly drained, and very few, if any, food trees will grow in poorly drained soil. Worry about soil drainage rather than about air drainage. You can improve the former; there’s not much you can do about the latter.

10.  “Some trees prefer rich deep bottom land and some like light sandy upland soils. Plant trees on the sites they prefer naturally.” Answer: Paul Stark, Sr,. was once showing me round his family’s orchards in the neighborhood of Stark Bro’s Nursery in Missouri. I asked him if there was anything special about the soil there that started the Starks growing fruit trees. He didn’t hesitate. “No, I don’t think there’s anything special about the soil. The climate is more important. You can’t do anything about that, but the soil you can always improve by adding the proper nutrients.”

11.  “It’s foolish for older people to start an orchard. They’ll never live to enjoy it.” Answer: the best orchardists I know are all old men. They are all livelier, however, than many young men I meet. One fellow planted a pear orchard when he was 70. Twenty years later he was enjoying his pears while many of the people who had laughed at him were dead and gone. I sometimes think that old orchardists live long and healthy lives because they continue to plant trees to the end of their days.


Considerations “for the backyarders only”

Food trees for fuel and tool wood

Food trees as shade

Food trees as windbreaks

Food trees and bees

Microclimate variations

Food tree placement and the garden

Trees and yearly food supply

Yields of food trees


Chapter 4: Making a Tree Plan and Keeping Records

Chapter 5: Landscaping with Ornamental Food Trees

Chapter 6: Planting and Propagating Trees

Chapter 7: The Art of Pruning

Chapter 8: Orchard Fertility





Leave a Comment