A backyard orchard can be a most rewarding and fun gardening project and may be easier than you think, and fall is the perfect time to start.
Because the ground is still warm, trees planted now will root in before cold weather arrives, and since the temperatures have cooled, there is less transplant shock.
Fruit trees have become valued not only for their fruit, but also for their use in the landscape. Attractive as shade trees, they provide a pretty spring bloom as well to complement your other landscape trees and plants.
When planning a backyard orchard, there are several things to take into consideration. You will need a fair amount of space, but a quarter-acre plot can provide a family with an adequate amount of fruit. Most varieties sold commercially in the nursery now are “semi-dwarf,” which means they stay smaller than the sprawling trees of many years ago. Take the time to read the labels on the trees that you select. Most semi-dwarf trees still fall into the 15- to 18-foot range and need to be spaced 20 to 25 feet apart for optimum growth and production.
Another important consideration is where you live. In what zone are you located? Some fruits won’t survive cold conditions, so another variety may do better. For example, if you live in a warm area, sweet cherries should do fine, but if you are in a cold area, pie cherries will do better. The easiest fruits to grow in a home orchard are apples of any variety. Peaches, however, are a gardening adventure, as many insects and diseases find them attractive, and the homeowner has to deal with these over the winter as well as during the growing season. This doesn’t mean you cannot produce good fruit – just that it will take a little more care and patience.
One of the most often asked questions in the nursery is, “How many trees do I need?” Many of today’s varieties are self-fertile, so you can get away with one tree. Others need two to cross-pollinate, so you should purchase them in pairs and preferably select two different kinds. Do you still need two trees if your neighbor has an apple tree? The overall rule of thumb is yes, the closer they are, the better they will pollinate, especially when they are small. Also try to pick varieties that will bloom about the same time. This helps pollination as well.
Insects and diseases, although minimal, are attracted to fruit just as we are, and some varieties take more attention than others. Peaches are one example. In apple trees, coddling moths and bees are the primary culprits. Start by treating with winter dormant spray and continue to treat organically or inorganically. Bees like to sting the fruit and eat it or will sometimes merely blemish it as it develops, but if you treat the trees throughout the growing season it does not have to become a major deterrent to your orchard’s production. An orchard can be labor-intensive if you are aiming for perfect fruit for your table, but if your goal is fruit for pies and jams, it gets a lot easier. Just be vigilant for insects such as aphids or powdery mildew and treat them as soon as they appear.
Watering in our area is a must. The roots of most fruit trees will spread wide, looking for water. To get these roots well established, watering, especially the first season, must be done regularly. Fruit trees, particularly the stone fruits like peaches, cherries and apricots, are sensitive to over- or under-watering. Plants are like people – they don’t like wet feet!
In Colorado, fruit trees can be a challenge because of late frosts, but there is an old trick that seems to work. If you think the winter is one that will produce an early flower on the trees, mulch your orchard in late December after the weather has cooled, to about 2 feet deep, taking care to keep the mulch away from the trunk of the tree. This keeps the soil from heating, and the tree from blooming too early. When the weather warms in late spring, remove the mulch to allow the soil to warm up. You can delay the bloom from about a week to 10 days, and sometimes this is just enough to miss those late frosts and save your crop that year.
So if you’re hungry, plant a tree! The sweet, juicy tastes of summer and fall will more than make up for the care that is involved. After all, what’s better on a cold autumn evening than apple pie, warm from the oven? And don’t forget the ice cream!
Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.