Lessons Learned in Our Orchard, by C.D.

Background: We bought our homestead in November, 2012. At the time we lived in the same area but in a neighborhood with protective covenants on a half acre lot. We found we weren’t able to do the things we needed and wanted to do in order to be resilient no matter what the economic or natural environment threw us. The property we moved to was about 5 acres with plenty of room to incorporate an orchard. I had pre-ordered a number of fruit trees and had prepared the ground to plant them in our old yard. They arrived after right before our move and we quickly needed to get them into the ground in our new property. We have learned many things in the seven years since we planted our first fruit trees. Our hope is that you may benefit from our mistakes and decide to grow a fruit tree or two — or many.

Our Homestead: Our homestead is located in a rural part of North Georgia. Agriculture and tourism are the main economic activities here. There are many orchards, vineyards, and broiler houses in the county. We are located in the foothills of the Appalachians which means lots of hardwoods and a shortage of level land. Water is abundant in rainfall, as well as the many rivers, streams and springs. Our property is shaped like a “U”. The property lines are on the high sides on the East and the West with the valley running North and South. Also much of the land is in old growth oak, hickory, and poplar.

Our First Planting: Because the new property was an “accidental” find and we weren’t planning on moving anytime soon, we had purchased bare root trees earlier in the year that were to be sent when dormant as bare root trees. Those trees arrived days before our imminent move and were one of our first projects at our new homestead. The difficulty when planting them was apparent. There just weren’t many places they could go because of the orientation of the sun (getting at least 6-to-8 hours of sun) and because the new homestead already had so many trees and not many open areas. We settled on the Eastern edge of the property on a nice slope. The trees would have good drainage, some morning sun and lots of afternoon sun. So far, so good, I thought.

Our Main Orchard: Our main growing method is permaculture. Not only did we want to avoid chemicals and dependence on fertilizers, we also wanted an interlinking ecosystem that was self-sustaining (one day anyway). We consulted with a permaculture design specialist and received a quote for the orchard with swales and installation of a variety of fruiting trees and bushes. One of the things the designer advised was keeping some of the mature oak trees in the future orchard. This would mimic the very productive oak savannah biome. We walked through the dense half acre area and tied construction tape around several scattered oak trees we wanted to keep before the clearing began.

The orchard was completed in the Spring of 2014. It was so beautiful, neat rows of trees and bushes with swales behind them on the slope above to capture the rain, neat mulch around all the plantings. Between the rows of trees was approximately 20 feet planted with grasses and clovers and mulched with straw. Overhead were majestic oak trees with dappled shade. Pretty soon the area between the rows was nice and green and lush. I have the pictures, it was so beautiful.

Permaculture Principles: One of the principles of permaculture is a cycle of inputs and outputs. Animals are necessary in permaculture. They eat grass and convert it to meat, milk, fiber and manure. The manure and trampling of the sod energizes and fuels the soil web microbes. The soil microbes in turn make nutrients available to the root hairs of the trees, forbs and bushes; they also have a symbiotic relationship that increases tree health and disease resistance.

Cows and Sheep and Pigs Oh My!

We used movable electric tape and plastic fence posts to graze livestock between the rows of fruit trees. We had lots of grass, forbs and fallen acorns that our animals ate to get nice and fat. Things were really going well. We rotated the different types of livestock to decrease parasite burden and increase diversity. With animals came immediate concerns like lambing and breeding, weaning and butchering these concerns overrode the longer, less immediate concerns of pruning, weeding, watering, inspecting and mulching the trees. When you have lambs on the ground you have to tend to their needs right away, besides the trees were doing fine.

Problems in the Orchard: A number of problems became apparent over time. Pigs root and though they respected the electric fence, they tended to root right at the base of the fence below the trees causing erosion and root loss. Some of the lambs with their nice wooly coats would brave the electric fence in a mad dash under it to nibble on the new tree buds and shoots. The sheep also learned when the electric was off for one reason or another. They took advantage many times, along with the cows, to rub against the young trees breaking many branches. Bark gnawing nearly girdled many trees and if it didn’t kill the trees outright it allowed disease organisms to gain a foothold.

Oak Tree Problems

The livestock weren’t the only problem. Remember all those nice oak trees? Leaving some oak trees sounded like a good idea but in reality not so good. Dense forests produce trees with very few low; spreading branches instead the low branches are knocked off by the tight spacing. You have trees that support each other up high, leaning and breaking the wind together. The trees are actually better protected as a mass. When we cut down the majority of the oaks and left some standing on their own they were weaker in the wind and storms. Now, frequently, we have huge limbs that are as big as large trees falling in the orchard. So far no animals or people have been injured. But if I could, I’d cut down every one of the oaks. Large limbs have broken branches and fallen on our young fruit trees.

Another problem with the large trees is the squirrels. We trapped 30 squirrels in a month’s time. The squirrels would wait right until I was ready to harvest the peaches or the plums to eat every one of them. Other problems we noticed with having large trees in the orchard include competing with young fruit trees for water and nutrients and casting too much shade. When we were tasked with choosing trees to remain in the orchard it was winter and though I thought I considered the tree canopy I was wrong. The leafed out canopy cast far more shade then I imagined. Many of our young trees don’t get enough sunlight to grow properly or to fruit well.

Insects and disease further weakened our young trees. Growing organically doesn’t mean neglecting trees. Choosing the right tree for the right location is a big help in having a healthy tree with tasty fruit. Knowing the rootstock your trees are grafted on can help make care considerations easier.

Lessons Learned

Here are some lessons learned:

  1. Don’t graze livestock in a young orchard
  2. Choose appropriate cultivars for your growing conditions not just based on your USDA Hardiness Zone
    1. Choose disease resistant varieties for known disease pressures in your area, i.e. fireblight, scab, black rot, etc.
    2. Choose rootstock and varieties that can handle drought, wet feet, chill hours, late frost or cold hardiness. Don’t choose the peach tree that blooms in February unless you live in Florida.
  3. Learn all we can about orchard culture before we plant the first tree. Local orchards and nurseries often teach classes on pruning techniques. Books are available in the library or buy your favorites to refer to often.
  4. Plan on several hours a week in caring for our young trees. For us this meant reducing our livestock load. We just have chickens now, not just because of the orchard but for other reasons as well. This has allowed more time to tend to seasonal orchard maintenance.
  5. Water, fertilize and mulch trees on a regular basis. Have a pest management program in place. We started using Michael Phillips Holiest Orchard recommendations this summer and will continue adding aspects this fall and should have the entire program in place for spring.
  6. Fig trees and persimmons have had no pest issues. Very easy to grow here compared to apples or peaches that are loved by all pests. If you want just a few trees or have limited time choose fruit trees that do well even if neglected. It would have been better if we knew or started with easy trees.
  7. Don’t give up. Fruit trees and bushes can provide us with food nearly year around. Check out the Fruit and Nut Harvest Chart on the Dave Wilson Nursery website. Planting early, middle and late cultivars of several fruit species can ensure there is something to eat fresh, canned or dried year around. I am amazed by the variety of things that I can grow on my homestead. There are some fruit cultivars developed for almost every location. Apples being the most widely dispersed.

Growing on our Homestead, mostly in order of harvest:  Blueberries, Nanking cherries, apricots, service berry, mulberries, blackberries, peaches, plums, apples, pears, figs, jujube, persimmons, hazel nuts, paw paws and chestnuts. We have multiple varieties for pollination and to extend the growing season.

Conclusion

Even though we made many mistakes, we haven’t given up but are using what we learned to improve our orchard. It is hard to chop down the disease riddled peach trees after you have cared for it for several years. But blooming in February isn’t going to give us fruit in very many years. The peach trees also had canker in the trunks because of frost or animal injury and this could spread to other trees.  Though hard to do, we did it for the overall good of the orchard. It is better to cut our losses and plant a more appropriate tree. Planning orchard maintenance is a higher priority now we don’t have to compete with animal care.

We also have a better understanding of pests, like the Japanese Beetle, and what we can do to help. We also have learned what to look for when choosing trees to expand our orchard. Making wiser variety choices will optimize time spent on tree maintenance, create a healthier orchard, maximize finite resources such as money, water and nutrients and provide greater yields of healthy, flavorful fruits. There is no teacher like experience. I am sure we will learn many other lessons. We are looking forward to this next growing year and the difference we will make in our orchard.




25 Comments

  1. I live in North Carolina and with my limited backyard orchard have learned the following:

    Persimmons (non-astringent varieties) are great, but suffer from white flies as pest sometimes. One spray in early april takes care of them.

    Keifer Pear are awesome and produce like crazy. One small tree gave 4 bushels this year, but they will grow wildly and need pruning periodically and limbs will break if overloaded with fruit (like this year).

    Kill any cedar trees nearby your orchard. They spread a cedar-apple rust (orange color jello-like fungus on the cedar to many trees and fruits, including serviceberry, quince, apple, pear. This infects the fruit trees that mutate to produce the fungus the next year and you end up with a few mutant gnarly fruits. My pear tree has recovered, but my serviceberries have not.

    Peach trees require considerable spraying pesticides to keep insect free. I chopped mine down due to the high maintenance.

    American Filbert nuts need protection from squirrels. They just eat them like crazy before ripening.

    Blueberries are consistently stripped by birds, so figure out some screen to cover them.

    Fig trees are awesome. Buy two varieties (black mission and brown turkey) which have slightly difference ripening times. Pick every two – three days to prevent attracting pests (birds and fruit flies) Overripe figs should be removed and made into jam/brandy.)

    1. I too live in North GA and will add, most of the time if you buy from a local Nursery you can get varieties that do well and can take the local diseases and pests. Most of the time the varieties at the “Big box stores this does not hold true. Occasionally if you pick through the stock you can find a variety at a “big box” that can make it. I also learned from visiting those local orchards and asking questions. Nothing is as satisfying as eating fruit off your trees standing in your yard!

      1. Kevin we had a great local nursery but the gentleman retired. I thought maybe one day (if I ever run out of things to do) the natural procession would be to have a nursery with local cultivars available. Who knows? I have plans to order more bare root trees from regional nurseries with excellent reputations. I really like Century Farm Orchards in NC they carry many disease resistant and heritage apples. A very small nursery in KY – Peaceful Heritage will be getting my order for disease resistant plums. The AU Rubrum is rated high.
        You are so right, home grown fruit is heads above what is available in the stores. Happy orcharding!

    2. Tom D
      I will have to plant a Keifer pear, the European pear varieties I have are susceptible to fireblight and I have had to really prune this out. My understanding is the keifer isn’t susceptible.

      Unfortunately our neighbor has ceder trees planted as a privacy screen on a portion of our shared property line. We don’t have any fruit trees planted in that area but I will be sure to plant cedar-apple rust resistant varieties going forward.

      It sounds like you have learned a thing or two as well. It sure is nice when everything lines up and you have that delicious fruit to enjoy. Happy orcharding.

      1. Kiefer is a cooking pear mostly, but edible and tastes more like an apple. Stores well for winter in cool spot or just make preserves. Next year I might try dehydrating.

        My two mature fig trees this year probably put out 20 gallons of figs total. When growing, I pruned the main trunk to 6 ft and then let it branch from there. I use a step ladder for most picking and wear long sleeves since the leaves can be kind of scratchy on the arms.

        As for the Ceder-Apple rust, look at the cedar trees in the spring after it rains. If you see orange jelly in little globules near the green shoots and small twigs, it is likely infected. When a fruit tree is infected, the fruits will grow little fungus tendrils like hairs that again release the fungus spores to infect the cedars for the next year. I think antifungal sprays during the fruit flowering season are supposed to help but I have not tried that sufficiently with success. Best option is to kill the cedars, but the spores can travel in the wind.

        Remember the squirrels are edible too, so during SHFT and when your trees will attract them, I would encourage youngsters to target practice on them for stew! Use an air rifle!

  2. I can really relate! When I started out on my farm I decided to plant a smallish orchard that would provide for household use as well as enough extra fruit to sell at the market. I think I made enough mistakes for several homesteads!

    The original company I ordered from shipped the trees way too early so that the ground was still frozen! I recall digging tree holes in series, digging down a few inches, moving on to another hole while that hole thawed in the sun, etc. Not having spent enough time on the land there yet I hadn’t paid enough attention to which spots had more sun, where frost accumulated etc. And then there were the deer which devastated my young trees despite trying all sorts of deterrents.

    And then there was my adventure using a dwarf root stock for part of the planting which succumbed to our Vermont winters(got down to 40 something below zero one year). And of course my experiments in trying trees unsuited for our then USDA Zone 3 mountain. Occasionally they even lived for a few years but then they died. And forget about supposedly hardy peaches or cherries; no they’re not.

    I ended up with a small orchard that thrived(apples, pears, plums and tart cherries) and everything else succumbed. Kinda costly in terms of money wasted on the trees plus planting and care. But in terms of an education, well, it was priceless. Like I said, I can really relate! And I’m quite jealous of some of what you can grow; figs, persimmons and pawpaws! I can only dream of growing those here(did actually get some pawpaws to live for a few years but then they were wiped out).

    1. I bought my place here in rural NH 10 years ago with two mature apple trees. After the first year I planted a Stanley plum and a Reliance peach. The plum lasted 8 years and never grew more than a foot. I pulled it out last year. The peach grew well but only developed fruit this year, but boy, oh boy! I lost a few branches due to the bumper crop of hundreds of peaches. I still have a few left on the kitchen counter – sweet as honey. The deer stand on their hind legs to pull apples off the trees, but they have no interest in the peaches – more for me! Thanks for your article.

      1. Doc
        Thank you for sharing your experience. I bet it was hard to pull out that plum tree. The peach tree sounds like it made up for it. I would put a deer fence around it, it may be that the deer just weren’t conditioned to find fruit on that tree. I had deer, caught in the act, getting every reachable peach off of three of my peach trees. And they were looking oh, so good. In fact I was planning on picking them that day!
        Glad you are growing fruit!

    2. Ani
      It’s great you were successful with apples, pears, plums and tart cherries in your zone 3. It’s great there is something that will grow most anywhere. Yeah I don’t think even the hardiest of peaches would work there.
      Thank you for sharing your experience I’m glad I’m in good company in the growing fruit trees learning curve. It is costly but now we know what works and what doesn’t work in our own little spot.
      Good luck to you!

    1. Squirrel 44 I’m so glad you are going to grow fruit trees. It really isn’t that hard but they do need care. I’m glad my experience didn’t frighten you away.
      All the descriptions in the nursery catalogs sound so good. Check with your local extension agency they will give varieties that will do well (generally) in your area of your state. Choose the most disease resistant from that list they often give regional favorites that aren’t necessarily good for your particular growing needs. Also, I highly recommend Michael Phillip’s Holiest Orchard book. Start reading it before you plant and you will be ahead of where I started.
      Good growing to you!

  3. Unless you move into a homestead with an existing orchard, you are going to face all of the problems mentioned. My property has raw forest and we continually must trim/ back existing trees so they do not encroach or over shadow the gardens and fruit trees. We must grow lemons and limes in containers and over winter them in the tool shed (hope to have the hoop house up this season). We could only afford a few fruit trees at a time so it has taken years of learning which fruits thrive or die. Our nut trees are struggling but may bear next season. We have apples, peaches, plums and just added cherry trees. We have to protect what we want to grow with deer fencing or plant where our LGDs can keep the forest animals out. We consider It worth the effort to grow and harvest our own fruit and nuts but it is not easy.

    1. Animal House thank you for sharing your experiences. Building an orchard slow and steady is an excellent way to learn what works and what doesn’t in your particular area. The time and money invested can truly be a significant investment. There are pear and apple trees that live for 80 plus years, what a great generational gift. “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb says it all. I also love Micah 4:4 “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.”
      Our Great Pyrenees have access to our orchard and they treed a possum in our fig tree. They broke several branches loaded with figs jumping into the tree to try and get that darned possum. A persimmon tree also suffered a broken branch. I have a beautiful persimmon on the counter hopefully ripening so it won’t be wasted. But the dogs do keep the deer out and that was the first possum I have seen in the orchard.
      Happy orcharding

    1. Animal House is a “she” and a Patriot!

      In California it means… Lesbian Gold Diggers!
      Since I am from the People’s Republic of California…
      1) We can’t cut down trees to unshade our fruit trees due to protection of the Spotted Owl.
      2) We can’t use water for our fruit trees due to the water restrictions on watering lawns.
      3) We can’t use propane gas grill tanks for our portable heaters in our green house due to a fire hazard and they will burn down the neighborhood “they say”.
      4) We can’t have any visible trees in our front yard other than what was there when we purchased the house– due to CCRs.
      5) We are not allowed any farm animals due to city ordinance.
      6) We gave up!

  4. I live in the East Coast, zone 6b.

    You need to be thinking now about the spotted lanternfly. It has been spotted two miles from me so I’m focused on it and have talked to two local ag guys. Eventually most folks expect it to be nation wide. While they prefer grapes, they can decimate peaches and pears and many other crops.

    People I know are talking about mesh over every fruit tree. Let the tree be pollinated, then have a sticky band around the upper trunk to catch nymphs, then mesh it.

    I hope you have a few years or more, I do not. But please do your research now.

    1. Lynnie
      The spotted lanternfly sounds positively awful! It sounds like many of the controls and preventions that I plan on using for the plum/apple curculio, japanese beetle and brown marmorated stink bug may work for this new pest too. Neem, fish oil, Surround, effective microorganism and kelp foliar sprays. I also plan to up the amounts of chickens and ducks in the orchard in the spring. Many nasties out there that want our fruit. Good luck to you and your fruit trees.

  5. Be careful where you buy your fruit trees. Years ago I bought an Asian pear tree only to find out years later when it first bore fruit that it was a Kieffer pear. And a Dolgo (edible) crabapple that two years later proved to be an ornamental crab with tiny inedible rock hard apples. And a “sugar pear” that was really a small Seckel pear, not the sugar pear I remembered as a kid.

    Peach trees seem to be heavy feeders. I had a 20-year-old Georgia Belle white peach tree that died last year but until then regularly bore bushels of peaches. I live in NE Illinois and only had 2 years that were fruitless due to late frosts. I fertilized it heavily with horse manure (my sister has horses), high-calcium lime, soft rock phosphate, and greensand. I never used chemical sprays.

    I am converting to various kinds of apple trees. The harsh winter last year almost killed my apricot, cherry, and peach trees and they bore no fruit.

    1. Strelnikov
      Thank you for sharing your experience. I love that there are so many that grow fruit trees. You are so right about choosing the right nursery to buy from. With all the time, expense and work involved with caring for fruit trees what a shame it is to not even have the one you thought you were getting. Ouch!
      The Georgia Belle is a good peach tree from what I have read. Unfortunately peach trees are not long lived usually. The flip side of that is they don’t take as long to start fruiting.
      Having a variety of apples, pears and other fruits is great harvest insurance for late frosts, mild and harsh winters.
      Happy orcharding to you!

  6. Nice article! My experience is largely with apple trees, (although we have wild persimmons). Pruning and shaping the fruit tree is important, but even more important is pruning excess fruit when it first forms.

    This practice may sound bass ackwards, but it’s like thinning a row in your garden — it makes the remaining fruits larger and stresses the limbs less resulting in a better harvest. If you have a cluster of blossoms that turn into a cluster of small fruits, prune all but the best looking one. Aim for one fruit every 6 or 8 inches, depending on the size of the limb. If you are going organic, you may choose to bag or protect the resulting fruit one to prevent bugs or predation.

    If you don’t have bees, consider getting a hive. They complement fruit trees very nicely!

    1. The Pickled Prepper
      Thank you for your comments. I skimmed over the details in my article that you included in your comment. Early pruning trains and strengthens the tree. I wish I had paid more attention to that earlier.
      I also didn’t thin the fruit. Beside the disease and small fruit issues you mentioned, it also can weaken the tree to put so much energy into that many fruitlets. Some trees bare biannually because of that.
      Have you thought about expanding your orchard to pears or other fruits?
      Good harvest to you!

  7. Old man in NJ
    I can see why large commercial orchards would use these. We use the live catch traps because of chickens, grandkids and dogs in the orchard. We stopped catching squirrels because the hawks started killing chickens after not bothering them in years. The squirrels are coming back but not so many and the hawks stopped killing chickens. I guess a balance has been reached.

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