Creating a garden is a great hobby that helps breathe new life into your yard, gives you something constructive to work toward, and even yields food to help provide for your household. Now that you’ve decided to start your home orchard, before breaking ground, it’s important to keep in mind the sun, the soil, and the spacing of your garden.
No shade, as the kids say. If you want your tree to bear fruit, avoiding the shady corners of your yard will be key. Fruit trees need a least a half-day of sun to produce a hearty crop, so plant accordingly.
Soil is where trees get a heaping amount of their nutrients, and having the right balance is important for a healthy tree. Aim for a well-drained and fertile area, preferably somewhere higher in the yard where water can’t pool. Luckily, there are solutions to most soil woes, even if what you’re working with isn’t optimal.
As an example, soil with a high clay content can be combated with working peat into the ground when it comes time to plant. On the other hand, soil comprised entirely of clay requires building a mound or berm and growing in trucked-in topsoil.
Many trees come in dwarf and semi-dwarf varietals, making the best use of space while also producing succulent fruits. There should be about twelve to fourteen feet of space between when planting multiple trees. If planting in rows, the rows should be separated by eighteen to twenty feet of space. This way each tree will receive enough sun and air ventilation to thrive.
As a note, when planning your orchard, leave room for change and opportunity. Growing fruit at home is simply the first step, and eventually, you will need space for a more diverse harvest.
You can’t have fruit without pollinated blossoms. Some trees are self-pollinating and will produce fruit on their own. Other trees need cross-pollination which is aided by bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Cross-pollination requires another tree’s pollen to bear fruit. Some areas have enough fruit trees around that the pollinators take care of most of the work, but you can always help them by planting “pollination partners” which are trees of two different varieties.
In general, as there are a few exceptions, apples, pears, plums, and sweet cherries require pollination. On the other hand, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and tart cherries are usually self-pollinating. Each fruit requiring cross-pollination will have an appropriate pollinator, but they must at least be the same type of fruit – an apple tree can’t provide pollen for a plum tree.
One thing that will make or break your orchard is pruning habits. Annual, regularly scheduled, and aggressive pruning is necessary to maintain the tree’s health and the quality of fruit it produces.
The first year of pruning a tree in your garden will dictate how it grows in the future. Trees that are grown over four to six feet should be trimmed down to an appropriate and manageable height. Branches that are growing inward or crossing over each other should be trimmed off, and the tips of larger branches should be pruned to encourage growth.
You might see tiny shoots or branches coming from below the bud union, which is where the root structure and the tree structure meet. These are called suckers, and you should prune them throughout the tree’s life. As trees get older, they produce fewer suckers, but until then, cutting them off at ground level will allow a tree to utilize its resources better.
In the first few fruits from a young tree, thin out immature fruit, keeping about eight inches of space between them. This encourages the tree to put more metaphorical effort into its existing fruit and allows a better spray coverage. Keeping up this practice throughout the tree’s life will allow for consistent results from a harvest and avoid encumbered branches and small, bland fruit. As a result, a tree can better allocate resources to the remaining crop, resulting in tastier and richer produce.
As your tree ages, encourage specific shapes in your trees. Apple, pear, and cherry trees should look like a Christmas tree—one main trunk with branches extending from it. Peach, nectarine, apricot, and plum trees should be more “V” or “W” shaped in a sense, with no central trunk. When it comes time to prune, keep these shapes in mind. As some words of encouragement, it’s very hard to over-prune a tree, so it’s best to just go for it.
Best Times to Prune
Apples and Pears
When an apple or pear tree is dormant is the best time to give a thorough prune, and this would place the best pruning time around winter. This will prepare it for the coming seasons. However, sometimes apple and pear trees can be unruly, so aiming for a mid-summer, July prune is a good time to tame them.
Cherries, tart and sweet, prefer summer pruning. Late fall, winter, and early spring are when bacterial diseases that thrive in cool, wet weather are most active. These bacteria are most harmful to sweet cherries. Take note of the weather patterns of the late spring and wait for warmer days. Once the tree is leafy, usually by the end of May, take some time to prune it back.
Peaches, Nectarines, and Apricots
Early spring is the best time to prune these stone fruits. After winter, any damage from the cold weather will impact buds and fruit production later on, so wait until after your area’s last frost before trimming. At this point, you can cull any of the damage mentioned previously to preserve your tree’s health.
Plums require heavy and aggressive pruning two times a year in summer and winter. These trees are known to be full of life and vitality, so the summer pruning around July is to maintain shape and size. The tree will still be growing then, and you will need to cut them back to preserve nutrients. The winter pruning will focus on general clean-up, such as ridding the tree of dead and broken branches, as well as prepping the shape for the next growing season.