How to plant an apple orchard in your backyard

Another nine inches of fluffy snow fell on Cape Cod yesterday, the most recent of many big winter storms this year.  Today is clear, with deep blue skies and the new snow is so brilliant that it's blinding to look at.  Most of my yard is buried under the soft white blanket, but sticking up triumphantly are the dozen skinny trunks of my two year old apple trees.

I love apples, my family loves apples and I've got a whole bunch of friends who like them too.  So the notion of using the northwest corner of my property to put in a few apple trees wasn't too hard to come to.  Especially since I like gardening anyway and the climate here is amenable to growing our favorite fruit.  As soon as I started looking into apple trees, I realized that by using hybrid dwarf trees I could raise the project to a whole new level, I could become an orchardist!  

That was almost two years ago.  This year, once the snow finally melts, I'm going to reap my first real harvest.  If that idea appeals to you, read on because creating a backyard apple orchard isn't nearly as difficult or expensive, or time consuming as you might think. It doesn't even take up that much room.

Introduction

There are an infinite number of ways to do most anything, and choosing from all the possibilities is a big part of living well.  I'm going to show you one very specific method for planning and planting a small apple orchard that I know works.  Please feel free to research further and experiment with the many variations that might work equally well, or perhaps even better.  If you find something really great that you think I've missed drop me a line, I'm always up for learning.

Here are some characteristics of the backyard apple orchard

  • It fits in an amazingly small space.
  • It will work in most soil types.
  • The trees will produce in a wide range of climatic conditions
  • After the initial planting, it requires minimal care
  • The varieties are selected to provide fruit continuously over eight months of the year
  • It costs less than a used car and can last a hundred years

Planning your orchard

Before going any further, you'll need the following information:

  1. A scaled diagram of your yard, accurately showing the space you plan to put your orchard in.  Note on your drawing, the location of existing trees and other structures that will cast shade on the orchard.  Other concerns are low hanging wires above, sewer lines, sidewalks or driveways below, and scenic views that might be blocked by the mature trees.  Take your time on this part, measure carefully and make it as accurate as possible.  Try to picture the space filled with happy trees.
  2. Determine where the nearest source of water for irrigating the orchard is and mark it on your drawing.
  3. Find out what climate zone you live it.  If you live in the U.S. you can find out directly using the USDA Hardiness Zone Map1.  Outside the U.S. you should be able to interpolate your climate zone based on the range of temperatures in your area by finding a similar area on the USDA map.  
  4. Take a shovel and dig a hole two feet deep in the area you intend to plant.  Take a ball of the soil from the bottom of the hole and squeeze it tightly in your hand.  Now pinch the ball gently between your fingers and note how it crumbles.  Does it all fall apart completely into grains, like sand, or just deform like a lump of clay?

Since this is a backyard orchard, we're going to emphasize fitting as many trees as possible into the available space.  The best way to do this is to use the highly developed compact and dwarf varieties now available.  These trees only grow to a height of eight to ten feet, but they bear full sized fruit and plenty of it.  Take your scaled sketch of the orchard area and use a drawing compass to lay out the individual trees.  Use a ten foot diameter circle and leave a foot or so between the circles so you'll have room to walk around when you are tending the trees.  You'll probably be surprised at how many trees you can fit into that unused area of your back yard, or the side lawn that no one ever uses anyway.  

The trees will grow about as tall as they are wide, so consider the layout vertically as well as horizontally.  Be sure that they won't encroach on any electrical wires.  Beneath the ground the roots will spread over an area about one third larger than the branches above ground.  If your home has a septic system, be sure that the trees aren't on top of the leach field or tank.

Now let's determine if the conditions in your yard will allow the kind of orchard we're discussing.  Check for each of the following:

  • Can you fit at least five trees without them encroaching on low wires, sewer lines, or your neighbors view?
  • Is your soil somewhere between pure sand and pure clay?
  • Is your climate zone between 4 and 9?
  • Do you have a water source within 150 feet?
  • Will your orchard location receive at least five hours of direct sunlight each day?

If the answer to any of these questions is "No," then the backyard orchard probably isn't a good option for you.  Don't despair, you can probably still enjoy some fruit trees.  Keep reading and take a look at the "Options and Additions" section at the end for some ideas. 

Laying out the orchard

The next step is to transfer the orchard plan from paper to the ground.  Get a handful of wooden stakes, a hammer and a ball of twine and head for the yard.  Using your scaled plan of the yard, find the center point of your first tree, and pound in a stake to mark it.  Now measure off a piece of the twine that is five foot six inches long.  Tie one end of the twine to the stake and stretch the other out toward the next tree location.  The circle marked by the end of the twine as you walk around the stake shows approximately where the branches of your full grown, dwarf variety, tree will be.  Lay out each of the other trees in the same manner based on your plan.  Now use the strings to determine if there are any spacing problems.  If the strings overlap each other, in any combinations, you've got a problem and you need to move the stakes to resolve it.  Once you've adjusted all the stakes so none of your trees are crowding the others, pound the stakes in firmly.  They'll have to wait awhile for your trees to arrive and you don't want to have to do this part over again.

Laying out the irrigation system

We're going to design and build a simple drip irrigation system as a part of your backyard orchard because it will eliminate the single biggest cause of failure right from the start.  It's also easy, fun and inexpensive, so why not?  To start, take your ball of twine to the faucet that you will use as a water source for your orchard.  Tie the string around the faucet then follow the most reasonable path from the faucet to your orchard area, trailing the string behind along the ground.  Don't be too fussy over this, we are just getting some rough measurements.  Now, depending on the pattern of your tree plantings, consider how best to run a water pipe to pass along the base of each tree.  If they are in rows, you'll probably want a pipe for each row.  If they are all in a line, one pipe will do.  If they are in a zig zag pattern, the flexible tubing we'll use can probably just follow the zig zag from one tree to another.  Once you've got a plan, use the stakes and twine to lay it out on the ground.  When you are finished, transfer the irrigation pipe plan onto your orchard drawing.  Make notes on the drawing of any fittings like "Tees" or "Ells" that you'll need to implement the layout.

Here's a sample plan that utilizes one main line "======" with "T" fittings for each row of trees (+):

T=======T=======T=======T======<Water from the faucet<=====<
|       |       |       |
+       +       +       +  a row of trees
|       |       |       |
+       +       +       +  a row of trees

I'm hopeless at ASCII Art, but you probably get the idea.  We'll refine this later.  

Once the irrigation system is laid out to your satisfaction, tally up the fittings you'll need, then measure the total length of the twine you used.  This will tell us how much irrigation tubing we need and what fittings to order. 

Ordering your trees

Now comes the fun part, picking out your trees.  We're going to mail order bare root apple trees from Stark Brothers, because they are pretty reliable, have a great selection and I've had excellent luck with them in the past.  The first step is to get a copy of the current Stark Brothers catalog.  You can request this over the web2, or call on the phone.  In either case your catalog will arrive in a few days.  The Stark Brothers catalog always makes me go a little dreamy eyed with it's pictures of bursting over ripe fruit of all varieties begging to be picked from the overburdened branches.  A veritable cornucopia of delights that will make you desperate to fit in one more tree somehow.  

In fact the over abundance of choices represents a problem that I'm going to solve for you by providing a basic order for the backyard orchard that you can elaborate on depending on how much space you have available.  I'm also going to provide a set of criteria for any additional trees you buy so they'll fit in nicely.  

So,  here's a list of five apple trees that meet the criteria and will produce apples throughout the summer and fall (in zone 5):

If you have room for more than five trees (lucky you!) you can double up on any of the basic five trees or you may want to select some new varieties to round out your orchard. If you follow these criteria for any of the extra trees you buy they'll fit nicely.

  1. Dwarf variety, because that's the type of tree we designed the layout for.
  2. Pre-pruned, because that greatly increases the chances of their survival during the first year.
  3. "Supreme" grade if available, because they are the best trees Stark sells and they each come with a weed mat, tree guard and fertilizer.
  4. Self-pollinating, because it allows us to be total slackers in the orchard layout.

Some trees that meet these criteria include: 

Once you've got your list together, go back into the Stark catalog one last time and see if any of the special "Assortments" they are currently offering help you out.  If the trees you've selected fit into one of their packages you can save some money.  Speaking of money, as a ballpark estimate, plan on about $30 per tree including shipping.  Check the list, double check the list, then sleep on it and review it one more time before you place your order.  Apple trees live over a hundred years, so take the time to get it right. If you end up ordering any non-"Supreme" trees, ask that they be pre-pruned, and include fertilizer tablets, a weed mat and a tree guard for each of them.

Once you are absolutely sure, give Stark a call and lay your plastic down.  It's pretty painless if you consider that you are planting an orchard that your great grandchildren will enjoy.  Bare root trees are normally shipped in early spring, so depending on when you order, you'll likely have some time to get the rest of the items you'll need prior to their arrival.  In particular, this would be a great time to order the irrigation supplies.

Ordering the drip irrigation supplies

The reasons for including a drip irrigation system in the backyard orchard plan are almost too numerous to mention.  A summary of the high points would have to include:

  1. The most common cause of failure in new tree plantings is improper watering, either too much or too little.  Our drip system will ensure that the trees get just the right amount, automatically.  
  2. Drip irrigation is the most efficient watering method known. Saving water is a good thing no matter where you live.
  3. Drip irrigation is easy to design and install.

If you are interested in learning more about the history, theory and practice of drip irrigation, please take a look at Jess Stryker's tutorials. Otherwise let's get down to business.  There are loads of vendors for drip system irrigation supplies.  The polyethylene tubing and fittings are pretty standard, so feel free to shop around if you like.  To keep things simple here, I'm going to reference The Drip Store3, an online vendor that I've had great luck with in the past. Without explaining too much, I'm just going to provide a basic list of stuff you'll need, then we'll add the items for your particular orchard, based on your layout notes. Finally, I'll introduce some options that you may be interested in.

Basic drip system component list
  1. Backflow preventer, required in most places to eliminate irrigation water polluting the drinking water supply
  2. Pressure regulator, to normalize the water pressure in your drip system
  3. Water filter, to prevent sediment from clogging your drip emitters.
  4. Tubing adaptor, to convert from hose fittings to the poly tubing.
  5. 200 feet of 18mm (0.720") polyethlyene tubing.  This should be enough to complete all the runs in your layout notes, plus a bunch extra.
  6. Battery powered watering hose timer, to allow you to program when and how long the water flows.
Now, the items particular to your orchard:
  1. Three gallon-per-hour emitters for each tree, plus a few extras
  2. One end cap fitting for each branch in your irrigation piping, plus a few extras
  3. "Tee" and "Ell" fittings as needed for your piping plan, plus a few extras
  4. A half dozen tubing couplers, just in case you make a mistake
  5. A dozen or so "Oops plugs
  6. Enough tubing stakes to secure the pipe every five feet or so.
  7. One tubing punch tool, to make the holes the emitters plug into

Two optional items you may be interested in, but which can be added later if you choose are:

  1. Automatic watering controller & electric valves.  These cool gizmos allows you to set up very complex watering schedules with multiple zones.  They replace the simple hose timer above.  There are loads of options, so if you're interested, do the research.
  2. Automatic fertilizer applicator.  This system consists of a small tank with connections that allow it to feed small measured amounts of fertilizer into your drip system every time you water.  You don't have to feed your trees very often anyway, but the system is useful for other gardening projects too.

Planting your trees

One exciting day in early spring, you'll come home to find several long cardboard boxes on your front porch, your bare root trees have arrived!  The trees will be wrapped in plastic inside, probably several to a box.  Open them up to take a look, and moisten the roots a bit before closing them up again.  If you aren't going to plant them immediately, store them in a cool dark place such as your garage or unheated basement.  If it's going to be more than 10 days before you plant, you should "heel in" the trees by digging a shallow sloping trench long enough to cover the roots.  Lay the trees in horizontally then cover up the roots with dirt and soak the trench.  The tree shipment will also include packages containing, weed mats, fertilizer tablets and tree guards.  We'll use this stuff when we plant, so keep it handy.

Before you start digging, you'll need a two cubic foot bag of compost for each tree (from the local gardening store),  a two-handled post hole digger (from the local tool rental place) and a regular spade shovel.  Digging holes for trees can be pretty exhausting, especially if your soil is really compacted, so don't be embarrassed to hire a helper if you need one.  Before you start digging, start soaking the roots of the trees in a bucket of water.

To prepare the holes for planting your trees, first make a planting jig by tying three loops in a four foot length of twine or rope, one loop on either end, and one in the center.   Hook the center loop over the stake marking where your tree should go, then stretch the twine out tight and pound a stake in the ground through each of the other two loops.  

It should look like this: 

O--------------O--------------O 

Now you can remove the center stake and unhook the twine while still keeping track of where to dig the hole. You can remove the planting jig string as needed when you dig the hole, then just hook it back over the outside stakes to make sure you are on target.  I know this sounds fussy, but in the sound and fury of hole digging, it's easy to drift way off the mark.  You are going to have to live with this for a long time, so try to be accurate. 

 In addition to the old saying, "Dig a ten dollar hole to plant a five dollar tree, " an arborist friend once taught me a tree planting trick that makes sense so I'll pass along here. First dig a two foot diameter hole one foot deep centered around the center loop in your planting jig.  Then take the post hole digger and dig a 6" to 8" diameter hole straight down at least another two feet.  The first hole frees up the soil to allow air and water to penetrate the area around the tree's roots.  The second, deeper hole encourages the tree to send it's roots down deep through the loose soil.  This allows the tree to tap into the water table quicker and more readily withstand strong winds or heavy snowfall.

The hole should look like this:

|        |
---   ---
|  |
|  |
|  |

More lousy ASCII Art, hopefully, you get the picture (ahem).

When the hole is ready, get the compost, put your gloves on and have a garden spade handy. Place the tree's roots down in the deeper hole and then begin to fill in around it using the compost.  As the hole fills, pull the tree up through it, so the roots are straightened out below then gently compact the soil so there are no air gaps or voids.  Keep filling and pulling until the smaller hole is filled, compacting lightly as you go.  Now start mixing the compost half and half with the dirt you originally removed from the hole.  When the hole is two thirds full, place the three slow-release fertilizer tablets that came with your trees among the roots. Keep filling and pulling until you've filled the larger hole and are now back at ground level.  Be careful not to allow any air gaps or voids in the hole.  

Now comes the critical part.  It's very important to plant your trees at the correct depth.  Your dwarf trees are created by grafting a fruiting variety tree to a dwarf variety root stock.  This is how we get full sized fruit from a small dwarf tree. The place where the two tree types are joined, together is called the bud graft, and it's usually visible as a knob or knuckle six to eight inches above the first roots.  The trees need to be planted so that the bud graft is at least an inch or two above ground.  If they are planted too deep, roots can develop from above the graft and you'll end up with a full sized tree.  All the Stark Supreme trees are marked with tape to show the proper planting depth.  If you purchase any trees that aren't marked, use the Supreme tree marks to show you how far above ground the bud graft line should go.

Once you've identified the correct planting depth, mound up the soil mix about three inches above grade, and pull the tree up one more time until the proper planting depth is at the top of the mound.  Now press the mound down to compress the dirt below it.  Gently at first, then using your feet to make it nice and tight. When you are done, the dirt should be tamped down nicely and the tree trunk should be sitting at the proper depth.  Use the excess dirt to form a circular rim around your tree to hold the water.  

Place the weed barrier mat around the base of the tree, then put the tree guard around the trunk.  Finally, take the plastic name tag off from around the tree's trunk.  If you want to use it to mark the tree, reattach it using a soft & loose piece of twine.  Now, pat yourself on the back, take a long pull on a cold beer and start the next one.  While you are doing the next tree, set a hose running slowly to deeply soak the previous tree.  After they are all done, open another cerveza fria and have a nice long well-deserved relaxing soak in the Furo.  

Installing the drip irrigation system

Once the trees are in the ground and the heavy digging is finished, you can lay out the tubing for the drip irrigation system. This part is easier than it sounds and will go surprisingly fast.  Here are the basic steps, YMMV:

  1. Thread the following together in order from the faucet on your house: watering timer, backflow preventerpressure regulator, and water filter
  2. Connect a drip tubing adaptor to the end of the polyethylene tubing by pushing it onto the fitting at least a half inch. This takes a little strength, so get a friend with gorilla hands if necessary.  Now screw the adaptor onto the filter so the entire roll of tubing is connected to the faucet through filter, backflow etc.
  3. Unroll the tubing out to your orchard along the path you laid out in your irrigation system plan.  Be careful not to pull too hard on the backflow assembly.  These bits are pretty tough, but they are plastic after all.
  4. Once you've rolled the tubing out to the farthest end of the orchard, cut it to length, leaving a few feet of slack.
  5. Install one of the end caps on the main line.
  6. Use the "Tee" and "Ell" fittings you purchased to lay out the rest of the lines. Cap each line at the end.  When you are finished, each tree should have one poly tubing line passing by its trunk.
  7. Using the tubing hole punch, make a hole in the poly tubing at the trunk of each tree and push the barbed fitting of an emitter into the hole until it clicks into place.  For now, we'll only use one emitter per tree, but as they get bigger, we have room to install two more, 18 inches out from the trunk for a total of three per tree.
  8. Once everything is in place, turn the water on, turn the timer on and cross your fingers.
  9. Fix leaks & retest.

Once you've got it all set up and fixed any problems, you can just set the watering timer to put about five gallons on each tree once a week. At a gallon per hour, that's five hours of watering every week.  Depending on the timer you bought, you may set it up for five hours on Wednesday, or 45 minutes a day.  If it rains all week and the trees don't need any extra irrigation, shut off the faucet.  

Now you can just kick back and watch those beautiful trees grow.  Patience is a virtue here.  The roots of your trees will begin to develop almost immediately, but you may not see any visible budding or leaves for three to six weeks.  If you  are lucky, you might even get an apple or two the first year.  The second year you'll almost surely see a small crop. Year three and beyond watch out.

If any of your trees fails to grow, don't panic, it happens.  All the reputable tree farms guarantee their stock and Stark Brothers is no exception.  Call them and they'll send you a replacement for fall planting.  No questions asked. Replanting in the same hole is easy, so the only real down side is that you'll lose one growing season.

Maintaining your orchard

The primary tasks involved in maintaining your orchard are pruning, pests, and pickin.  I've adopted a pretty casual approach to all three, that I'll share with you here.  As an orchardist however, it is incumbent on you to spend lots of pleasurable hours fussing over each of these topics in the development of your own ornery, well honed, idiosyncratic ideas that you feel compelled to argue interminably with other ornery idiosyncratic orchardists.  It comes with the territory.

The Zen of Pruning

Webster says of pruning, "The act of trimming, or removing what is superfluous," and in some senses that captures what pruning is all about.  In a more philosophical sense, pruning is all about recognizing the soul of the tree and helping it become what it needs to be. Think bonsai writ large and you'll be close.  Good pruning recognizes that the tree is a living creature and strives to realize the essential character of each tree.  Your trees need you to help them grow properly by removing the random and inessential elements so the true form can emerge.  If this sounds a little like parenting, that's because it is.

Okay enough cosmic babble, here are the basics you'll need to get started:

  • When to prune, there's an old saying that sums it up this way, "the best time to prune is when the knife is sharp."  Take your pruning shears with you every time you go into the orchard.  You'll always see something that needs pruning.  My pruning guru DejaMorgana adds the following tips: " I recommend doing most of the heavy pruning in late winter-early spring, when the tree is dormant. This will really boost the growth of new branches. Finally, I suggest thinning the apple clusters when the apples are very small - apple trees have a natural tendency to produce too much fruit for their own good. If you let all the apples grow, it can overload the branches and cause bruising by apples dragging on the ground."
  • How to prune, make a sloping cut just above a bud, or flush with the trunk..
  • What to prune, apple trees should be pruned around a central leader trunk.  If there are two leaders, choose one and whack the other. Next resolve branching conflicts where two branches are growing towards each other, choose one and whack the other. Finally, select the strongest lateral limbs and remove the redundant ones.  When you look down from the top of the tree, the branches should radiate evenly around the central leader.
  • Pruning heuristics (rules of thumb), 
    • Cut any sucker shoots that grow up from the roots, or out from the bottom 12 inches of the trunk. 
    • Branches that point in the same direction should be four to eight inches apart vertically.
    • Some dwarf trees don't develop a strong leader trunk, that's okay, just select 3 - 5 of the lateral branches to encourage.  These branches should radiate outward like a pinwheel, evenly spaced around the tree.
    • It's better to prune frequently, making small, easily healed cuts rather than waiting and making large cuts. 
    • Prune to space branches at the same height so that they radiate around the tree, about three or four per level.

Like I promised, those are the bare basics.  After awhile, you just see what needs to be done, really.

Pests and diseases

I'm going to be dogmatic on this topic and opine that you adopt a gentle approach to the myriad malevolent forces implacably aligned against your helpless orchard.  If you let them get to you, you'll wake up one morning to find you've turned into a chemical warfare wielding totalitarian fundamentalist.  Not a pretty sight!  You'll be a happier orchardist if you accept from the outset that critters, from microbes to mocking birds are going to want their share of your apples as much as you do.  Since you planted loads of trees, there will usually be enough to go around even after everyone has had their fill.

The place where I draw the line is against anything that threatens the overall health of the trees.  This is tantamount to killing the golden goose, and I terminate that kind of threat with extreme prejudice.  That said, there are almost always organic alternatives available nowadays that you should at least try before resorting to the really nasty stuff.  Last year, for example, my orchard was viciously attacked by leaf boring caterpillars.  My hand instinctively reached for the "poison death spray," but after taking a moment to chat with the arborist at the garden store, I found an enzyme product that did a nice ethnic cleansing number on the bugs then broke down harmlessly.

Birds on the other hand fall into the, "share and share alike," category.  Usually they only bother the fruit on the outside of the tree, but if they get so greedy that you aren't getting your fair share, you can throw bird nets over the top of your trees, or invest in one of those cool Air-Soft pistols for a local teenager.  They shoot these fat blue bb's that scare the shit out of birds without actually hurting them, much.

Pickin and a grinnin

Your backyard orchard will produce apples for about eight months of the year.  As one tree peters out, another will be just be ready to drop its load.  Around here, that means a series of great excuses for a pickin party with friends, or even random pedestrians invited to pick all they can carry. 

You can tell if an apple is ready to be ripe by watching for it to lose the last bit of green in its color.  The sweetness will increase and the seeds turn from white to brown.  To pick apples properly, just lift upwards sharply and the apple will pop loose without damaging the tree at all.  If you listen closely, they say you can hear the trees sigh with relief as the heavy load lifts from their branches.

Another tip from the apple-wise DejaMorgana: "About picking - a few words on this really should be said, to prevent people from damaging most of their crop. You must emphasize spreading the fingers out around the whole apple when picking, and not to dig in with any one finger. Also, it's better to twist and pull than to lift sharply.  Lifting is likely to bruise the fruit or make the stem actually cut into the flesh of the apple, which is no good. It can also shake the whole cluster of apples, resulting in a lot of dropped fruit. You don't want that, unless you're making cider, so  twist and pull. People think this is stupid stuff, but i've seen a lot of fruit damaged by people who thought you could pick just any old way." 

Options & Additions to your orchard

Here are a few ideas you may want to consider as you plan your orchard:

  • Guaranteed that you won't be able to look at the Stark Brother's catalog without thinking of adding other fruit trees to your orchard.  Great idea! Just keep the original five apple trees in the mix because they all cross pollinate.  My orchard now includes apples, cherries, peach, plum, pear, nectarine and two almond trees. Fruit-O-Rama!
  • If your climate zone won't allow you to grow apples, consider planting a backyard orchard with citrus trees.
  • If you don't have enough room for the backyard orchard, consider growing a few of the "Colonnade" type trees in barrels on your patio.  These are amazing hybrids that look like bushes but produce loads of full sized fruit.

I'd love to hear from any new orchardists, and will gladly assist as best I can with any questions or problems.  Just /msg GrouchyOldMan

===================&===================

1 USDA Hardiness Zone Map: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html
2 Stark Brothers: http://www.starkbros.com or by phone at (1-800-325-4180)
3  Jess Stryker's Landscape Irrigation Tutorials: http://www.irrigationtutorials.com 
4 Drip Irrigation supplies: http://www.dripirrigation.com

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