Tips on planning a fruit garden
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 20, 2009.)
Several years ago my interest in growing fruit began, and I started with some berries. I didn’t begin with a fruit garden in mind of course, just a few fruits I wanted. However, growing fruit is like growing anything else. You discover you really like something you grow, and it quickly becomes an obsession that requires adding more, and more… and before you know it, the cart is ahead of the horse and the garden may need restructuring. I’ve already had to move my strawberry and raspberry patches because they were too close to where I plant potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Plus it was so dry the last two years that I didn’t realize how wet the soil stays in one corner after heavy rains, which is where I should have planted the elderberry and not the cherry.
| Tree farm|| Kiwi grove|| U-Pick home orchard|
With some experience under my belt, I now know to PLAN first and not just plant willy-nilly. Fortunately I started very small and I didn’t make many expensive mistakes. Even choosing what to plant is no easy job; start with what you think you’d like, then study what it actually needs to produce, such as chill hours, zone, and pollination. Look at other growing aspects, too, before drawing your plan.
Temperature affects choice
Two important considerations in choosing fruit trees are chill hour requirements, and your zone. First, look at your zone information for the average times for the last freeze in spring and the first freeze in fall. Note that with current climate changes, some zone information has changed recently. Ideally, you will select varieties that will bloom after the last freeze, and have mature fruit ready before the first freeze in fall. As spring temperatures begin to warm the trees, the buds start to collect growth-stimulating hormones stored in the roots. When enough hormone has been collected, the buds bloom, and growth takes off (assuming a late freeze hasn’t killed the buds).
Keep in mind this thing called “microclimates” (which can be just a small section of your entire yard, or larger than your neighborhood) when determining trees for your yard. No matter what the tree growers say about zones for certain trees, if you have a microclimate (as I have with a creek in front and a hill behind the house), trees suggested for your zone may fail. Remember, the pretty catalogs are meant to entice you with something, and there is a big difference in a fruit tree growing, and a fruit tree producing.
Raintree Nursery displays the chill hour map developed by the University of Maryland, along with a list of chill hour requirements for a number of varieties of fruits and nuts. “The idea is that a deciduous plant goes dormant in the cold winter to protect itself from the cold. The plant needs to stay dormant while the weather is freezing and then know how soon after it gets above freezing it can safely start growing. It must do it late enough so it doesn't get frozen back by a late frost but early enough so it can get a full season of growth and fruiting in before it must go dormant for the next year.” 
Ask about the rootstock used if they are grafted trees (most are). Many fruits are now grafted on rootstocks that prevent root-knot nematode damage, and many are available on various heights of dwarfing rootstock as well. Dwarfing rootstocks will tend to keep the trees smaller than full size trees, but to remain a manageable size, dwarf trees must still be pruned.
| Tree size by rootstock|| Weed-free drip zone||Varying heights by size|
Some fruits like pears, plums and apples will need more than one variety for pollination. Most cane fruits and peaches do not, but blueberries usually do. Even some that are self-pollinating or self-fertile usually fruit better with two varieties. Some fruits require a specific pollinator, and some will need just one male for several female trees. Check with your supplier; if he/she doesn’t know, buy elsewhere because they probably don’t grow their own stock and are less familiar except for what their books say. Your county extension agent should have a list of varieties that do well in your area, including their pollinators.
| Bee hives in orchard|| Peach pickers 1912|
Where to plant
Study your terrain for composition and drainage (both air and water drainage). Get up really early and watch where the frost dissipates first, and where it lingers. If you have a light fog, see where it lingers longest. Do you have an elevation where cold rolls down and accumulates at the bottom? Sometimes a mere five feet can make a difference in the survival and fruiting of a tree. I have a hill behind my house, and the 30-foot-wide area between the house and slope captures cold. However, up the rise just ten feet, I have good air movement and water drainage.
Have your soil tested
Highly acidic soils often have a calcium shortage. Calcium is very important to fruit production. Read up on calcium, and add one that provides readily available calcium. High alkaline soils often have zinc and iron deficiencies and the tree leaves can develop chlorosis. Study the recommendations that came back with your soil test results and amend appropriately. During the planning phase is a good time to incorporate a lot of composted organic material into your future fruit garden, especially if you have clay soil. Add some now and work it in, then add more in a few months. Consider adding some beneficial microbes; they play a critical role in converting fertilizers into useable forms for plant uptake.
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| B&B trees|| CCC Preparing holes|| Moving soil & compost|
Drainage is very important for most fruits. If your soil drains poorly, consider building some raised areas for fruits. My intentions this summer are to dig some planting holes and amend with compost and humus now for next year’s fruit tree additions. Organic matter is important in the soil because helps hold moisture and nutrients which will eventually become available to the plants. Generally, fruit trees should not be fertilized for the first two years but the soil can be well prepared in advance for balance and drainage.
Layout and Spacing of trees and bushes
Fruit trees, bushes and fruiting canes are easier to maintain if laid out in a grid. If you have grass between the rows, mowing is easier, and access for pruning, spraying and harvesting is also easier with a grid. Determine the mature width of a tree, and plant it and the next one in the row so the two have some space between their branch tips when fully grown. Dense plantings still need adequate spacing for air movement. Plant smaller bushes and canes where the larger trees will not block the sunlight. Doing this planning on paper saves a lot of headaches that could eventually become heartaches.
See also Planning a home orchard: Cross-pollination and spacing trees for best fruit production by Jill Nicolaus
A 2-year-old tree will need about 2 gallons of water a week; 3-year-old trees may need 4 gallons. Over the course of a year, 30 to 50 gallons of water per tree are needed by most fruit trees. Try to keep watering on an even-basis. There isn’t much you can do about extended rainfall, but dry spells can be combated by watering. Some fruit trees like pecans, apples, peaches and grapes can have cracking after 2 to 3 weeks of drought followed by rain. Figs, persimmons and navel oranges tend to drop fruit when water-stressed (too much or too little). Consider installing a drip irrigation system before planting your fruit trees. It’s much easier now than when the trees are established.
In windy areas, install drip irrigation with the emitters downwind from the trees, and plant the tree rows parallel to the wind direction. Otherwise, plant your rows north to south for best sunlight exposure.
Keep all roots moist (not soaking) until planted. Heel them in if necessary until you have time to plant. Trim all damaged or broken roots just before planting. Dig your planting hole large enough so the roots are not bunched or cramped. In clay soil DO NOT dig a large hole. This creates a water-holding well that can drown the trees. (Roots need oxygen.) Loamy soils are good because they allow good root penetration, and drain well. Some trees like apple, persimmon and pecans develop a long taproot. For these trees, be sure and loosen the soil deeper in the center of the hole when planting.
Winter temperatures can still affect dormant fruit trees. As a youngster, I would often see orchards, or even single trees, with the lower portion of their trunks painted white. I thought they looked pretty all in a row, but of course I had no idea of actually why they painted them. This whitewash protects the trees from winter sun warming (thawing) the cells in the trunk on the sunny side during the day, leaving the thawed cells to freeze again at night, killing the cells. This is called “sunscald”.
I have seen advertising recommending products to wrap the trunks, especially for young trees. However, many experienced growers are now finding this “protecton” allows the trunk to stay moist, creating a haven for pests. Anchoring a new tree with guy wires can cause the tree to rely on “crutches” instead of growing a strong supportive root system. Unless you are in a very windy area, consider not staking your trees.
Weeds (and grass) around newly planted trees will compete heavily for nutrition and moisture. Keeping the area out to the drip-line weed-free around young trees will allow them to get the nutrition they need without competition. Mulching will help conserve moisture. Once the trees are mature, plant a low-growing cover crop that does not need mowing.
| Almond orchard with grass rows|| Fruit trellis & espaliered walls|
Cold winters kill the over-wintering grubs and eggs of many pests. Even so, fruit trees historically need spraying for pests. Your county extension agent can advise you on what is recommended for your area. For small scale organic growers, there is an interesting product called Surround™ which is a kaolin clay spray that becomes a breathable film on plants. It was developed by the USDA. The only precaution I have seen is the suggestion not to apply it when bees are actively foraging. It can be applied up to the day of harvest. I intend to try it this year on my raspberries that had a heavy infestation of Japanese beetles last year. (I am also going to apply milky spore to the lawn for their grubs.)
Forest Garden (canopy sizes), GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Apple Rootstock, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Apple pommier.jpg, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version
Field of potted trees, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Kiwi Fruit Orchard n.jpg, © James Shook, This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
Orchard in fruita licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.
CCC/Beltsville farm, Public domain
B&B Trees, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Moving soil, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0
Keizelboomgaard (thumbnail drawing), Public domain
Peach pickers 1912, Public domain
Rosicrucian Park Peace Garden trellis, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Almond orchard, released under the GNU Free Documentation License
Legend for sketch above of varying heights by size:
1. A ‘canopy’ layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
2. A ‘low-tree’ layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
3. A ‘shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4. A ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
5. A ‘ground cover’ layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
6. A ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
7. A vertical ‘layer’ of vines and climbers.