On the first gray and wet day in April we finally got to plant the first trees in our new orchard. It's been a long time coming but by letting it take so long, we've also been able to observe the land and improve some of the original ideas.
The inspiration for this orchard came when we visited our friend John Bunker in Palermo, ME. He is establishing an orchard, or rather an edible landscape, that in many ways goes against the traditional “fruit trees on a mowed lawn” idea. This acre is wild looking, with numerous other berry shrubs, herbs and flowers growing in a jumble among the fruit trees and the stumps and the brush from the cleared trees has been left right there, with the intent to mimic a natural landscape. He's reasoning is that nature can take care of itself and that fruit trees grown in a polyculture often needs very little human care (spraying, for example) to do well. But mostly what I saw when I looked at what he'd done was the chance to turn that God-forgotten piece of land in the back of our clearing into something, a project that up until then had felt so overwhelming, I couldn't even bring myself to try. When seeing John's place I saw that even the least amount of effort would not only be okay, but in some ways desirable.
Here are 5 steps that we took to create our backyard orchard.
1. We cleared the trees. Very few of the living trees in this area were worth milling into lumber so almost all of them got cut into firewood. At any given year, we don't fell more trees for this purpose than we have time to process and that we can fit in our woodshed so this alone stretched out over almost 3 winters. Some of the dead wood we stacked in a long mound along the back line and some we simply heaped together in a big pile right in the orchard.
2. Get scion and graft. For most of the apple trees that we planted we gathered scion from trees growing on the island and we grafted them all on standard rootstock. The best time to gather scion is while the trees are still dormant and then keep the scion cold until April when the grafting takes place. We could certainly have planted the newly grafted rootstock immediately but since the area has not been ready until this spring it gave us a good chance to grow the young trees in a nursery in our garden to be better able to keep a close eye on how they were doing and have them be better protected from deer and rodents.
3. Observe the land and act accordingly. More than anything, this long laps in time between deciding to do an orchard and actually planting the trees gave us the necessary time to observe what the land looked like and how the water flows. Had we planted the area that first spring we would have missed the fact that this is a very wet area and we might have ended up loosing some of the trees because of that. Twice now we've had a friend with a small backhoe improving the ditches around the area and still more drainage might be needed.
This realization, that the seemingly slow pace of this project allowed us to do it right from the beginning, is a good reminder that homesteading is a long term commitment and a long term lifestyle and that major project, like an orchard, should be viewed in the same prospective.
4. Determine the grid. The size of the area lent itself to a 25x25 feet grid in which to plant the trees. Apples grown on standard rootstock can get impressively big if they are let to and this is really the closest they should be planted to allow for full size growth. As of now, we can fit 6 trees, with more to come once we've opened up for more sun. In this grid we also plan to grow peach trees – they are small and comparatively short lived (12-15 years) so they will not crowd the apple trees and will die before the apple trees crowd them.
5. Make the sites and plant. Due to the wet ground in our orchard we put some extra effort into the actual sites where the trees were to be planted. Instead of just digging a hole in the ground we built it up as a sort of raised bed to elevate the young roots away from the wetness. We used the half rotten logs that we had piled up on the side, pieces that were roughly 8-10 inches in diameter and 4 feet long. They formed the base of a square that we built up with thinner pieces laid out diagonal across the corner and then we beefed the whole thing up with brush. We took soil from the excavation of the ditches and put around the square so it looked like a mound and once we stuck the tree in the middle filled in the hole with a mix of the same soil and compost. As the grand finale we mulched the whole site with seaweed. To make a raised bed like this will hold the soil in place better than a mound made from soil only. Over time the brush will break down and provide nutrients for the trees.
While the actual planting of the trees that day in April felt like the biggest and most significant step, much of the possible successful outcome will be thanks to the preparation and thought that went into this space long before this spring. The work in this area is far from over, even though for the moment we greatly enjoy the sight of the tiny leaves forming as a beacon of hope for homegrown fruit for generations to come.
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