Growing Fruit Trees on Your Homestead

A detailed discussion of choosing, growing and pruning fruit trees in your home orchard.

| November/December 1972


A homestead orchard will provide a bounty of healthful fruit.


Trees full of soft foliage; blossoms fresh with spring beauty; and, finally—fruit, rich, bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious—such are the treasures of the orchard and the garden, temptingly offered to every landholder in this bright and sunny, though temperate climate. A.J. Downing 1845 Whenever the subject of Homestead Orchard is discussed, two things flash to mind: First, I am reminded of the many agricultural Titans who have devoted major segments of their lives to the furtherance of tree crops.

There are hard-working devotees in every field of plant and animal husbandry . . . but pomologists appear somewhat different. They seem to be a more dedicated and intense breed . . . to them tree crops offer philosophical substance as well as taste and nutrition. Professor John Gifford was one of these Titans who saw social and economic implications in tree crops. In 1934 he wrote a small book on diversified tree crop farming for the tropical homestead.

In it he showed how annual crops are unsuitable to tropical climates, where deep-rooted trees thrive. The Mayans failed to survive because they planted corn and cut down forests. For the most part tree-men consider corn the killer of continents, and regard corn as one of the worst enemies of the human future. Annuals are the crop of primitive man . . . food needed in a hurry, Promethean man supposedly has the culture and the leisure and intelligence to subsist on tree crops! This is my favorite passage from Gifford's book:

The furtherance of the tropical forest subsistence homestead has been and 1 hope always will be uppermost in my mind. For 40 years my life has been shaping itself to this very end because it seems to me about the most essential thing that can give life and comfort to the majority of our people, in fact, the only permanent way out of the difficulties which beset the world. The small farm home is the essential basic unit of society. The prosperity and strength of any country can be measured by the number of small self-supporting homesteads which it contains. The best nations of the world are not those with the greatest natural resources but with the largest number of small, self-supportive, free-of-debt homesites. THE TROPICAL SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEAD.

The second thing that comes to mind in a tree crop discussion is disheartening: A tremendous knowledge of tree crops has been amassed by many at great cost in time and energy . . . but is virtually unknown or unaccepted by contemporary farmers. There is no better example of this unfortunate situation than exists in a review of the life work of J. Russell Smith, tree-man par excellence. Smith launched his study of commercially useless trees in 1910, with a worldwide quest for new varieties. In 1929 he published TREE CROPS—A PERMANENT AGRICULTURE.

His valuable tree discoveries were then intensified with more worldwide travel followed by a revised edition of his book in 1954. As a loyal tree-man, Smith (who, incidentally was professor of economic geography at Columbia University) spoke vehemently against annual row crops. Crops that must build themselves from scratch for each harvest are victims of the climatic uncertainty of short seasons. Tree crops, on the other hand, are not affected by drought to the same degree . . . deep roots enable a tree to accumulate and store moisture. Smith was repulsed by the fact that four-fifths of everything raised by the American farmer goes to feed animals.

He made a good case for a tree crop diet instead, realizing that meat contains 800 calories as compared to nuts which contain 3,200 calories. If animals are to be raised, Smith maintained that they should be allowed to harvest their own crops. This "hogging down" principle is nowadays a major agricultural innovation . . . as when hogs are permitted to harvest corn, soybeans, peanuts, etc. Smith maintained that tree crops can also be harvested directly by animals . . . mulberry, persimmon, oak, chestnut, honey locust, and carob are all excellent stock-food trees. Andrew Jackson Downing continues to be the tree-crop giant of them all.

One of his major works, FRUITS AND FRUIT TREES OF AMERICA, published in 1845, remains today an essential tree crop reference. Resulting from the publication of a number of his important books, Downing's influence on American fruit tree culture is apparent to this day. He fully remodeled western European fruit growing practices to fit American site and climatic conditions. One contemporary tree crop author found that fruit trees planted in Massachusetts and Michigan during the height of Downing's influence (18701890) are still standing and bearing fruit. Yet thousands of trees planted in subsequent years (1890-1920) have broken down or died. There is a refreshing simplicity in Downing's basic principles:

A judicious pruning to modify the form of our standard trees is nearly all that is required in ordinary practice. Every fruit tree, grown in the open orchard or garden as a common standard, should be allowed to take its natural form, the whole efforts of the pruner going no further than to take out all weak and crowded branches.

The tree-men who have qualified the science of pomology are in unanimous agreement on one important aspect: interplanting is a desirable practice.

Interplanting Fruit Trees

Interplanting makes good sense to the homesteader from a purely economic standpoint. Where peaches, pears and plums are interplanted in apple orchards, revenue from their yields subsidize the apples to production. Rapidly maturing 'tree crops (like dwarfed varieties) can be alternated with slowly maturing species. Mulberry trees are an excellent choice to interplant in a nut tree orchard . . . they grow rapidly, bear young and are resistant to shade. One type of interplanting is known as "two-story agriculture". Here, trees are grown on land that is cropped or pastured for mutual benefit.

There has already been some discussion of how sod crops benefit by the companionship of tree crops. About 10 black walnut trees in an acre of permanent pasture improves the pasture considerably. The deep roots and thin open foliage characteristic of walnut trees do not interfere with a lower-story sod crop. The leaf-filtered, sunlight makes it possible for a sod crop to continue growth throughout summer months. Walnut trees give grass more time to get established before the summer warm season, because their growth is primarily in the late spring. There are numerous advantages in planting a two-story fruit and vegetable garden. Fruit trees bear in the upper story while brambles, grapes, bush fruit, or vegetables grow below. Long-lived fruit trees continue to bear when short-lived lower-story plants are removed. "Filler" trees are located between standard varieties, to provide early bearing an short-lived fruit.

Dwarfed trees can be used as fillers in a standard bearing orchard. They can be chosen as early bearing varieties of the same fruit, as when a wealthy apple is set between a northern spy or McIntosh apple.

In terms of intensive gardening, planting trees in "square" patterns is wasteful of space. When a tree is planted in the center of each square (creating a quincunx arrangement), nearly twice as many trees can be located in the same area.

The gardening program for an intensively planted, heavily mulched 60 by 50-foot plot might be as follows: Vegetables and ever-bearing strawberries harvested the first season, a partial crop of brambleberries harvested from the second to tenth year, and then removed; from the third to the tenth year dwarfed fruit varieties bear, then removed to allow more room for semi-permanent trees; peaches and plums produce until the fifteenth year,
then removed to allow maximum space for the remaining four apples and pear—with appropriate sod crop—which continue to bear indefinitely.

Choosing Sod Crops for an Orchard

There are a number of conditions that influence the choice of a sod crop in an orchard. The ideal sod crop is one which grows slowly at first, when trees need the ground moisture, and more rapidly later in the season when trees require less moisture. Soybeans and cowpeas have this quality. Alfalfa and small grains are poor choices because their extensive root systems may rob the tree of moisture. Leguminous sod crops—such as hairy vetch—are especially valuable for maintaining soil fertility in a nut tree orchard. Tree crops planted in a heavy and poorly drained soil will benefit from a lower-story permanent sod crop such as bluegrass or orchard grass (orchard grass is aptly named!).

Grass roots help to use up soil moisture and increase the size of air-filled pores and fractures. Aeration is thus improved, and if cultivation can be avoided, the tree's surface root growth will be encouraged at the one place where aeration is best attained . . . the surface. Plowing, discing, rototilling, and cultivating around trees is a ghastly practice, to be avoided at all costs: A homesteader should realize that the greater majority of all feeder roots are located within one foot of the surface. This is the zone where the soil is most fertile and where aeration is greatest. Mulch planting is a much preferred practice.

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