Guidelines for Establishing an Orchard

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
article image

Fall has descended on us here on Deer Isle. The Hostel is closed, the cucumber vines but a mere shadow of what they were a month ago and the Brassicas are singing in the much needed October drizzle. Fall is not only a great time to enjoy garden bounty and peak foliage but also a great time to plan for spring, and our plan is a new orchard.

Two years ago, we went to visit a friend of ours who had cleared an acre of his woodlot and now had 40 young apple trees growing there, in among a myriad of other edible and beneficial shrubs and plants. The area looked nothing like most people imagine an apple orchard—branches from the felled trees were left in big mounds to decompose and provide fertilizer, shrubs and brambles that had naturally planted themselves grew scattered throughout the area and each tree was encircled by herbs and flowers. Most people would describe what they saw as a mess, I would describe it as something I could do to, in our own backyard. Our friend’s theory for this way of mimicking a diverse landscape in its natural state was based on the observation that he often found disease free and vigorous apples in the wild that when cultivated in a conventional orchard quickly got infested with pest and diseases. We revisited his orchard this fall and he told us that the more “orchard-looking” fruit trees he had up the road had severe problems with apple bores (one of the worst apple tree pests) while this natural-looking, poly-culture orchard had little to non apple bore damage.

Up until then the area behind the hostel building had been left pretty much as is was when Dennis started the clearing for our homestead. Dead and blown down trees in a thicket of brambles and brush. After our visit to our friend’s new orchard, we’ve spent part of each winter cleaning up the mess and we now have a roughly 70-by-30 foot area where we’ll plant the first fruit trees next spring. Time has been essential to observe and be resourceful, for example have we not wanted to fell more trees than we could stack in our wood shed so to not waste them and last year we realized that more drainage was needed, something which at that point the ground was too we to do.

We’ve also sampled our way through the island apple trees to find the varieties we’d like to grow—a mix of early and late, keepers and eaters, sauce apples and drying apples. In the winters, we’ve gathered our scion and in the spring we’ve grafted the trees on rootstock we bought from Fedco, a Maine fruit tree company. The young trees are growing in our vegetable garden and by spring they’ll be ready to transplant to the new area.

With a couple of more snow free months, it’s good to look ahead at see what can, and should, be done while the ground is still unfrozen and dry. We’ve dug more ditches, we’ll run our pigs in the area to root up the brambles and rocks and we’ll clean up and level the ground afterward. We’ll decide where the trees will be planted, dig the holes and fill them with seaweed to fertilize the soil.

And as we’re now starting to map out what besides the apple trees we’d like to grow and what other steps that are needed to take between now and spring we’re also coming up with a set of goals or guidelines to keep in sight as we proceed.

Maximize the Edible Yield

We’re planning an orchard with multiple edible trees, shrubs and plants that will produce food from the first year. Peach trees can be planted between the apple trees, they are comparatively short lived (12-15 years) and will be dead or declining by the time the apple trees start to produce fruit. Elderberries, viburnum, June berries, different cherry shrubs, blackberries, raspberries and Jerusalem artichokes are all good options as well as different annuals such as winter squash for example. We’ll research mushrooms that could be inoculated and grown in wood chips in the shade underneath the trees.

Other Beneficial Plants

Many perennial herbs and flowers serve the purpose of both attracting pollinators, repelling pests and be useful for culinary and/or medicinal purposes. Some varieties high up on our list are echinachea, catnip, lemon balm and yarrow. Both planted varieties as well as common wild flowers, often seen as weeds in perennial gardens, fit the purpose to have something in bloom for pollinators from early April (daffodils, dandilion, wild strawberries) until late October (calendula, morning glory, marigold, asters, golden rods).

Make the Orchard Efficient

To keep the deer out we need to fence in the trees and the most efficient way is to do the whole area instead of caging the individual trees. The orchard will most likely expand as we keep increasing the clearing so some stretches of the fence need to be easy to move while some we’ll be put in permanently. We have black locust logs that we’ll mill and use as fence posts – they can last as long as 50 years. We can source most of the shrubs ourselves by taking cuttings or shoots from established plants around the island and we use the same local and natural fertilizers as in our gardens and our existing orchard—seaweed, horse manure and our own compost. Logs and branches from trees we’ve fell to create this space will be left around the fruit trees and along the paths to break down and create a habitat for mycelium and micro organisms.

Make the Orchard Durable and Sustainable

A sustainable edible landscape is one that is easy to maintain, will produce food from the first year and remain productive for a very long time. By grafting our apple trees on standard rootstock we’ll give them a chance to outlive us by generations (100-year-plus apple trees are not uncommon) and the right set of companion plants will lessen the need for other pest management, such as spraying. By giving them rich soil and adequate drainage the plants in the orchard will be healthy and better able to resist diseases and pests, while producing more food for us.

A sustainable landscape is also one that’s accessible and easy and comfortable to work in – we need to be able to get to all the trees with a wheelbarrow on flat and weed free paths and vegetation around each tree should be kept low so to easily see the tree trunk and it’s base to detect pest problems in time.

It is an exciting time on Deer Isle, with so many apple trees for us to explore. As we climb, cling, pick, shake and search the bounty of untouched yet laden trees we often comment on how we, in a foreseeable future won’t have to go further than to our own backyard to get all the apples we can eat.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.