Beginner’s Mistakes Establishing Orchards

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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First orchard in Maine, flooded.

Establishing our orchard has been trial and tribulation. We’ve certainly had our problems with orchards and fruiting trees. But in our defense, it hasn’t all been our fault. We have gardening down to a science, but the orchard… well, let me lay out my case. Let’s chat about beginner’s mistakes establishing orchards.

The First Orchard in Maine

I was a naive young man that had ditched the 9 to 5 rat race and was just getting my first homestead started in Maine. This was way back in 1979. The property I chose had an old overgrown road winding through the forest to a small field of about 4 acres. That too was being taken over by nature so one of the first things to do was to hire a bulldozer and clear my patch of heaven.

The whole field was pretty level and I set about laying out where the house, barn garden, orchard, field crops, well and septic system would go. I did fine with everything except choosing the best spot for an orchard. It was the low spot in the field and in spring, had standing, pooled water. Bad news! Of course when I planted all the fruit trees and plants such as raspberries, everything was nice and dry that first year. It wasn’t until the ensuing years went by that I became acutely aware my orchard location might as well have been in a lake. A few trees hung on over the years but the ones that did required a second pollinator to make fruit so it was essentially game over.

In addition to choosing a wet site for the orchard location, I made 1 big mistake and didn’t read a couple of other signs properly that might have given me a clue if I had been awake. The bulldozer I hired to remove all the young forest that was growing dozed not only the trees but the top soil as well and plopped it in a humongous pile in the middle of the field. That was the mistake! It is quite likely that had the excavator not lowered the level of the ground by at least 6″ by removing the topsoil the remaining ground would have drained much better.

At the east end of the field where I planted the orchard, the surrounding forest was primarily a cedar forest. Cedar grows in wet sites. That was one clue I missed. And it was an important one as it indicated a high water table. The second clue was when the well driller came in and hit water within 7 feet, if memory serves me right. Again, a sign the water table was naturally pretty high in my homestead location.

In hind sight, had I ripped trees out instead of bulldozing, chosen the best drained site for my orchard or at the very least, put in a simple drain line for the area just to get rid of the standing water, I might have had a shot at a decent orchard.

An Orchard in the Wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan

At our next homestead in the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, we were pushing the limits of an orchard due to climate. Our homestead was above 56 degrees latitude and temperatures are routinely 40 below or colder for periods in the winter. Yet we actually could have been successful but for 3 bad luck circumstances.

In order to give us the best chance of success, we ordered the hardiest apple, pear, plum and cherry trees for the coldest climates possible. We made sure the root stock was the hardiest we could get and that the root stock was for standard trees. (Not dwarf/semi dwarf but full sized trees).

Some of you might recall we had several forest fires and one of them was within 75-90 feet of the house. We lost some fruit trees as a result. We had damage by moose one year that set us back. But what really killed us was mice. Snow came early up there. And we never gave mice a thought. The trees were quickly enveloped in a blanket of snow that typically became quite dense and deep. Snowshoes were needed to get around the 3 foot depths.


Mice girdled tree.

How sickening it was to find just about all the trees girdled around the base come spring. Many below the graft union. Many trees did send out new growth but the variety was gone and we were stuck with micro fruit the root stock produced. We still made the best of what we got by making jelly. Even with 30 inch protective collars, in deep snow, we had girdling above the collar.

Small apples good for birds.

Onward to Nova Scotia

Now that we’ve made the move to our last homestead in Nova Scotia, we are back to getting started with a new orchard again. The climate here is much more favorable for fruit trees.

Newly planted tree leafing out.

We had the excavator dig properly spaced holes while he was out digging the well. Might as well use the machine while it was here as it made short work of something that would have taken us days to dig by hand. We meticulously mixed the best soil and added bone meal. Then we planted each tree with care. These were 2-3 year old trees.

Then we had a damp summer and the leaves started to wilt on some of the trees due to what we figured was a fungal problem. In the past, we’ve used a copper spray to deal with fungal disease. We had copper powder and copper crystals. The crystals were a recent purchase. Although we mixed it in the right proportions and used the product as labeled, within days the tender leaves were in worse shape. We sought help from the local agriculture facility and sent leaves in for them to assess. The consensus was we damaged the trees due to copper toxicity. We won’t use that product again. We almost wiped out the orchard.

Unhealthy leaves

The trees did leaf out again and we thought we would be OK. Moral of the story is to try some spray on one tree or just a part of the tree and give it a day to make sure it doesn’t keel over. Then if everything looks OK, go with the spray program. That is especially true when using a new product. Even the potatoes leaves turned brown within days when we sprayed them with the new copper stuff. We got potatoes but those plants were really stressed.

As mentioned, the orchard did recover by late summer and we were breathing easy. Until the forecast was for an impending hurricane to hit. So we braced for high winds and heavy rain. The high winds came but very little rain. Who in the world has a hurricane show up with not much rain? We were battered by the winds and because we live smack on the ocean shoreline, that wind carried copious amounts of salt spray. Everything was covered in salt with not much rain to wash it away.

Next day, it was obvious the salt spray was killing a lot of stuff in a hurry. Even native blueberry and blackberry plants along the shoreline were dying. The forest trees, especially spruce had needles turn brown. It was devastating to our newly planted orchard. That occurred last summer.

This spring confirmed what we dreaded. More than half the trees were dead. Not much we can do about this stuff other than to head off to the local nursery and pick up more mature trees to plant.

They say starting an orchard with young whips is best. I think we will dispute that. I believe the replacement trees we purchased were 3-5 years old with roughly a 1 inch diameter stem at the base. They transplanted beautifully and most grew quite well. Assuming no unexpected disaster, we expect these trees to really take off this spring and some may give us a taste of fruit this fall. How exciting!

Ron Melchioreand his wife, Johanna, are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off-Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Pressand is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors ofThe Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader which can be found in Mother’s book store. Connect with Ron atIn the Wildernessand onFacebookandPinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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