When I first moved here 30+ years ago, I knew that I wanted to not only have a garden but that I also wanted to have the ability to grow some of my own fruit. Raspberries and strawberries were the first to go in, but a few years later, I planted a few apple trees and crabapple trees with the plan of establishing an apple tree orchard. Being apple trees and crabapple trees take a number of years to establish and start producing I wanted to start early. Things happen and after a few years of production, I found myself having to reestablish my apple tree orchard but this time I decided to make it an orchard with more than just apple trees and crabapple trees.
The Initial Apple Tree Orchard
When I bought my place 30+ years ago, it needed help. The house was inhabitable and the yard was definitely not conducive to establishing a garden let alone an apple tree orchard. Although my initial efforts were spent upgrading the house, I knew I wanted to get an orchard established as soon as possible because it takes years to have it producing well. After a couple years I cleared the site in a location that received full sun and was somewhat protected from the prevailing NW winter winds. I had long term plans of building a barn to the south of it but felt that it would still be the best site for an apple tree orchard. It's been 30+ years and I still have not built the barn, but it is still in the long term plans for my property as I explore in On the farm - Planning out the 80 acres but I still feel the site is a good location for the apple tree orchard.
I had a vision of the apple tree orchard being not only a high producing food forest but also a visually appealing one complete with wild flowers, ornamental flowers and some visual interest from an old hay rake I had found in my back 40. I drug the hay rake into the yard, set in in place and planted the wild flowers and then set to work establishing the apple tree orchard, planting two apple trees and two crabapple trees. My apple tree orchard was established.
I also decided that I wanted a bunch of raspberries and ever bearing strawberries for a quick turn around on berry production. So a patch of each was planted. Although I did not know a lot about Permaculture Principles at the time, I mulched both patches with straw thinking at the time it will help with soil moisture and weed suppression. As I explored in Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method it maybe did not go as I planned, but at the time it made perfect sense.
An asparagus patch was also planted at the same time because like apple trees and crabapple trees, it takes a couple years for asparagus to establish so that I could start harvesting the spears, so the sooner I got them planted the better off I would be. A green/red unknown variety of rhubarb was also planted with some old rubber boots I had placed under each of the two plants. My Dad had told me years ago that his Mother always planted rhubarb with rubber boots to prevent the rhubarb roots from growing around themselves and essentially becoming root bound. Although I have never been able to scientifically prove or disprove this, I had the rubber boots so I thought it won't hurt and threw them in the hole.
And to complete the initial apple tree orchard and fruit orchard, I dug some gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) out of the bush in my back 40. I have always liked them as did my Grandmother and so it seemed like the right thing to have in my orchard. And besides, having them in the orchard would mean I did not have to go foraging for them. Although it would take a few years to establish, my apple tree orchard and fruit orchard was now established. A literal food forest was in the making.
The Demise of the Apple Tree Orchard
Fast forward a few years and although the old hay rake is still in place, the color from wild flowers and ornamentals is not there as I had planned. However, it has become very naturalized and is beautiful in it's own way.
The raspberry patch was destroyed by a winter flooding from my septic pump out, the strawberries and wild flowers were choked out by quack grass, one crabapple tree was destroyed by a plow wind and the two apple trees got severe sunscald and eventually died but not before giving me quite a few apples over the years. I ended up ripping the last apple tree out three years ago but one crabapple tree remained.
Although I tried replanting an unknown variety of raspberries in a different location in the orchard, they were a very invasive variety and so I ended up ripping them out and establishing a small patch of them alongside my garden. The fruit is very tasty and they grow well but they really should be out in the middle of a field where they can just do their thing. But for now, they can live along side the garden.
Where the raspberries initially were I made the decision to plant a row of wild Saskatoon berries AKA Serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia). I quite enjoy Saskatoon's but the thought of having to go foraging for them was not that appealing. So I dug some plants out of the bush surrounding my home and planted them on the west side of my apple tree orchard. They were doing well until 2015 when they were taken out by a ground fire but like all of natures species, they came back extremely well and have been producing a lot of berries for the last couple of years for me and the birds to enjoy. But mostly the birds. I tried using a bird netting this year as there was a bumper crop of Saskatoon's, but I must not have put it on properly because I only got a few berries, the birds got the most. But none the less, the row of Saskatoon berry bushes are doing well.
Despite the years of moisture and pressure from the quack grass, the asparagus continues to pump out spears every year and turns into this row of beautiful fronds. There were plans to increase the number of asparagus crowns this year, but that did not happen. I may try to get the beds ready this fall for spring planting, but for now, next year it is.
The rhubarb continues to pump out fruit, or should I say vegetable, each year following it's initial planting. Although I would like to add a pure red variety to the orchard, for now I continue to enjoy what it produces. I freeze all my rhubarb during the summer for making into fruits, pies, crisps and jams during the winter and it would seem the more I pick, the more it produces. A wonderful plant to have in the orchard. Perhaps the rubber boots are making a difference on these 20+year old plants.
And although the gooseberries (Ribes Uva-crispa) were hit hard by the fire that came through in 2015 and I have only gotten a few berries thus far, they continue to grow and hold promise of a bountiful harvest in years to come.
At some point prior to the fire I had gotten ahold of two Black Current bushes (Ribes Nigrum) that I planted on the north side of the rhubarb to the east of the Saskatoon berry bushes. It must have liked it's spot because it just went wild. The fire in 2015 also burnt it to the ground but it came back stronger than before to the point that it is choking out everything else. Because of it's invasive nature, plans were in the works to move it to a location better suited to its invasive nature and so some offshoots have been planted elsewhere.
Although the apple tree orchard and fruit orchard have not established like I initially planned over 20 years ago, I am thankful for the fruit it did produce but also for the foundations that remain for establishing a new apple tree orchard and fruit orchard. But this time, I would do things slightly different.
Planning an Orchard
With the foundation in place for the establishing of another orchard from the remaining crab apple tree, berry bushes, asparagus and rhubarb, deciding on what and where I would plant any new apple trees and crabapple trees would be the next part to establishing a complete food forest. But this time, I decided I would not limit it to the confines of the area I had designated for the orchard and nor would I limit my selections to berries and apple trees and crabapple trees. I would plan for a complete food forest.
Over the winter and spring of 2020 I did a bunch of research into various fruit varieties and orchard design making sure to consider the following:
- Hardiness zone - I live in Plant Hardiness Zone 3b or 3a, depending on which map you look at. Bottom line is that I have some cold winters and whatever fruit trees I was to plant needed to be able withstand the winters.
- Tree height - the mature tree height of apple tree varieties is dependent on which type of root stock it is grown on. Due to my somewhat limited space, this was a real consideration. As explained in this article Standard-sized vs dwarf rootstock, "A ‘standard sized’ apple tree simply refers to a cultivar that has been grafted onto a normal apple tree, usually grown from an apple seed. It will grow into a full-sized apple tree, about 7 metres (23 feet) in height at maturity.". Whereas the attraction of dwarfing rootstock is simple because "the trees take up less space (though a normal apple tree can also be kept smaller with good pruning), and commercial orchards can therefore plant more of them in the same space. Their small size also makes harvesting easier, and they produce fruit earlier than standard-sized apple trees."
- To espalier or not. As explained in the article The Art of Espalier: Growing Fruit trees in Small places, espalier is "training and pruning fruit trees to grow along walls or fences keeping the fruit at an easily accessible height, and turns an otherwise standard tree into a garden showpiece. Espaliers can be fruit trees or ornamental, evergreen or deciduous.". Although this technique is appealing for the interest it provides to the apple tree orchard, there is a lot of work involved in maintaining this.
- Multi Grafted fruit trees AKA Fruit Salad trees. As explained in the article Multi-Grafted Fruit Trees are Perfect for Small Gardens, a scion from multiple trees is grafted onto sturdy rootstock thereby "Multi-grafting for a variety of fruit is a creative way to have several fruits produce on the same tree.".
- Planting multiple varieties in the same planting hole. This technique is great for yards with limited space for a sprawling orchard and involves planting multiple apple trees or fruit trees in the same hole. As explained in the article Planting trees close together bears plenty of fruit, "By closely planting several trees in a single hole, you can get up to 10 weeks of fruit of several varieties." and it goes on to further say that "Because close planting can naturally dwarf or restrict the growth of trees, this becomes an additional advantage because lower, slower-growing trees are easier to harvest and take care of.".
- Bloom time - All fruit trees have different bloom times and are grouped according to when they bloom. Apple trees or crabapple trees bloom over a period of three weeks and depending on when they bloom have been grouped to be either an early, early-mid, mid, mid-late or late bloomer. Paying attention to bloom times is important because frost may get an early blooming variety and prevent fruit production. And although avoiding frost from taking your fruit crop is important, as explained in the article Fruit Tree Bloom Dates, "In order to create fruit and seeds, the tree’s flowers need to be fertilized, or pollinated, and in order to be pollinated, many trees need to receive pollen from another tree that is of the same species but a different variety." . For this reason selecting apple trees in the same or similar bloom group for cross pollination purposes is important to fruit production and why some fruit trees such as plums and pears require two plants for proper fruit production.
- Using an Ornamental Crabapple tree. Although I wanted crabapples for my use, because crabapple trees have a longer bloom time than apple trees, it is not uncommon to use ornamental crabapples such as Malus 'Prarifire' for cross pollinating purposes. The article How to Grow and Care for Flowering Crabapple lists a number of other flowering crabapples that could be used for this purposes.
- Other fruit tree varieties. Over time, nurseries have worked on developing other fruit tree varieties that are hardy for my zone. Things like apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, haskap and kiwi are now common place in seed catalogs. Some thought needs to be given to what types of fruit trees I would want and what I would use.
- What will I do with the fruit? I make a lot of apple juice out of both apple's and crab apples, but what would I do with all the fruit once the trees are mature. What would I do with the other fruit I grow should I expand the orchard to include other fruit tree varieties. Sure I could sell or give away some of it and/or sell as value added products, but is that what I wanted? In the desire for a self sustaining future, what varieties of apple trees, crabapple trees and other fruit trees would be most desired? All those questions needed to be answered as part of planning an orchard.
There is a lot of things to consider in planning an orchard, especially one that I wanted to be self sustaining and generate food for myself and possibly income as well. After giving all the factors much thought, then pouring over countless articles to conduct the necessary research and then ultimately developing an orchard and yard plan, implementation was ready for the spring of 2021. But first I had to wait for the snow to melt and temperatures to warm. But in the meantime I ordered my plants.
I hope you have enjoyed my exploration into establishing my first small scale apple tree orchard and what went into planning an orchard that would satisfy the many wants I now have for the new orchard. Be sure to check back to see how the implementation of this plan unfolds.
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- Homesteading Family - Planning an Orchard for your Homestead - PANTRY CHAT #44
- Gardening know how - Cross Pollination Of Apple: Information On Apple Tree Pollination
- Melissa K Norris - How to Grow Fruits at Home
- The Prairie Homestead - Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead
- University of Saskatchewan - Growing Fruit
- Over The Hill Orchards & Winery - Fruit Trees For the Prairies