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How to create a successful apple orchard

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There is a difference between planting an orchard that survives and one that thrives.

To create an orchard that grows well and produces quality apples, a number of considerations should be addressed before any trees are planted.

  • Choose the Right Site

The site chosen for an orchard can mean the difference between a crop and no crop.

The most important factor is the occurrence of frosts during flowering. In a low-lying site, cold air will pool during still nights and frosts are likely to occur. A site on a hill where the air is draining down toward a lower area, or a site near a large body of water that moderates the temperature, will be far less likely to experience frosts during this critical period. While most of us have little choice in placing an orchard, sitting in the most advantageous position will play an important role in its success.

  • Best Soil Types for Apple Orchards

Soil is the basis of all life, but soils differ tremendously in their ability to provide nutrients to an apple tree.

To provide for the needs of apple trees, the soil should contain the minerals it will need to create healthy foliage and fruit. Soils are usually a combination of three basic constituents: sand, clay and silt.

Soils that are sand-based may be lacking in some of these minerals, as sand is essentially silica, and will only break down over time periods that are beyond our reckoning. In such soils, the nutrients needed must be provided by organic matter. If the soil has little other than silica sand and stone, the task of providing enough organic matter may be difficult to near impossible.

Clay soils have advantages and disadvantages. Clays usually contain a host of minerals and are far more productive than sandy soils, but if the percentage of clay to sand and/or silt is too high there can be problems with drainage and the texture may not allow easy access by the roots.

Silt soils occur where either water or wind has deposited very fine particles over centuries. Silt soils are very productive, although it is essential that the underlying soils are well drained.

The ideal soil is a blend of sand, clay and silt. Such soils can provide a wealth of nutrients and, unless they are sitting on an impermeable layer, will have good drainage.

The best orchard soils have a high organic matter content. Organic matter is vital to growth, as its gradual breakdown releases the nutrients held within the particles and its spongy texture helps hold both air and water.

Good drainage is also essential for a successful apple orchard. In poorly drained soils the roots may be subject to long periods when the soil around them is saturated. The lack of oxygen will kill the roots. It can also create a condition where the roots of the tree can only exist near the surface. Shallow roots will not be able to properly support the tree during high winds, especially if there is a large crop.

While less-than-ideal soils can be adjusted, such measures will add considerably to the cost of establishment.

Another soil-related issue is its acidity level. This level is measured using the pH scale. Apples grow best in soils with a pH of 6.5 – 7.0. For young trees to grow to their potential, an orchard should not be planted until the pH is at the proper level.

  • Apple Tree Spacing

For the homeowner, placing a few trees in a yard is not a big issue. However, if you are contemplating a larger orchard, the spacing of trees becomes very important.

Most commercial orchards are now planted in rows with trees placed around three to four feet apart. These trees are grafted on dwarfing roots and will require permanent posts and wires to support them over the life of the orchard.

If you choose a more traditionally spaced orchard, be sure to choose rootstocks that will provide good anchorage. Even if the trees will not be supported long term, be sure to stake the new trees for one year. This will prevent rocking of the trees in wind, which slows establishment, and will keep them straighter in the row.

  • Rootstock for Your Apple Tree

An apple tree is both the cultivar (what most people call a variety) you want to harvest and the rootstock the top is grafted onto.

The rootstock you use should be carefully chosen. Seedling rootstocks will vary in size, productivity and speed at which the cultivar comes into bearing.

The advantage of seedlings lies in their diversity. In a difficult winter, chances are not all trees will be affected. If you are growing on only one type of clonal rootstock then a possibility exists that all will be affected by an adverse weather event. The advantages of a clonal rootstock are that its size, productivity and precocity (the speed at which it comes into bearing) are known factors. There is more uniformity in the trees.

To read more about choosing which cultivars to grow, potential pests and how to treat them and more, see the full story from the National Garden Bureau.

by Bob Osborne, author of “Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates

This post is provided as an educational/inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and our members.

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