Table of Contents

How to Start a Sustainable Backyard Orchard

Grapefruit and Pecan Trees: A Childhood Lesson in Gardening

When I was a little girl growing up in Texas, we had a grapefruit tree and a pecan tree in our yard. As far as I knew, my parents didn’t have to do anything special to maintain them – they just harvested the fruit and nuts when they were ready. My view of gardening seemed unrealistically simple back then, and my idea of having a home orchard was even simpler. I thought trees just grew on their own, as they had been doing since the beginning of time.

Well, yes and no. It’s not quite as simple as sticking trees in the dirt, sprinkling them with water once or twice, and waiting for the first harvest. I learned this the hard way when the first few fruit trees we planted didn’t thrive. However, in spite of my total neglect, three Nanking cherry bushes did survive and produce fruit within two years.

Preparing the Planting Site

You can make planting a little easier by killing the grass where you plan to plant the tree. The thought of using an herbicide to do this makes my skin crawl because herbicides are poison. Instead, you can put a kiddy pool wherever you want to kill the grass or pile up grass clippings or compost. Within a couple of weeks, the grass will be very unhappy, and in about a month, it will be on its way to becoming compost itself.

There are a variety of opinions on how to plant trees, mostly centering on how big to dig the hole. Some say the hole should be twice as wide as the root-ball, while others recommend a hole that is just big enough to contain the roots without having to bend them around. So, this part of the equation is pretty forgiving.

Planting Depth

Finding the correct depth is the hardest part of planting fruit trees. When in doubt, err on the side of not planting too deeply. It’s easier to add soil than to attempt to lift the tree after it’s planted. And if a tree is planted too deeply, it will die sooner rather than later. Do not dig the hole much deeper than the depth of the roots. Over time, the backfilled dirt in the bottom of the hole can settle, which means a tree that was originally planted at the perfect depth will sink to an unhealthy level.

Most trees come with planting instructions telling you how deep to plant them. These instructions usually center on where the scion, or graft – a knobby bump between the roots and the trunk – is in relation to the soil level. Typically, the scion is slightly below soil level in standard-size trees and above ground with dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. Experts vary in opinion on how far above ground it should be, from a couple of inches to six inches. In reality, the problem is burying the scion. If it’s buried too deeply, the tree will die. If it’s only a little below ground level, the grafted tree could root, and you’ll wind up with a standard tree rather than a dwarf tree.

Watering and Mulching

Experts also say that most people kill trees by overwatering, although that has not been my experience. I usually plant them and forget them, assuming that Mother Nature will take care of the watering for me. I used to make the same mistake with my garden until we started writing down rainfall on our kitchen calendar. A rain gauge is one of the least expensive investments you can make in your garden and orchard.

Every time it rains, I check the level, dump it, and record the level on my calendar. If it’s been a week without an inch of rain, I give everything in the garden a good soaking, as well as trees that have been planted within the past year. Once they’re established, they can usually withstand a dry spell without damage, although I still water them during droughts. They might survive without it, but I don’t see the point in stressing them.

Lack of mulch was one reason my first fruit trees died. Without mulch, the tree has to compete with the surrounding grass for nutrients and water, which is tough for a tree that’s still in the midst of transplant shock. Mulch keeps the grass from growing under the tree and it keeps water from evaporating. If you live in a subdivision, you can use any of the beautiful wood chips that they sell at the garden centers for mulching. Mulch should be spread around the tree in a fairly level circle, not piled up against the trunk of the tree. This “volcano mulching” kills trees because the trunks don’t get air and succumb to disease.

Fertilizing with Manure

We dump straw and manure from our goat barn under our fruit trees a couple of times a year, usually once in the spring and once in the fall. This is cold composting, so I don’t do it when an invasive weed like thistle has gone to seed and could be lurking in the manure.

Most gardening experts don’t recommend the use of fresh manure in gardens, claiming that you could get a disease from the animal whose manure is used. However, the fruit in trees is usually at least five feet above the manure, making contact highly unlikely. Also, if the manure is applied in the spring, it will be at least 90 days before harvest, which is the amount of time that manure should be aged before a crop is harvested, according to the US National Organic Standard.

I used to worry about whether some type of manure was “hot” or “cold” – in other words, can you use it fresh, or does it have to be aged? Many people on gardening forums ask about specific types of manure, and the responses are contradictory. One week, someone says that chicken poop is cold and can be used right away, and the next week, another person says it’s hot and will burn your plants. It’s the same confused scenario with sheep manure, rabbit manure, and the rest.

Through all the confusion, I’ve come to two conclusions: The key is moderation when using manure. A little manure, especially rabbit manure, scattered at the base of a tree won’t kill it, but piling it up around the trunk might. And if you have a large amount of manure to use, mix in some straw, hot-compost it for a couple of weeks, and the problem is solved.

Pruning and Thinning

Other than watering during droughts, adding compost, and mulching a couple of times a year, fruit trees only need pruning and thinning of fruit. I resisted pruning for years, thinking that no one prunes trees in nature, and they continue to grow just fine, right? Not exactly. They do continue to grow, but they don’t produce an optimum crop every year.

The leaves and buds on a tree need sun, and if there are too many branches, they won’t get as much sun, so they’ll be less productive. Disease is more likely in a tree with too many branches because air cannot circulate. A couple of years ago, I attended a workshop on pruning, and the professor doing the workshop said that bad pruning is better than no pruning at all. That was a liberating thought. So, don’t worry about making a mistake, but don’t prune away more than one-third of the branches at an annual pruning.

You should also thin fruit when necessary, which means pinching off or cutting off baby fruit, preferably in April or May. Based on the age and size of your tree, you need to realistically determine how many fruits a branch can support. Young trees can obviously support far fewer fruits than a mature tree with thick branches. It’s heartbreaking, I know, to pull baby fruit from a tree, but you’re doing the tree a favor. When one of my pear trees was three years old, I didn’t thin one branch enough, and it broke under the weight of the pears as they matured.

Even on mature trees, fruits should be thinned so that none of them will touch each other at maturity because they’re an invitation to bugs and disease. Smaller fruits like peaches and plums should be two to four inches apart, and larger fruits like apples and pears should be three to five inches apart. Fruits toward the end of long, skinny branches should be thinned more than those close to the trunk because the weight can pull down the branches, possibly breaking them.

Choosing the Right Fruit Trees

Not sure which fruit trees to start with? Check out this list of Best Food Producing Trees. Whether you’re looking to grow apples, pears, peaches, or something more exotic like figs or pomegranates, there’s sure to be a tree that will thrive in your backyard and provide you with a bountiful harvest.

As you can see, starting a sustainable backyard orchard takes a bit more work than I thought as a child. But with the right preparation, planting techniques, and ongoing care, you can enjoy the fresh, homegrown fruits of your labor for years to come. And who knows, maybe one day, your own children will look back on the grapefruit and pecan trees in your yard and think gardening is as easy as pie.

If you’re ready to start planning your backyard oasis, be sure to visit Today’s Gardens for all your garden design and landscaping needs. From fruit tree selection to orchard layout, their expert team can help you create a sustainable and beautiful outdoor space that the whole family can enjoy.

Today’s Garden is Garden and Landscape Company, provides all you need about Garden and Landscape Design to get better garden decorations.

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