We spent our Thanksgiving clearing land and cooking, it was quite the to-do list. After we saw how much Buckthorn had taken over our property earlier this fall and subsequently removed as much of it as we could (more on that process in a later post), there was a section of land just beyond the garden on a very gentle slope that would be ideal for a fruit and nut orchard. There was a slew of dead ash trees, a rusty old fence, and what I'm sure is a hefty crop of Buckthorn berries ready to sprout given the chance on that location, so we took it upon ourselves to get started this fall in preparing the land for an orchard and future food forest. What exactly does that mean? Well read on and learn how to get yourself off on the best foot when a fruit and nut orchard is in your homesteading plan!
Ask Yourself Why You Want to Plant a Fruit and/or Nut Orchard
Often when purchasing a new plot of land, beginner homesteaders or farmers feel as if they have to follow a predestined checklist of the things they should have - honey bees, chickens, goats, an orchard, etc. Slow down and ask yourself why you want a fruit and nut orchard and what purpose it will serve for you on your path towards self sustainability and earth stewardship. Get in touch with that inner voice of yours, think about what you want out of this investment, and truly think if you are ready for the work that comes with an orchard.
After sitting own and deeply thinking about our needs, our plan is to plant heirloom apples and cherries, hardy figs, hardy almond, chestnut, and pawpaw. What was our thought process?
For us, we both grew up loving apples and cherries. My boyfriend had four apple trees down the road from him growing up, and with that came loads of delicious apple sauce. I had a cherry tree out front of my childhood home that we would make jam from every year. Nostalgia definitely plays a huge role in our decision, but it's not the only reason.
Aside from cherry jam and apple sauce, learning how to make our own hard cider is a huge pull for the heirloom apples we will be planting. Get ready for a whole round of posts as we stumble our way through that topic!
We love almonds and anything almond related - almond butter, almond paste, almond flour, almond oil. So planting almonds makes a lot of sense for us.
I am going to say we are definitely going out on a limb with pawpaws, because we have never had them. Yes, I have fallen in love with this tree without ever having met it, You've Got Mail style. Pawpaw is an incredible tree and if you don't know what it is, just listen to this podcast.
Figs are an incredibly versatile fruit and cooking or baking with them has been a longtime passion of mine. By including figs, and any of the fruit in our orchard for that matter, we are lessening our overall carbon footprint by growing the fruit in our own backyard. As followers of the Bulletproof diet, we eat fruit only seasonally. By growing them ourselves we get to indulge by our own standards - locally, seasonally, and organically.
Choose a Worthy Location for Your Orchard
Getting ample sunlight and having good quality soil is vital to having a healthy productive orchard.
Sun is obviously a no-brainer, but I'm asking you to get out there on a nice clear day and observe the path of the sun. Get out there and sketch it out on a piece of paper. Where does it rise and where does it set? Not only does this help you better understand the microclimate you are planting in, but it can help you better map out your orchard (my next tip). Nearly all fruit trees typically planted in an orchard need more than 6 hours of sunlight per day, and I would push that number to 7 or 8 hours living in Wisconsin. Be wary of those tall trees that cast shade in the mid-afternoon, place a stake in the ground where you think you might like to plant and be sure it gets sunlight throughout the day.
We clear-cut our future orchard spot because of all the Buckthorn and dead Ash trees. Thanks to the Buckthorn removal process we also had to chip all the dead Ash and cut Buckthorn to then spread over the area at least 2" deep and top it all off with a 4" layer of straw. Not only does this suppress a potential crop of Buckthorn berries from sprouting, but it is a huge bonus to the health of the soil. Here in southeastern Wisconsin, we have tons of clay soil, which is wonderful in terms of nutrients, but not so great in terms of texture. By adding lots of organic matter like wood mulch, straw, and dead leaves, the soil will build more hummus, helping its growth potential.
Not sure what kind of soil you have in the perfect sunny spot you picked out? Dig a hole! Analyze the layers and get a feel for what you have. Another wonderful resource is the web soil map. You can use the interactive map to find out what kind of soil has been surveyed in your area. The truth is that adding a layer of mulch and straw around where you plan to plant will only help, not hurt.
A gentle slope is also an ideal feature when deciding on where to put your trees. A gentle slope joint with good soil provides ample drainage so your future trees' feet don't get too wet. Nearly all fruit and nut trees need good drainage for root health.
You also want to be sure that the location is one you can easily access to attend to and observe every day. The spot just behind our garden was ideal because we can see it from our dining room window, it's not too far of a walk from our back door, and the chicken coop is close by. Why do the chickens matter? We hope to get our chickens in the orchard once it's established - lots of free delicious food there for our flock!
Map Out Your Orchard
Our Future Orchard (1 - Hardy Almond, 2 - Hardy Fig, 3 - Pawpaw, 4 - Apples, unmarked - Cherries)
Whether it's on some savvy computer program or a simple piece of graph paper, map out your plan! I spent a good month walking around outside with a tape measure figuring out exactly how much space we had to work with and how many trees we could fit based on that space.
Above you can see our plan for the future orchard. I created a key and numbered the trees so I can reference them as needed.
Be sure to research how much each specific tree grows in height and width so you can space them accordingly. This is very important because you want all your trees to get ample sunlight. Nearly all of my trees will have an 18 - 20' spread, and get between 15-20' tall. The tallest of your trees should be placed on the north side of your property, and the shortest should be placed to the south, allowing each tree to get the 6+ hours of sunlight they need.
If you land is cleared, then you can go ahead and mark it. You can see in the picture above we used simple stakes to mark out where all the trees will be placed. My father and I accomplished this by using the map I made and a tape measurer. We were pleasantly surprised when we could fit another few trees in. You never know until you've got boots on the ground I guess!
In the picture above you can also see how we spread mulch and hay around each designated tree spot. Through the winter this organic matter will decompose and add nutrients to the soil. In the spring we will mix in organic compost around the designated spots as well.
Planting will happen early next spring once the ground thaws. So be sure to check in then and see how things are going for us.
Any tips or tricks you would like to add when it comes to planning and preparing for an orchard? Leave a comment below!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to composting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we turn the 80 acres we call home into a farm that serves its community and a homestead that nourishes us throughout the seasons.
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