I must confess… Just saying the word “orchard” makes me green with envy… Fruit trees do NOT thrive here in Wyoming, therefore, my dreams of a homestead orchard probably aren’t going to happen as long as we live here. So, I’ve invited Angi Schneider, author of The Gardening Notebook, to share her best tips for planning an orchard with us today…
Fruit trees and bushes are important on the homestead, with minimal effort they can supply your family with many pounds of produce every year.
Unfortunately, growing fruit is often one of the most neglected things on a homestead, especially on a small homestead.
Growing fruit takes time. Sometimes there will be years between planting and harvest. So, the sooner you get those fruit trees and bushes in the ground the sooner you’ll have a fruit harvest.
While fruit trees truly do take minimal effort, it’s not as easy as digging a hole, planting a tree and calling it good. There is some planning that needs to happen before you buy and plant your first fruit tree.
Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead
1. Make a list of all the fruits your family likes.
This is the time to dream. Even if you think something won’t grow in your climate, but your family likes it, write it down.
2. Do a little research to find out what varieties will actually grow in your climate.
You can search fruit trees for your gardening zone on the internet. If you don’t know what gardening zones you are in, you can find your cold hardiness zone by entering your zipcode in the USDA’s interactive map and you can find your heat zone on the American Horticulture Society’s website. Talk with local gardening friends to find out what varieties grow well in your area. Also, don’t overlook your local nurseries. They have a vested interest in you being successful, so they are usually super helpful. Master Gardeners clubs can also be a helpful resource. One last thing to consider is chill hours, some fruits need a certain number of hours per year below 45°F to produce fruit. County Extension Co-operatives keep these records so if you cannot find your hours online you can always call your local office.
But don’t cross a fruit off your list just because you’re told it won’t grow in your climate. Some fruit trees grow very well in pots. Meyer lemon and Satsuma oranges are two citrus trees that can be grown in colder climates inside in a pot.
3. Learn what trees are self fertile and which ones are not.
Self fertile trees are exactly what they sound like – the flowers from this kind of tree will pollinate themselves. Here’s a list of most self fertile fruits: apricot, pomegranate, citrus, fig, grape, persimmon, most peaches, most berries, and European plums (although they do better with two varieties).
Some trees are not self fertile and need two trees to produce fruit. You need to make sure that the two trees are different varieties that bloom at the same time. Two trees of the same variety won’t work as pollinators and neither will two different varieties that don’t bloom at the same time. Now, that does not necessarily mean you have to have two trees on your property. If your neighbor has fruit trees, find out what kind he has, get a different variety and they can cross pollinate. This is a great way to get fruit in an urban yard, since the trees need to be within 50 feet of each other. Apples, pears, Japanese plums, cherries and nuts trees are not self-fertile and require a pollinator.
4. Determine how much space you have available to plant fruit trees and bushes.
If you live on an acre or less, you can still have an amazing orchard but you might have it spread out in different areas of your property instead of one large orchard area. Consider using any walls or fences and espaliering some of the fruit trees. An espaliered tree is a tree that you will prune in such a way that it fans out over the wall or fence. This is a great space saver and yet you’ll still get a lot of fruit. If you live on an urban or small homestead you will also want to consider planting dwarf trees. Dwarf trees are trees that are grafted onto a root stock that will not allow the tree to grow large so you get the same great fruit in less space. Standard size trees have about a 20 feet spread, semi-dwarf trees have about 12-15 feet spread and dwarf trees have about a 10 feet spread.
5. Put your plans on paper.
This is the fun part! Get out some paper and colored pencils and map out your yard or acreage. Take your list of varieties and start putting them on your map. Go outside and walk the map and make sure your plans will work. Is there enough space for a full size tree of the variety you have listed? Is there enough sun? Is there an adequate water source? When the tree is full size will it cast a shadow on an area that you don’t want shaded, your vegetable garden for instance? When planning your spacing you can stagger your trees to get more in less space. Make sure you keep this map in a safe place, like your gardening notebook, so you can refer back to it when it’s time to plant your trees.
6. Don’t think you have to plant the entire plan this season.
An orchard is a long term relationship, so you have time. Try to add just a few new trees or bushes each year and before you know it you will have a full orchard. It’s a good idea to start with either the fruits that your family loves the most or the most expensive ones to buy.
How Much Fruit Can a Home Orchard Produce?
Just to give you an idea of just how much fruit these trees can add to your homestead, a mature lemon tree can give you over 200 pounds of lemons, a mature peach tree can give you well over 75 pounds, so can a mature plum tree. That is a lot of fruit!
So, unless you plan on selling your fruit or have a lot of friends who you love to have freshly picked fruit, you don’t need more than one or two trees of each fruit. Diversity is key in the home orchard.
Angi Schneider is a minister’s wife and homeschooling mom. She is passionate about growing food for her family and living a simple life. She blogs their homesteading and homeschooling adventures at SchneiderPeeps.com and is the author of The Gardening Notebook which she wrote to help other gardeners remember all the great information they are learning.