Growing a Home Orchard
for Self Sufficiency


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Planting and managing your own home orchard can be a very rewarding activity. It takes time and patience to develop a productive orchard, but the payoffs are worth it. Growing fruit trees is measured in terms of years, not months or seasons, but once your young trees are established, the time investment needed to maintain them is relatively low.

There's a huge difference between home grown, tree ripened fruit and the fruit you buy in the grocery store. Home grown fruit can be left on the tree until it is at the perfect height of ripeness before being harvested. Nearly all commercially grown fruit has to be picked before it's ripe so it can be handled and shipped without damage.

Have you ever eaten a peach picked fresh from a tree at the exact height of ripeness? If you have you might begin to understand what I'm talking about. In addition to improved flavor, the nutritional value is better. The selection of varieties and cultivars that you can grow is almost unbelievable. In my home orchard, I have peaches, apples, pears, cherries, plums, and nectarines. All of these trees were selected for size, and variety (cultivars). If you have ever wanted to have your own fruit orchard, this is the place to get started.


The Home Orchard - Types of Fruit Trees

Dr. Matthews apples nearly ripe

There are hundreds, if not thousands types of fruit grown the world over. for simplicity I'll concentrate mainly on the fruit tree varieties that are commonly grown in the Mid-west of the US, because they're what I have experience with.

Where you live is a big factor in deciding what kinds of fruit orchard you can grow. If you live in Minnesota, you probably shouldn't try to raise peach trees, and if you live in south Texas, it probably isn't a good idea to try to grow cherry trees. Just like vegetables in your garden and ornamental plants in your flower beds, there are zones within which certain types of fruit trees will grow. Below is a listing of the most common fruit trees grown in the Mid-west:

-Apples & Crab Apples
-Pears
-Peaches & Nectarines
-Plums & Apricots
-Cherries (Sweet & Tart)
-Persimmons & Paw Paws (Natives)


The Home Orchard - Sizes of Trees

Mature Semi-dwarf Montmorency Cherry


Most fruit trees can be purchased with a "pre-programmed" size at which they stop growing. This size control is accomplished by the root stock that the tree is grafted onto. The trick for you will be knowing the size of trees you want, and will have room for in your orchard. Mature tree can range in size from ones so small that they can be grown in a large pot, to full sized trees reaching 40 feet or more. There are pros and cons to each size of tree, and the more you know about each, the easier it will be for you to decide.



The area for my orchard was relatively small, and I wanted a wide variety of fruit, but a big enough crop to be able to preserve for year 'round use, so my choice was semi-dwarf fruit trees, which reach 10 to 16 feet high.


The Home Orchard - Importance of Grafting

Nearly all fruit tree cultivars today are descended from a single parent tree. All trees of that particular cultivar are created by grafting. Grafting is basically making a "clone", by attaching a cutting of the original tree to a host root from another tree.

For example, every Yellow Delicious apple tree in existence today is the result of grafting from one original parent tree, or one of it's grafted descendants. Growing seedlings from a mother tree will not create more of the same variety. You can plant the seeds from a Yellow Delicious apple, and most likely they will grow, but they won't produce another Yellow Delicious apple tree. The result will be something else - even if the parent tree pollinated itself. The apple trees that will eventually result might produce really good fruit in several years or may be something REALLY sour, unpleasant, or ugly. You never know.

Selecting the Best Fruit Trees

You should select trees for your home orchard first based on what kind and variety of fruit you want to grow. Then consider how much room you will have, and select trees based on their growth habits. Fruit trees are generally purchased in their dormant state or just beginning to break dormancy. You can buy trees through mail order catalogs or at local nurseries or even the big box stores. Trees can be purchased either bare root, potted, or with the root ball covered in burlap. Most mail order operations send trees to you bare root. If you order trees through mail order, make sure to use a reputable, well established company. They will select good healthy, undamaged trees and pre-prune them for you before shipping. Here are a couple nurseries that I have used in the past with good results:

-Stark Brothers Nursery
-Miller Nurseries

If you are going to buy trees locally, you want to look them over and select the best tree possible. There are a number of criteria you should consider when selecting your trees. These include: the general condition of the trees, how the trees have been handled and cared for, size and shape of the trunk, shape of branches, graft condition, and overall size.

Selecting the best tree possible is essential for a good start to your fruit orchard.

Planning & Planting The Home Orchard

Newly planted Bing Cherry tree


Planning

Plan the layout of your home orchard in advance, so you know what trees you will plant where. Some folks even draw out a scale diagram to see how the trees will fit when mature. Take the time to plan you orchard in advance - remember an orchard (unlike a garden) is a long term commitment.

Planting

- Remember - you'll only plant a tree one time, so don't skimp or take short-cuts. There are proper methods for planting fruit trees (and any other tree for that matter).




Pruning The Home Orchard

Early spring pruning of an apple tre

Your fruit trees will benefit from regular pruning. It makes for stronger, healthier trees that bear larger fruit. Properly pruned trees also are less susceptible to diseases and pest attacks. Most pruning is done in late winter, just before the trees start to break dormancy.


Here in Southern Indiana, I prune my fruit trees in mid February. There always seems to be a relatively nice weekend during that time, that gives me an excuse to get outdoors and get the work done. Pruning is usually my first spring activity of the year, and coincides with what I call skunk week.


Around mid February, the local skunks break hibernation and start their mating activities. The males follow the females around "looking for love". They are so intent on what they are doing, that they don't pay much attention to anything else. Many of them are killed (or just scared) by cars when crossing roads. On my 15 mile morning drive to work, it's not unusual to see a half dozen skunk kills, or smell near misses, during that time. This all seems to happen and finish within a week to 10 days.

Anyway, skunk week is my reminder that it's time for my annual fruit tree pruning. I know - it's a strange association, but it works for me!


Diseases, Pests and Spraying Routines

Black Knot disease on a plum tree


Fruit orchard have their share of pests and diseases, but most can be controlled fairly easily through good maintenance and care practices. An important part of maintenance of an orchard is a spraying routine.



Spraying your orchard with the correct agents at the correct time can make the difference between abundant beautiful fruit, and a few ugly, knotty worm infested ones. I can tell you this from personal experience. I tried for several years to grow an orchard without any kind of sprays or chemicals, with occasional limited success at best. Since I started spraying, my quality and regularity of harvest has improved many fold.


The Home Orchard - Flowering & Pollination

Plum tree in full spring bloom - beautiful!

To me there are few things more beautiful than a home orchard full of fruit trees in full bloom in the early spring. That beauty is more than just appearance, but also in potential of a bountiful harvest. There are some things to watch out for though. Depending on where you live, the weather can play a role in successful flowering. Here in Southern Indiana, a late frost is always a concern, especially if it follows an early warm spell. Proper flowering and pollination are essential to a successful harvest.



Thinning Your Home Orchard

Young plums in need of thinning

When your trees begin to start bearing fruit, it's easy to get excited, and if a tree over produces, your natural instinct is to leave everything on the tree to increase your harvest. This is not normally a good idea. You will eventually have to thin some of the fruit to prevent limb damage and disease as well as to promote larger fruit. A tree that over produces one year and doesn't get thinned, will usually under produce the following year. This can eventually result in your trees only producing every other year. Thinning should be done well after blossoming is complete, but by the time the fruit is about half grown.


The Home Orchard - Protecting the Harvest

Bird netting covering a tree to protect ripe cherries from marauding birds

Once your fruit begins to ripen, you need to be prepared to prevent your wild neighbors from taking what you worked throughout the spring and summer to produce. Birds, small mammals, insects, and deer all love fresh fruit and will help themselves if you allow them s chance to do so, and can wipe out a crop of fruit in a matter of a few days.


Acting quickly when you suspect a problem is essential. I lost about a bushel of purple plums last summer within about 48 hours. We went on a family trip over a weekend, and when we left, my tree was loaded with nearly ripe fruit. I had plans on picking and canning them when we got back home. By the time we got back, the tree was stripped clean - not one plum was left. The only evidence of who the culprit had been, was a pile of fresh raccoon poop under the tree. Talk about disappointing!!!

Growing, managing and harvesting your own fruit orchard can be challenging and rewarding. Fresh fruit from your own trees can be used for eating fresh, canning, freezing, dehydration, making jellies and preserves, and fermenting into wine.

Fruit picked at the height of ripeness taste far better and is much healthier than anything you can buy at the grocery. Take the time to plan and prepare for your home orchard, plant and care for your trees properly, and the rewards can last for many years.

Growing your own fruit can be a source of personal pride and will lead you further along the path to self sufficiency for you and your family.


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Home Orchard Topics:


Fruit Tree Sizes

Pruning Fruit Trees

Planning an Orchard

Planting Fruit Trees

Flowering and Pollination