“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
There’s a lot of truth in this oft-repeated phrase, widely described as an old Chinese proverb. To plant a tree—particularly a fruit or nut tree—is to invest in the future. The reward might be years away, but the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll reap a bountiful harvest.
No farm is complete without an orchard of fruit and nut trees. Many older farms are stocked with mature trees planted by farmers of the past. But if your farm isn’t so fortunate—or if its established trees are fading with old age—perhaps it’s time to follow the proverb and plant a new orchard of your own.
Starting from scratch might seem like an imposing task, but with a little planning and a lot of digging, you can lay the foundation for a beautiful orchard that will produce annual harvests for decades to come.
It doesn’t have to be a full-scale commercial orchard. And it certainly doesn’t need to be complicated. A few well-placed trees in your backyard can form a productive orchard. If you’re able to commit a few acres to the project, all the better.
Because we can’t time travel 20 years into the past, there’s no better time to plants some trees than now. Let’s dig in!
Choosing Foundation Trees
What varieties of fruits and nuts would you like to grow? Apples, pears, peaches, plums, walnuts, almonds, pecans—the possibilities go on and on and will be determined largely by personal preference and your local climate.
The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the place to begin when narrowing down choices of which trees to plant. This colorful map divides the United States and Puerto Rico into 13 zones based on average annual minimum temperature. Lower numbers are colder, so if you live in Zone 3—where temperatures dip down into the -30 to -40-degree-F range each winter—you shouldn’t consider planting trees that are only hardy to Zone 5.
For fruit trees, another question beckons. Do you want to grow standard, dwarf trees or semidwarf trees? Dwarf trees are smaller (more on that later) and don’t produce as much fruit, but harvesting is easy, and they’re perfect for small spaces.
Standard trees take up considerably more space and require ladders and/or tools for picking the highest fruit. But they also bear abundant crops and grow to become stately specimen trees.
The Spice of Life
Regardless of which direction you take, it’s wise to plant several different varieties of fruit trees within the same species. While some fruit trees are self-fertile, including apricots and peaches, others require pollination from another variety within the same species.
Black Ice and Toka plums, for example, form a perfect pair for pollination. The key is to combine compatible varieties that blossom during the same window of time. Nurseries often suggest trees that can be planted in groups for proper pollination.
On the other hand, employ caution when planting certain species together. You might dream of growing fruit trees in the sunny field just south of your walnut orchard. But the roots of walnut trees exude a chemical called juglone that is toxic to apple and pear trees.
When planted too close to walnuts, your fruit trees may suffer debilitating side effects.
Where To Put Down Roots
Choosing the right location for your orchard is critical to ensuring the long-term health and success of the trees you plant.
As a general rule, deep, well-drained loam soils—particularly sandy loams—with plenty of nutrients will produce the best results. Soil pH preferences vary from species to species, but a rating in the 6.0 to 6.5 range will be acceptable for a variety of fruit and nut trees.
Just as important is the amount of sunlight afforded by your chosen location. Fruit and nut trees love full sun. With a few exceptions, they need at least six hours of sunlight—eight is even better—for optimum production.
But a wide-open field with hardly a tree on the horizon might not be the best choice if you live in a windy location. Heavy winds can damage fruit-laden branches and bring bitter cold temperatures during the winter. So ideally your orchard will be sheltered—but not excessively shaded—by a row of windbreak trees or buildings to moderate the prevailing winds.
If you’re trying to grow trees in a cold region pushing the limits of what they can tolerate, the difference between a north-facing and south-facing slope is another factor to consider.
Temperature swings are milder on north-facing slopes. This can encourage delicate trees to stay dormant longer and not awaken prematurely. It will lessen the likelihood that they’ll suffer damage from temperatures rising and dipping back down too quickly.
Designing the layout of an orchard before you plant your trees is one of the most enjoyable steps. But take care, since it’s difficult to make changes later.
It’s important to consider the mature size of each tree when choosing locations. A 4-foot, bare-root apple tree might seem unimposing at planting time. But it can grow to an impressive size if left unchecked.
Even with pruning, standard apple trees commonly spread their crowns 20 feet or more. So if you plant two such trees 10 feet apart, they’ll wind up fighting to occupy the same growing space.
With this in mind, it’s wise to plot your orchard layout on paper before you start digging holes. Use a long tape measure or an online service like Google Earth to determine the dimensions of the area you’ll be planting. Then outline the perimeter on graph paper to provide an accurate scale guide for choosing tree locations.
If you allow each line on the graph paper to represent a 20-foot increment, then each square will denote the 20-by-20-foot area required by a well-pruned standard apple tree at maturity.
If you want greater precision for plotting small details—such as the locations of dwarf trees or bushes—adjust the scale of your graph by using a 5- or 10-foot increment for each line. Using graph paper will allow you to rationally consider the area available for planting and factor the size of mature trees in a way that’s difficult to imagine when looking at a tiny sapling tree.
When marking locations, you can distinguish between various tree species by using colored-coded markers.
Whether you’re purchasing trees from a nursery, website or mail-order catalog, consult the descriptions of your trees to determine the height and width they’re expected to reach at maturity.
Many factors can influence the final size of any given tree. Some varieties naturally grow taller or shorter than others. Pruning, too, can further influence shape and size. Left to their own devices, some standard apple trees can exceed 40 feet in height, with a similar spread.
We’ll assume you’ll perform some pruning to control size and promote healthy growing patterns well-suited to fruit production. A standard fruit tree can be expected to spread more than 20 to 25 feet at maturity. (Dwarf trees will remain less than 10 feet wide.)
You can achieve other sizes through more vigorous pruning of standard trees or by planting semidwarf varieties instead.
Nut trees can be a different story. Walnuts and pecans sometimes exceed 100 feet in height while spreading their crowns 50 feet or more.
Though they require many years to reach such impressive sizes, afford nut trees plenty of room to grow without crowding each other.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but only if the planter did a good job planning for the future!
Once you’ve laid everything out on paper, walk the area with a long tape measure and handheld GPS to make sure your plan fits with the lay of the land.
You might realize the location you’ve marked for an apple tree is a problematic low spot that habitually gathers water. In this case you’ll want to revise your plan rather than plant the tree in a water-logged location.
Local nurseries might offer a service to help you plan and plant your orchard—just ask.
If you’re working over a couple acres or more, establish the corners first and determine all future measurements and calculations from there. To mark the corners, a GPS can be a lifesaver, keeping your lines straight and your corners square to boost the overall integrity of your measurements.
It’s true that GPS data is only accurate down to a few feet—a tape measure is better for short distances. But this margin for error has a minimal impact when marking the corners of a larger area.
Placing stakes to mark corners is also helpful. And tying rope between two corners provides a clear visual line for marking other points along the way.
To fine-tune your corners and confirm they are square, a little geometry goes a long way. The Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2, where a and b are the triangle sides and c is the hypotenuse) can be used to ensure corners are true right angles. (Who knew high school geometry would actually come in handy?)
Consider the Harvest
You should also consider the aesthetics and logistics of harvesting fruit when laying out an orchard. Within reason, personal preference can determine whether you plant your trees in tidy rows or scattered haphazardly across a field.
It’s your orchard, and whatever design strikes your fancy is worth pursuing.
But if you plan on frequently using large machinery in your orchard—tractors for landscaping or hauling water, mechanical harvesting machines for harvesting fruit, etc.—then planting trees in rows with ample driving space between them will make it easier for machinery to maneuver through your orchard in an efficient manner.
Commercial orchards plant trees in a variety of geometric patterns such as squares, triangles, quincunxes, etc. to facilitate easy harvesting and achieve the highest productivity per acre. You can each chart each design on graph paper, and geometric patterns are straightforward to measure when the time to start digging holes arrives.
Tips for Planting Trees
Whether you plant bare root specimens or potted trees, preparing a proper hole is essential for giving them the best chance to thrive. Start by digging a hole two to three times the width of the root ball.
This way, when you backfill the hole, the tree will be surrounded by loose soil, making it easier for the roots to get established.
For the same reason, you should dig the hole a few inches deeper than necessary, backfilling the bottom with loose soil prior to planting so the roots can easily grow downward. If a potted tree is root-bound, take a knife and slice some of the outermost roots to free them up and encourage outward growth.
Aim to plant the top of the root ball level with or slightly below the surrounding ground. The latter approach will form a shallow bowl to promote water retention.
Speaking of which, young trees need plenty of water when getting established. Potted trees in particular are thirsty specimens, requiring daily watering for at least the first few weeks, and weekly watering for a year or two.
Bare root trees are a bit more resilient and can be watered once a week through their first year in the ground.
Once your trees are planted, it’s a good idea to mulch the bare ground around their trunks. Doing so conserves water, cuts down on competition from weeds, and provides a layer of protection from cold temperatures during the winter.
Protecting Your Orchard
Congratulations! You’ve planted your foundation trees and have taken the first step toward growing a productive orchard. But before you rest on your laurels and await the first blossoms, there’s one more task to tackle: protecting your trees from damage.
Young trees can come under siege from a variety of threats. Animals are the most likely source. Hungry deer munch on branches, while rodents and rabbits eat bark and girdle trunks. But winter weather can also be troublesome, with severe temperature swings causing sunscald and frost crack.
Even a careless caretaker can inflict injury by getting too close with a string trimmer.
Protecting your trees from myriad threats is a multi-step process. Wrapping the trunks with plastic tree guards will effectively guard against girdling and careless mowing, while white fabric wraps will help reflect sunlight and protect trees from winter injuries.
The key is to make sure protective guards and wraps aren’t installed in a manner that will restrict the growth of the trees, which can cause significant damage in and of itself. Plastic guards worn year round should be installed loosely, leaving room for growth and ventilation. Fabric wraps must be wrapped tightly by design, and so should only be used during the winter when the trees are dormant.
As for deer and other browsing critters, if they’re numerous in your area, the only guaranteed protection is to install formidable fencing to protect your trees. If you opt for a perimeter fence surrounding your entire orchard, make sure it’s at least 8 feet high—otherwise, deer may attempt to jump it.
As an alternative, two shorter fences—one inside the other, spaced five or six feet apart—can present a similarly imposing barrier. Refrain if possible from installing a horizontal support across the top of your fence, since this gives deer a visual cue for judging its height.
Slanting the fence outward can further confuse deer and lessen the likelihood that they’ll try to jump over.
If constructing a perimeter fence isn’t practical for budgetary or logistical reasons, another option is to construct a fence around each individual tree, leaving some room for branches to grow outward. Fences like these can be shorter—6 feet or so—since deer are unlikely to jump into such an awkward, confined space.
Welded wire attached to metal T-posts can be an effective (and easily adjustable/removable) solution, protecting your trees until they’re large enough to fend for themselves.
Planting an orchard requires a significant investment in time, money and effort. But with proper planning and care, you’ll reap rewards for decades to come.