In January, 2008, I ordered the trees for our fruit orchard. I knew where the orchard would be located – on the north side of the house on a section of the old pasture that slopes gently to the east. An added bonus was that we can see the orchard from our bedroom window. We had planted poplars along the north edge of the property the previous year (2007) to act as a wind break as we were concerned about the prevalent north wind. The soil was not the greatest – it was clay subsoil (the topsoil had been scraped off and distributed closer to the house for the lawn area). Once the ground was ready to be worked in April, we had to harvest the rocks (did I mention it was an old pasture?) and spread truckloads of purchased topsoil. We then seeded the orchard with Envirogreen 1000, a grass seed we bought in 25 kg bags from Pickseed in Lindsay 65 km away. They usually don’t sell retail, but with the amount we were buying, it wasn’t a problem. The Envirogreen contains 35% red fescue, 20% Kentucky Bluegrass, 20% hard fescue and 25% perennial ryegrass, so it never needs watering after it has taken (we’re on a well), doesn’t brown off in August (because of its deep roots), grows to a about 6-8” and smothers out weeds (hopefully). We had done the same thing for about 100 feet around the house and were happy with the results. Unfortunately, heavy rains washed most of the seed and topsoil further down hill, so coverage ended up being very spotty. Not to worry, though. By the fall, the weeds, especially dandelions, filled in nicely. (We’re still dealing with that.)
My next task was to measure out the orchard and decide on the placement of the trees I had ordered. I also wanted to leave room for future trees. Most of the trees were on semi-dwarf root stock, which means that they should grow to about 12-15 ft high and spread out about the same distance. I spaced the 13 trees 20 ft apart in three rows, with two empty spots for future plum trees. If we eventually wanted more trees, we could always plant them in staggered rows between the original rows. The entire orchard measured 60 ft (east-west) x 100 ft. (north-south), with 10 ft of grass around the perimeter. The surrounding area reverted to pasture land, which meant lots of thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), goldenrod and a fair share of mullein, as it had been disturbed. (Of course, there was a lot of milkweed, too, so I shouldn’t complain too much.)
On May 6th I started to dig the holes and realized exactly how dry this spring and the previous year had been. My idea of using a mattock soon went by the way side – it was like digging into cement. I resorted to using our Mantis tiller, which proved to be a workhorse despite its small size and light weight. I dug holes that were 18 in x 18 in. While I agreed with the adage that planting a $1 tree in a $15 hole is better than the other way around, I was also concerned that the roots would not spread out past the hole if the mixture was too rich. So I filled the holes with a mixture of 1/3 compost, 1/3 potting soil-peat moss mix and 1/3 regular soil, which seemed like a workable compromise.
All but one of the trees were bare root, so, after filling the hole with water (it took a disconcertingly long time for the clay subsoil to absorb the water), I partially filled the hole with some of the soil mix, arranged the roots on top and watered again. I then added more soil and more water to wash down around the roots. I heeled in the remaining soil covered the soil with a 2-3 inch layer of wood chips. The trees ranged from about 12 inches tall (Evans Cherry) to almost 4 ft tall (Salome Apple). Only three of them were branched; the others were only single trunks.
Because most of the trees were grafted onto dwarfing/cold hardy root stock, it was important to plant the trees with the graft union 2-3 in above ground level. This would ensure that the dwarfing characteristics of the rootstock determine the characteristics of the tree. If the graft union were below ground level, the scion wood (the actual above-ground tree) could send out roots which would influence the growth of the tree, in effect growing a full-sized tree.
I also “planted” a stake with each tree, sinking a 5 ft length of T-rail metal fence posts 18 inches in to the ground at the same time as the tree. When dwarf or semi-dwarf trees fruit, it puts additional stress on the roots – the tree may be dwarf, but the fruit production is similar to a full-sized tree, so the tree must support the weight of all the fruit. The stakes would also support the trees from the north wind.
By May 9th I had finished planting the orchard. It took a few weeks, but the one-year-old whips finally broke out into leaf. Throughout the rest of the year, I watered the trees and checked on them, although not as often as I should have. I was horrified in August to see tiny caterpillars munching on the leaves of most of the trees, turning them into lace. Right from the beginning, we had decided that we would not spray our plants with chemical pesticides. I hadn’t realized, however, that the fruit trees would be vulnerable to insect attack so soon. I squished all the ones I could see, but the damage continued. Then I realised that they curled up the ends of the leaves and hid inside – those were easier to squish. I also sprayed with Safer’s End-All to ensure I got them all. That kept them under control for the rest of the year. The only other insects I found were earwigs. They didn’t seem to bother the trees (just me), but I learned to pull the nice, moist mulch they loved to hide in away from trunks just in case. Deer nibbled at the end of some of the whips throughout the summer, but did no real damage.
At the end of October, it was time to get the trees ready for winter, so I sprayed Skoot on all the trunks and the few branches that had grown to deter any mice, rabbits or deer from grazing on them over the winter. All in all, I was pleased that all the trees survived, but disappointed that they didn’t seem to grow much. Oh well, I shouldn’t be too hasty. This was, after all, just the first year.