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Four Things For An Orchard

Orchards are magical spaces and productive places, requiring relatively little maintenance. If you’re thinking of planting one, there are 4 things you need to know first.

These 4 things are:

  1. The aspect and orientation of your plot
  2. Providing protection
  3. The final size of the trees
  4. The quality of your soil.

1. Aspect

Sun Aspect
Sun Surveyor app, showing trajectory of sun. Photograph by the author, Jake Rayson.

The orientation of your plot is which way it faces in relation to the sun. Most fruit and nut trees prefer full sun for abundant harvests, so a south or south-west facing plot is ideal (if you live in the northern hemisphere), although many will tolerate light shade.

Use a compass to work out the basic orientation and ideally mark it on a simple plan. The trajectory of the sun and where it rises and sets changes throughout the year: wider and higher in the summer, narrower and lower in the winter. A fantastic mobile app to visualise this is called Sun Surveyor, so that you can see how much light a particular spot will receive throughout the year.

The aspect of your plot is its orientation plus any slope on the site, together with the elevation (how high above sea level). A south-facing slope will be significantly warmer, as it quite literally receives more sun, whilst a north-facing slope is significantly cooler. The steeper the slope, the more marked the temperature difference.

Another factor to take into account when calculating the light is the shade cast by other plants.

 

2. Providing Protection

Windbreak Hedge
Young Yellow Dogwood windbreak hedge.
Photograph by the author, Jake Rayson.

All trees grow better if they’re protected from the wind. Planting a windbreak hedge is a fine idea, and it’s good to have protection on all sides of the orchard. The Plants For A Future website has a list of plants suitable for windbreak hedges.

When thinking about the height and position of your windbreak hedge, bear in mind the position of the sun, as you don’t want too much shade cast on the trees. Also, remember that the height of the hedge protects 8 times the length, so a 2 metre hedge will offer protection for 16 metres.

Before your hedge grows, you may want to plant a couple of nurse trees, a temporary shelter plant, in front of the more exposed trees. Scotch Broom makes an excellent nurse tree, as it’s quick growing and nitrogen fixing.

Alternatively, you could build a dead hedge. This is a temporary windbreak made from upright posts and leftover scrubby branches and prunings. Not only does it protect from the wind, it’s also wildlife habitat and a fantastic way to tidy up your garden waste that might normally go on a bonfire.

 

3. The Final Size Of The Trees

Tree Spacing
Illustration showing optimal tree spacing.

This is the single most important consideration. You need to know the final height and diameter of your tree. Both Plants For A Future and RHS Plant Finder give these dimensions for each plant.

Cultivated fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks, which determine the height and vigour of the tree. Be sure to choose the right rootstock for your situation and aspect!

Armed with this knowledge, plant your trees with enough space between them so that they get enough light. The distance between trees should be ¼ to ½ of the average canopy diameter e.g. two 4 metre diameter trees should have between 1 and 2 metres space between them.

And plant your trees with the taller specimens to the north to allow enough light for the shorter specimens.

 

4. The Quality Of Your Soil

Soil
The reddish clay loam at Forest Garden Wales.
Photograph by author, Jake Rayson.

Get to know your soil, get your hands dirty and have a look. There’s 3 things to look out for: type of soil, fertility and pH. Firstly, what type of soil do you have?  Most people have a clay, sandy or a loam soil, a loam being an in-between mixture. A simple test is to roll some damp soil in your hands. If it makes a firm sausage, you have a clay soil, if it crumbles, then you have sand, and a loam soil is somewhere in-between.

Secondly, check the fertility of your soil by having a soil test done at your local farm cooperative, which will give you results for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium.

Finally, test the soil’s pH, which is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. For fruit trees, a neutral or slightly acid soil is best; more extremes inhibit the absorption of nutrients.

 

5. Evolving Your Orchard

I know I said 4 things but with your orchard and windbreaks planted, there are some additional steps you can take to add real benefit.

Grow Nutrients

Comfrey
Comfrey is a stalwart plant for providing nutrients.
Photograph by the author, Jake Rayson

Fruit and nut trees require a lot of feeding. One of the easiest things to do is plant a clump of Comfrey next to each tree, and then employ a simple chop ‘n’ drop mulch a couple of times a year to feed the tree. (‘Bocking 14’ is the sterile cultivar that won’t spread).

Autumn Olive
Creamy flowers of Autumn Olive, loved by bees.
Photograph by author Jake Rayson.

You can also grow a nitrogen-fixing windbreak or bush such as Sea Buckthorn, Autumn Olive or Green Alder. Indeed, if you have space you can sneak in a nitrogen fixing tree like Italian Alder, which is very upright and can have its lower branches removed to let in more light.

Ground Cover

Strawberry
Photograph by author, Jake Rayson

Grass is great but grass is high maintenance. It needs mowing at least a couple of times a year. If you have livestock to keep the grass down, this means erecting substantial tree guards. What a lot of work. A better idea is to plant a ground cover that doesn’t require mowing; head over to Plants For A Future for some inspiration.

Other crops?

Gooseberry
Gooseberry, tolerates a degree of shade.
Photograph by Егор Журавлёв (Flickr) under CC BY-SA 2.0

Why limit yourself to fruit and nut trees? How about a thornless bramble up a windbreak hedge, or some soft fruit such as Blackcurrants, Gooseberries or Redcurrants. For the more adventurous, Aronia bushes are very productive, and can grow in part shade, whilst Shallon can grow in even shadier spots.

Kale
Photograph by author Jake Rayson.

You might even have room for some low-maintenance perennial vegetables, such as Perennial Kale, Turkish Rocket or Good King Henry.

 

Conclusion

If you’ve followed me this far, you might realise that you have ended up with more than an orchard. Congratulations, you actually have a self-sustaining wildlife orchard underplanted with edible shrubs and perennial vegetables. In other words, you have a forest garden :)

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. It’s February 29/2020 in Pennsylvania, supposed to be winter, it’s going to be 55 -60 degrees F for the next 4 days. We’re starting to think of planting fruit trees on the north slope to prevent roots from heating up too soon, because our last frost is May 10, before which it can destroy flowers and young fruits.

  2. Thank you for raising this really salient point to consider when planting fruit trees in a climate emergency. The irony is that warmer temperatures can be mean *more* frost damage as trees are encouraged to blossom earlier.

    Another correspondent has raised the importance of chilling (this is a period of low ‘chilling’ temperatures), which is essential for many fruit & nut trees. In the UK, there has been a 10-20% drop in chilling temperatures since 1960, and this will only increase. There is a very useful table of chilling requirements on page 37 of Martin Crawford’s book Creating a Forest Garden.

  3. I’ve read that wind is actually really good for young trees. When humans exercise we make microscopic tears in our muscles that heal and that’s how they get bigger and stronger. Same thing with trees. If they never have to deal with wind as they are growing, when they are older and a big storm comes through they won’ thave the lignin capable of withstanding and they’ll snap.

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