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The Homestead Orchard

I have not had time as yet to write much about our experience with a small but diverse homestead orchard. At present, I will suffice it to append some brief passages from other documents on the site. During the past year I have planted a number of new, less common fruit trees and shrubs, as well as eight filberts and three chestnuts. I have ordered eleven nut tree seedlings for planting in the spring. As I have time, I will expand this section. ~February 2007


Kaki Persimmons

For those with the space—and truly, you don’t need much—an orchard should be a key part of the homestead. I am not myself the world’s best orchardist, so I won’t pretend to be. I will advise strongly that you should plant your fruit trees as soon as you can—they take awhile to begin fruiting. Also, most (not all) fruit species need a lot of discipline—that is, they need more pruning than you might at first think wise, every year. Pruning is as much art as science, and I’m not very good at it. A major goal of pruning is to open the tree up to more light and air circulation—that’s the easy part. Pruning to guide future growth—that is, to shape the architecture of the mature tree—is more challenging. Get a good book and keep trying. Better yet, find someone in your area who’s an experienced hand at the game, and offer to help with their pruning in order to learn.

One thing I learned only recently: Apparently grass is not the best ground cover under orchard trees. I have read that Michael Phillips (orchardist and author of The Apple Grower) has replaced grass under his trees with comfrey, which he finds a greatly superior ground cover. I have started replacing grass in my orchard with comfrey, clovers, and other species.

Don’t forget nut trees when planning an orchard. One of my greatest regrets is that I did not plant nuts when we first moved onto our place two decades ago. Now I am determined to get some nut crops going, so will be planting a large number of nut trees over the next two years. What a pity that some species can take 10-12 years to come into bearing! Fortunately, many grafted selections (named cultivars) come into fruiting considerably earlier than seedlings.



Our orchard here at Boxwood

The first thing we did when moving onto our homestead was site an orchard and order the nursery stock. We put in apples, plums, pears, cherries, and mulberries. Some trees have been lost and replaced over the years, but we now have apples Jonagold (our favorite), Winesap, Albemarle Pippin, William's Pride, Liberty, Black Arkansas, Yellow Delicious, and Macfree; pears Magness (usually considered the highest quality dessert pear resistant to fire blight), Moonglow, Tyson, and Seckel; plums Shiro, Stanley, and Mount Royal; cherries Stella, Ranier, Sweet September, and Ulster; Oriental persimmons Sheng, Ichi Ki Kei Jiro, and Smith's Best or Goboshi; pawpaws (three Davis seedlings); and mulberries (one white, two black). (The mulberries are nice to “graze,” and Ellen freezes some, but they also have value as a “trap” fruit: The birds prefer the mulberries, so tend to leave the cherries alone.)

I never, ever spray my orchard, thus am prepared to accept whatever level of insect damage shows up. The poultry flock has reduced insect pressure, but still, it is a rare year when I have apples that are sound enough for long-term storage. With most of the fruit, I cull heavily (the chickens reap a windfall!), peel and slice, and cook with no added water and not a grain of sugar into a lumpy applesauce that is then stored in the freezer. Pears have never had any insect pests (though fire blight can be a problem), so generally those fruits are sound. The plums are very much “hit or miss,” depending on the weather---late spring frosts zap the blossoms and high humidity during summer causes fruit rots. Also, the Stanley has for some reason never fruited, and the Mount Royal is only a couple of years old. The Shiro in a good year, however, is glorious, and a bumper crop. [Still, they are the most marginal of my fruit crops, which remain only because of their promise of occasional success. The peaches I ripped out years ago: Without spraying, I found that they just would not produce usable fruit in my climate.] The persimmons also seem to respond to vagaries of the season. They usually have a good fruit set, but then in some years drop most of the fruit before it ripens. In most years, though, we get to enjoy their luxurious sweet succulence.

In the past year or two, I have planted some less common fruit trees and shrubs: bush cherries Jan and Joel and Nanking (white and red), Asian pears Hosui and Korean Giant, jujube Li and Lang, che, gooseberries (three varieties), currants (two varieties), jostaberry, and elderberries (from wildlings in the area).

Other small fruits include plantings of brambles (three varieties of blackberries, four of raspberries, plus wineberries or “Japanese raspberries”), grapes (three varieties), blueberries (nine, each a different variety), and strawberries.

Controlling orchard insect competitors with poultry

If you run the flock in the orchard in the early spring and late fall, they will help significantly with insect control. (I have noticed a major difference in insect damage in orchard fruit since beginning this practice. It is a real thrill, I assure you, to watch guineas jump up and take coddling moths right out of the air!)

Avoid excessive fertility in the orchard

If you do use the flock for insect control in the orchard, be wary of over-fertilization. Fruit trees do not require high levels of nitrogen; and excessive application of nitrogen in the form of poultry droppings can stimulate lush, too-rapid growth which makes the trees more subject to winter damage and to fire blight (especially pears and apples). Limit the flock's “bug patrol” duties in the orchard to brief periods in spring and fall when insects that overwinter in the soil are emerging or going to ground.