How to grow an apple orchard ? Well, it is a long term project and could take up to 40 years to approach maturity. Having said that, presuming you’re not looking to grow a commercial apple orchard – if you’ve a young family or grandchildren; by planting an orchard you could get all the family involved in helping with the development of it, rather than just passively watching it grow. As such it could become a real focus for family life for years to come.
Basics for How to Grow an Apple Orchard
Whilst you could literally grow apple trees from your own apple seeds, a more realistic option is to grow the apple orchard from saplings or even young trees that could be bearing fruit within a few years of planting them. However, in order to really feel you’re the one responsible for growing your own apple orchard start off with 2 or 3 year old trees, which will be about 4 or 5 foot tall.
In commercial orchards, since apples do not grow true to their seeds, young trees that have been grown in a nursery from cuttings are transplanted to the orchard site. These trees have a desired fruit variety grafted onto a root-stock selected for characteristics for size and vigor. Some apple trees planted today are on dwarf stock, allowing for more efficient use of valuable land and labor.
Apples do require a certain type of climate. Apples prefer warm days and cool nights. They also like to have full sun. Apples are known as a deciduous tree and they require that dormant season in the winter where they sleep. During this time, it is best if the temperatures get below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The specifics will depend on the particular variety of apple trees you decide on growing.
How big they then grow, and indeed the shape they grow into, will depend on how you prune them in the years to come and the variety of apples you choose. As a rule of thumb allow for each apple tree to grow to a diameter of about 8 foot and leave about the same distance between each plant.
The average apple tree will bear fruit in three years, with full production coming in eight to ten years. A fully-producing apple tree may grow up to 20 bushel boxes of apples a year. The dwarf trees have a shorter bearing season.
Planting an Apple Tree
You should plant your new apple trees between December and April, as at this time of year the plants are at their most dormant and will be less stressed by being uprooted and re-planted. Earth preparation shouldn’t be too much of an issue as being trees they’ll be getting their moisture and nutrients from deep down.
However, to give the plants a good start ploughing over the earth where they’ll be planted and spreading mulch will be a good idea. The mulch will help to keep moisture in the earth but at the same time inhibit weeds from growing and competing with your new trees. Before ordering your apple trees consult with the supplier to check on ideal growing environments for the variety of apples you want.
As another rule of thumb, apple trees like sandy-clay or sandy-loam earth with a pH of around 6.5. At least during their first years of growth the trees will need extra watering, so make sure your earth drains well too.
The term cultivar means ‘cultivated variety’; which in turn means a variety of a plant that has been made by propagating it from another. When selecting the apple trees to grow in your orchard you need to buy at least two varieties, unless you are fortunate enough to have another orchard next to yours, with a different variety of apple trees planted in it. In this respect most people opt for cultivars propagated from a common variety.
The reason you need cultivars of apple trees is that they are not compatible with one another. So what – you might well think. Well this incompatibility means that trees of the same variety can’t fertilize each other to produce fruits. So, to successfully grow apples not only will you need birds and bees around to do the pollinating – but you’ll also need to have at least two varieties of apple trees that are compatible cultivars.
One of the problems that apple growers have is choosing rootstocks that are able to generate a good quality tree yielding high, early production. Finished tree quality for an apple tree is usually defined by tree caliper but the number of feathers and the angle of the feathers are also important criteria in evaluating tree quality.
Like most crops, apples have to be watched to make sure bugs and pests don’t damage the fruit. In spring, commercial growers use a type of pest prevention called Integrated Pest Management. This is when growers monitor the weather while hanging various insect traps around the orchard to collect data for the annual spray program. Temperature, humidity and rainfall are recorded in orchard weather stations to predict disease outbreaks and identify effective management tools. Both harmful and beneficial insects are counted to determine spray schedules.
When used, spraying is done to protect apples from insects and disease. For example, one insect, the Light Brown Apple Moth, lays egg masses containing 20-50 eggs on the upper leaf surface or on fruit. Damage to the fruit happens as surface feeding by the larvae and causes millions of dollars in lost crops in Australia alone. Agricultural research is ongoing to find more effective and insecticide-free ways of controlling crop damage.
Pruning Apple Trees
The health, location and value of an apple tree should be determined before pruning is done. If the trunk is rotten and appears to be split or if there are only one or two healthy branches, the tree may not be worth saving. Trees that are successful in producing fruit are exposed to the sun all day long. Disease and insects are more likely to affect trees located in a shady, damp area.
First efforts should be aimed at clearing around the tree, so that the leaves and fruit get plenty of exposure to sunlight. In a situation where the tree has grown in a competitive forest, the apple tree should be pruned before competing trees are cleared from the area. Trees growing under these circumstances usually have shallow root systems and are easily wind blown.
Pruning should be done in late winter or early spring before the leaves begin to appear. When there are no leaves on the branches, it is easier to see the structure of the tree and what cuts are necessary. By late winter, the tree is fully dormant and less susceptible to injury. Also, it has a chance to form a protective barrier behind the pruning cuts before insect and disease organisms become active.
Up to one-third of the live wood on an apple tree can be removed each year. If a tree has been abandoned for a long time, cut only diseased and damaged branches before removing one-third of the live wood. In a situation where the whole top needs to be cut off, the tree will be highly stressed and may not produce apples for a few years.
The following pruning rules will help improve the vigor and productivity of an old apple tree.
• Remove all dead wood and diseased branches. All diseased and insect-infested wood should be burned to prevent reinfestation. Coat cutting tools with bleach between cuttings to help prevent reinfestations.
• Prune more heavily in the upper part of the tree than in the lower. Sunlight will spread more evenly throughout the tree, helping to maintain the productivity of the lower limbs.
• Take out branches that grow toward the center of the tree. This also allows sunlight to reach the fruit.
• Cut out branches with narrow crotches. Narrow crotches are weak, causing branches heavy with fruit to split.
• Remove all vertical growth. Upright branches do not produce fruit. Cut out water sprouts; these are fast-growing, unbranching upright shoots.
• Encourage horizontal branches since they tend to bear more fruit. Branches at a 45 or 90 degree angle are the most desirable.
• Eliminate branches that hang below or across one another. A branch shaded by an upper one is not likely to be productive.
• Cut back drooping branches. Cutting a branch will strengthen it by encouraging growth further back along the branch.
Photo by Stian Martinsen, Creative Commons Attribution License