A home orchard can supply you with delicious, low-cost fresh fruit, attract pollinators and provide shade and beauty. It requires a small investment of money and a large investment of time and patience.
Choosing Orchard Trees
Select trees adapted to your climate. Consult your local Cooperative Extension about varieties suited to your area. Visit USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to learn what agricultural zone you’re in. Nurseries should provide information about the zones where their plants will grow. Order young trees, not seeds; seeds will grow into fruit trees but won’t necessarily have the same variety characteristics as their parent plants.
Apples are best adapted to colder climates, though some varieties have been developed to thrive in the warmth of the South. Dwarf apple trees can be set 8′ apart and may bear fruit in their second or third years. Yearly harvest from dwarf apple trees averages 2 bushels/tree, compared to 4 bushels for semi-dwarf trees (requiring 15-18′ spacing and bearing in 5-6 years) or 8 for standard trees (requiring 25-30′ spacing and bearing in 6-10 years). Standards are hardiest and most able to tolerate drought and poor soil.
Plant 3 different varieties of apples (regardless of size) for best pollination. Summer apples ripen early and don’t store well fresh; fall apples are multipurpose; winter apples ripen late and will keep for months in cold storage.
Pears will grow in most of the US; most are hardy to zone 4, some to zone 3, though they may bear every other year rather than every year in colder areas. Standard pears require 20-25′ spacing, bear within 5-8 years and yield approximately 3 bushels/plant. Dwarf or semi-dwarf pears require 12-25′ spacing, bear within 5-8 years and yield approximately 1/2 bushel/plant.
Plant two varieties of pears to ensure pollination. Some pears can be stored fresh into midwinter; many deteriorate more quickly.
Cherries will grow in the same zones as pears. Sweet cherries mature in 5-7 years. Pie or sour cherries mature in 4-5 years. All pie cherries and some sweet cherries are self-pollinating. Pie cherries are generally hardier than sweet cherries.
Plant standard-sized cherry trees, as smaller varieties are newly developed and still have some significant problems. Space trees 15-25′ apart. Sweet cherries tend to bear more fruit than sour cherries. 60-75 quarts/tree is an average yield. Fruits freeze and can well but cannot be stored fresh long-term like some apples and pears.
Plums will grow throughout the country; Japanese plums are better adapted to the South than European plums. Hybrid plums are very cold hardy but may not pollinate well. Fedco, a seed cooperative, recommends planting American plums with them as pollinators. European plums will self-pollinate, but planting two varieties improves performance; they tend to be smaller-fruited and more disease-resistant than hybrid plums.
Space trees 20′ apart. 2 bushels/tree is an average yield. Plums can be canned, dried as prunes or made into jelly. They don’t keep long in cold storage.
Peaches are best adapted to the South. Cold-hardy varieties have been developed; these can bear heavily in the North but may die in hard winters. The University of Virginia recommends planting standard-sized peach trees, as smaller varieties are newly developed and still have some significant problems.
Space trees 15-20′ apart and be prepared to support branches, which may break under the weight of a heavy crop. 4 bushels/tree is an average harvest. Peaches can be dried, canned or frozen but don’t keep long in fresh storage.
Selecting an Orchard Site
Keep these three tips in mind when selecting an orchard site:
- Choose a site with well-drained fertile soil and full sun.
- Avoid frost pockets and areas exposed to high winds.
- Don’t plant early-flowering varieties on south-facing slopes, where they may bloom too early and then lose their flowers (and thus that year’s fruit) to a late frost.
If you have a small backyard in an urban space, check out this video:
Orchard Planting and Maintenance
Plant in early spring while trees are still dormant. Dig large holes, twice as wide and fully as deep as the root system, and add compost and other soil amendments around tree roots. Don’t let roots get dried out as you get your trees into their holes. Water well. Once the hole is filled, surround the tree with organic mulch.
Fruit trees need to be pruned to remove dead wood and establish a healthy and accessible shape. Prune in spring while trees are dormant. Consult your Extension, the video below, or look online for pruning guides for each type of fruit tree. All fruit trees are susceptible to pests and diseases, varying by type and area. Consult your Extension.
Want to learn more information on starting a home orchard?
Check out these helpful resources:
The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips (Amazon affiliate link)
Tree Fruit in the Home Garden Virginia Cooperative Extension
Fruit Trees for the Home Orchard: Varieties and Management from New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service
Please note that links to Amazon from Gardening Channel are affiliate links.