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article number 164
article date 09-13-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
A 1977 USDA Article on Starting an Orchard
by Harold Fogle and Mildos Faust

EDITOR’S NOTE: I only want to plant a couple of apple trees … still this 1977 information combined with new method’s should help give me 50 pounds of apples for personal consumption.

Orcharding is more intensive than many other cropping systems. Under ideal situations, good livings are made on some fruit farms of about 20 acres.

However, orcharding requires a location suitable for fruit trees, and heavy initial investment in land preparation, equipment, nursery trees and in planting and caring for the young trees with little return for three to seven years.

Heavy demands are placed on the operator to get maintenance operations (pest control, weed control, pruning, fertilization, irrigation) done on a timely basis, to find a profitable outlet for the fruit, to have adequate labor available to thin and harvest the fruit at the proper times, and to keep abreast of new varieties, control practices, planting systems and marketing practices.

About 20 acres is a minimum orchard unit if no other enterprises supplement the orchard income. The requirement for and investment in machinery and supplies, will be about the same whether 2 or 20 acres of fruit are grown. If the machinery can be adapted to other enterprises, can be shared with other orchardists or rented, or if custom services are readily available, a smaller orchard unit may be practical.

The decision to operate a small orchard should be based on careful analysis of local costs and expected returns from the orchard as a complement to other enterprises. Thought must be given to minimize conflicts in timing of harvesting and maintenance operations.


As with other perennial crops, certain areas of the United States are more subject to risks such as low temperature damage to trees, inadequate fruit set due to spring frosts, damage to developing fruits and trees by hail, wind, and rain, inadequate moisture or too cool temperatures for growing large fruit or fruit which matures at the proper time.

The Great Plains areas generally are poorly adapted to fruit growing because of low temperatures and lack of sufficient summer rainfall. Most northern states are subject to occasional winter freezes and spring frosts which reduce the chances of annual crops. In the Deep South, certain fruits and specific varieties of other fruits may not receive sufficient winter-chilling to blossom and put forth leaves properly.

Any prospective orchardist should first look for successful orchards in the immediate area. If there are none, do not consider an orchard unless you can determine that you have an exceptionally good site. For example, in northern areas a site on the windward side of a large lake may escape low temperature extremes while this moderating effect is not generally felt in the immediate surroundings.

Several years of records of minimum temperatures as close to the proposed site as possible should be observed. If winter temperatures often drop to -22° F (-30° C), no fruit should be grown in the area. If temperatures fall below -13° F (-25° C) in some years, probably peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots will be thinned and may suffer tree damage. A site which seldom has temperature below -4° F (-20° C) should be sought.

Marketing possibilities may determine what kind of fruit can be grown profitably in an orchard. In an established fruit-growing area, several options may be available. Commercial wholesale outlets for fresh fruit marketing, canning, freezing, or other processing uses may be readily available. Close to large population centers, an attractive fruit stand or pick-your own and rent-a-tree orchards may be feasible.

You should carefully analyze the total requirements of one or more such operations before deciding on the appropriate outlet. For each type of operation, rather specific requirements in spaces, facilities and temperament are needed.

Considerations before establishing an orchard:
• Need for training of operator
• Availability of advice
• Types of fruits grown in the area
• Rainfall distribution, needs for irrigation
• Winter temperatures
• Temperatures during blossoming period of various fruits
• Marketing possibilities
• Availability of labor for harvesting and other operations
• Variety mix for labor distribution
• Variety mix for orderly marketing
• Variety mix for pollination requirements
• Machinery needs
• Need for storage facilities
• Possible rental of machinery or custom operations
• Site: air drainage
• Site: soil drainage
• Soil preparation and erosion control
• Soil preparation nutritional requirements of fruit types
• Purchasing, storage and handling of pesticides
• Human factor — tolerance to pick- your-own operation, pesticide regulations, etc.

Another critical decision which must be made before planting is whether to grow only one fruit type or a mix of several types. For fruit stand or pick-your-own operations, usually a number of fruit types as well as several vegetable and berry types would be indicated. Pick-your-own would require several varieties of one or more fruit types. Some growers might prefer a concentrated harvesting season of only one type for wholesaling.

Risk of a complete crop failure is reduced as you grow more types of fruit because of differences in hardiness and in blossoming and harvesting periods.


Apples and some plums bloom later and are hardier to winter freezes than other fruit types. You might be limited to these fruits in areas subject to early frosts.

Peaches, nectarines, cherries, and pears blossom several days earlier, varying with location. Apricots and Japanese plums bloom even earlier and require sites with greater freedom from frost.


If other factors seem favorable for growing fruit, the critical decision of specific sites for the fruit plantings must be faced. Commercial experience in the local area should be followed in selecting sites for the various types.

Even though an eastern site might seem relatively frost-free, do not plant nectarines in preference to apples, because the Brown Rot fungus damages nectarines in high-rainfall areas. Draw on the experience of the nearest Experiment Station and the advice of your county Extension Agent in making the decisions.

Soil type usually should be a sandy loam. Clay soils often are subject to poor water drainage. All fruit types are susceptible to “wet feet.”

If steep slopes are involved to get the necessary air drainage for frost control, you need to control erosion with contour planting and maintenance of sod.

Previous use of the site is important. Crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, and melons favor buildup of harmful nematodes and wilt fungi. Newly cleared forest land may be infested with root-rotting organisms which also attack some fruit species.


Select an Orchard System

A basic decision must be made regarding the orchard system to be used. Standard-sized trees result in fewer trees in a given acreage but have the disadvantages of requiring harvesting from ladders, and more powerful equipment for spraying, pruning, and thinning. And they produce fruit several years later.

Apples are available on fully dwarfing stocks and a range of semidwarfing rootstocks as well as “spur-type” trees. The stone fruits also are available on Prunus spp. rootstocks and pears on quince rootstocks for dwarfing, but these are less satisfactory than the apple stocks. The investment in trees multiplies as smaller trees are planted closer together.

Trees on the dwarfing stocks grow differently in different areas, so follow local recommendations for planting distances. Poorer soils produce smaller trees and thus more trees can be grown per acre.

In general, dwarf trees require better soil and better air drainage than standard trees, and they produce fruit earlier.

Most peach and nectarine varieties are self-fertile and may be planted in solid blocks. In the other fruit types, however, a pollenizer variety is usually needed. Most fruit nursery catalogues indicate satisfactory pollenizers for specific varieties.

A rule of thumb for providing pollenizers is every third tree in every third row, which exposes one side of each main variety tree to a pollenizer tree. For ease of handling, it may be more feasible to interspace two to four rows of the main variety with one or two of the pollenizer variety. Usually, both varieties can be commercially acceptable and can mature at the same time—or at different times if a spread of maturity is preferred.

With peaches, it is now possible to have good adapted varieties ripening at weekly or even semi-weekly intervals for almost four months in areas suitable for this fruit. The ripening period of the other fruit types is shorter but a sequence of good varieties is possible.

Give thought to the ripening sequences if several fruit types are grown. Apricots and cherries have distinct ripening seasons earlier than the other fruits. However, pear ripening coincides with that of later peach or early apple varieties. Hence, you should decide which fruit crop will be ripening in each period, unless supplemental labor is available for harvesting.

Since there will be no return until the trees reach bearing age, there is a temptation to intercrop with vegetables or other crops. Generally this is not advisable, since requirements of crops planted between the rows are quite different from those of the trees.

Machinery used for the trees does not adapt to the other crops and purchasing specialized equipment for the vegetables for 3 to 5 years’ use is too expensive. Spray materials necessary to control pests on the non-bearing trees may not be permissible for use on the vegetables.

Thus, neither crop may receive the care it needs at the appropriate time, or one crop will be neglected, If both fruits and vegetables are to be grown, they should be on separate sites.


Invest Adequately

Do not consider fruit growing unless you provide for adequate equipment. A tractor for spraying, mowing, and cultivation is required. A rotary mower or disk will be needed to control weeds in the middles. If chemical control of weeds in the tree row will be used, a 3-point hitch drum-type sprayer is needed.

Commercially marketable fruit cannot be grown without the protection of timely sprays with effective spray materials. In fruit areas, custom spraying may be available but you should be assured of its availability before planning the protection solely through custom applications. Low volume speed-sprayers are less expensive and more effective than high volume ones, if properly used.

A tractor fork-lift and harvesting wagon probably will be needed also. Arrangements are necessary for harvesting buckets, boxes or bins, and ladders, if standard trees are used.

Cold storage facilities are almost a necessity if fruit stand is planned or if fruit will be stored into the winter.

The use of dwarf trees and close planting distances may require staking or wire trellises, and will call for smaller equipment.


Should you consider buying or leasing a small established orchard or a farm with a small orchard? Many factors must be considered and expert advice sought.

Some questions should be answered in an analysis of the prospects. Is the orchard in good condition and, if so, are the trees young enough to remain productive? Are the varieties commercially desirable? Is the mix of types and varieties suitable to the operation planned?

The production and profit history of the orchard should be determined if possible. Are the necessary outlets available for the type operation planned?

If the orchard is not in good condition, what is the reason? Are there indications that the site or soil conditions are not suitable?

Have the trees been neglected and, if so, can the orchard be renovated or must it be replaced? If replacement seems practical, are there replant problems such as arsenic in the soil from previous sprays, high nematode populations, root-rotting organisms, viruses, or nutrient deficiency indications?

Determine whether storage facilities are available or will be needed.

Unless you can reasonably expect a profit from the management you propose for the orchard site, don’t buy it, In most cases, it will be better to invest your labor in establishing an orchard suited to your own situation.


Planting and Management

Soil preparation of the orchard site should be planned well in advance. If high populations of nematodes or root- rotting organisms are indicated by previous cropping or by soil tests, fumigation may be advisable, Fumigation is expensive but should reduce tree loss and give weed control the first year as a bonus. An alternative for peaches is use of resilient rootstocks if root-knot nematodes are high.

Certain rootstocks, such as Stockton Morello for cherries and peach-almond hybrids for peaches and plums, will alleviate excessive moisture or high alkaline conditions.

A green-manure crop the year previous to planting Is a good idea. If soil pH Is lower than 6 to 6.5, liming is required to supply calcium a well as to correct pH. pH indicates the soil’s relative acidity or alkalinity).

Be careful in selecting varieties to plant. Check on recommendations of your county extension agent and of experiment stations with conditions similar to yours. Time spent with nursery catalogues or nurserymen specializing with fruit types in your general area will help you select adapted varieties.

Varieties differ widely in their adaptation so don’t make a large planting of an untried variety. Teat a few trees first, if the variety is new to your area.


A prospective grower can propagate his own trees. But this involves growing rootstocks, finding a “clean” source of bud-wood, making the propagation, maintaining the nursery, and waiting usually two years to have trees comparable to those of commercial nurseries. Instead, select a reputable nursery and order medium sized trees of adapted varieties. Order not only the variety you want but the rootstock that seems appropriate for your conditions.

Many of the catalogs give useful information on planting distances, number of trees needed per acre for different planting distances, effective pollenizers, planting directions, anti training and pruning advice.


Follow the customary planting time and procedure for your area. Where winters are mild, fall planting gives the roots time to become well established before growth starts. Have the nursery store your trees until you can plant, unless you have facilities to store them properly.

Avoid drying out the roots during planting. Usually it is best to plant them directly from a barrel of water into the soil. Water them in if the soil is dry. Adding some water will ensure better contact of roots and soil.

The training system starts with planting. The planting distance determines how much space a tree can occupy without undue shading.

Detailed pruning instructions are available in the 1977 Yearbook of Agriculture and in numerous bulletins. Usually the newly-planted trees are topped at 2 to 3 feet and 2 to 4 main leaders are selected, if available, for standard trees. More specialized pruning is necessary for high density trees. In either case, keep pruning to a minimum necessary to develop the main leaders and avoid overlapping limbs.

Well-exposed wood which is not part of the permanent tree structure can be saved for early fruit production.

Use summer pruning as much as possible to prevent delay in fruiting.

Fruit harvesting should be timed to place the highest quality product possible in the hands of the consumer. For successful marketing, appearance of the fruit is very important. Production of high quality fruit requires picking at proper maturity. There are many maturity indices but development of the undercolor and softening of the flesh are most reliable.


The proper stage depends somewhat on the marketing outlet to be used and local advice on this should be sought. For example, fruit to be shipped to distant markets undergoes some ripening in transit and handling and, therefore, cannot be picked fully tree-ripened.

Apples may be stored for varying periods in refrigerated storage at about 31° to 34° F (0° to 2° C), depending on the variety. Pears usually are stored a few weeks to four months depending on variety. The other fruits usually lose quality after storage for two weeks or less. Modified atmosphere storage can extend the period of storage. (The atmosphere is modified to 2% oxygen. about 3 to 5% carbon dioxide, with the remainder nitrogen).

Too much emphasis cannot be placed on seeking all the advice available in your county Extension office, nearby experiment stations, commercial and amateur growers in the area, and reputable nurserymen. Helpful handbooks are available in most fruit producing areas for the adapted fruits.

Fruit growing can be an expensive and even disastrous hobby, unless proper sites are chosen and the needed skills are learned. At the same time, careful operators need not be overwhelmed by the complexities of running an orchard.

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