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There is not much left to now in our season, but if you are determined to do something in your garden that you are sure to gain years of pleasure from, an orchard is the way to go. It need not be a full blown orchard but even a few fruit trees will make an immense difference in your persuit of self-sustainability.
The idea of a conventional orchard conjures up vast plantings of a single type of fruit tree, orchards full of well manicured trees that are control-watered, sprayed with fungicides, pesticides and fertilized according to a regimented plan. They are pruned to allow easy access with mechanical harvesters and then they are scheduled for replacement on a short term cycle. All of this to ensure maximum production and predictable cropping, within a very narrow production schedule. The fruit is most often picked early, treated with waxes or chemicals to inhibit any unwanted growth of fungi or moulds. They are then probably force ripened utilising an artificial external environment that can use temperature, gasses, or additional chemicals to ensure that your ‘healthy’ fruit is delivered to your local grocer in the best state possible for sale to you, the health conscious individual. The scary thing is that you could be eating a ‘fresh’ apple, that when bought from your local grocer could be as much as 8 months from when it was picked from the tree, not too fresh any more is it? Any locally produced apple (or fruit for that matter) bought out of season has been artificially tampered with.
I would like to propose a real alternative to what is available to the average person on the street. This alternative is planting your own orchard. Whether you only plant some trees in old wine barrels, a few trees in your back garden or a full blown orchard on your farm or plot, having one’s own orchard is a thing of beauty. Designing, planting, feeding, tending and watching your orchard grow from knee high plantings into fruit bearing tree’s gives one a unique satisfaction. Tasting your own first fruit picked straight off the tree and eaten immediately is a truly unique experience, one that can never be compared with the best of organic store bought fruit.
In today’s world it’s a rare thing for the average person to own their own orchard, and it’s not often that one gets to plant an orchard. If you are lucky you will get to plant one, or probably at the most two orchards. The greatest limiting factor to having your own orchard is space. Many of you who read this site will be people that have an active interest in self-sustainability and are owners or are soon-to-be potential owners of a smallholding or farm. Our family did the rural migration about 7 years ago and have not looked back since. We are still learning the lessons and enjoying every step of it. However, even if you are not looking at a smallholding and are more interested in urban self sustainability, you should not feel excluded. There are many ways that you can have your own producing fruit trees, first take out those botanical abominations, Flowering Plums, cherries and other useless exotic trees. They were designed for lazy gardeners that wanted the show and not the mess of dropped and rotting fruit. (They would not be dropped or rotting fruit if you used them!) Plant a fruit bearing tree in its place. If you are still limited for space you can plant dwarf trees into an old wine barrel or large pot. This gives you the additional versatility of have trees that would not normally grow in your area as you can move the tree out of frosts or killing winds in winter. A dwarf tree is generally created by grafting a normal tree onto dwarfing rootstock to keep the size down, either for small gardens or for putting into large pots. Have a chat to your local nurseries and see what they can do for you. Don’t make the mistake of planting a full-size tree into a pot, you will only come unstuck after a few years.
Another option for those with limited space, is to graft a number of varieties onto a single rootstock. They will need to be the same kind of tree naturally, apples onto apples, plums onto plums etc. I have a friend that has a few trees in his garden that have been multi-grafted and he grows 3 or four different peach varieties off a single tree, with each variety ripening slightly later than the next, so he has a constant flow of peaches. There are many ways for you to get around the space issue, all it takes is a bit of imagination.
One of my dreams was to have my own orchard with fruit and nut trees that would provide my family with wholesome produce. It is not our intention to have a commercial operation, just one that would provide for us and possibly a bit left over to barter with neighbours and friends. So based on that departure point, we started planning what fruit trees we could plant. My initial idea was to have an orchard where different trees produced fruit over the whole summer season. Mainly because we could have fresh fruit available for our own consumption for an entire season, without having to resort to the grocer for fresh fruit. Secondly, we could stagger our fruit preserving over the whole season so that we would not be inundated with bucket loads of fruit in a space of just a few weeks or months. Next, we would have lower waste as the chances of getting tired of a particular type of fruit would be reduced. Lastly anything that did go to waste could be re-cycled into pork and provide us with another healthy, organic protein source.
Now, I’m a great believer in learning from someone else’s mistakes and hard earned lessons. So we set about chatting to nurserymen and owners of existing orchards, specifically asking them what to plant and how to go about creating the ultimate orchard. Each person has their own ideas as to what the best way is to plant an orchard. What we did was take all of the advice and distil it to our circumstances. I would like to set this down mainly to get people excited to plant their own orchard and secondly, those that are thinking of creating an orchard, NOW IS THE TIME. Winter is one of the best times to plant fruit trees, Spring is possibly the second best.
The first thing that we learnt was that an orchard that has staggered ripening is possibly one of the worst planting methods. Especially if one is looking at an organic orchard where the closest thing to a harmful chemical or pesticide is the exhaust fumes from our milk cow. Next come pests, fruit fly is one of the prime threats to your ripening fruit. Having staggered ripening will give fruit flies and other pests a start in early summer and allow them to increase exponentially through the rest of the season, almost guaranteeing a total crop failure in late summer and autumn. Based on that information we opted for an early ripening orchard. We would rather have a lot of work early in the season and minimal fruit loss than loose fruit to fruit fly and other orchard and fruit pests. A late ripening orchard was also a possibility, however we decided that due to the number of established fruit trees on neighbouring farms we would do better to get our harvest in before pests made the move from those trees onto ours. We finally planted a 38 tree orchard with mixed fruit from apples, pears, two kinds of nuts, cherries, pomegranates, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, olives, fig and a few others. We also planted 3 kinds of grapes and are busy with our berry section. The only fruit that is still outstanding on my list are Kiwi fruit and I have reserved a special place for those vines, when I find a supplier with both male and female vines. All in all, our orchard will provide enough for our families seasonal fresh fruit, annual jam requirements, dried fruit and some left over for me to play backyard brewer with. Any waste goes to the pigs or sheep. So all in all it’s a balanced orchard that will allow us to have a broad spectrum of fruit and a busy early summer preserving and drying.
Something else to look at are ‘bridge trees’ these are trees that ripen in the ‘off’ season and allow pests to survive and gain an early foothold in the next growing season, one of the most common is the loquat. The Loquat is a winter bearing tree that will give pests a source of sustenance and accommodation in the off season when the pests should be dormant, killed by the cold or lack of food. So if you specifically want one of these trees plan accordingly. Unfortunately you may need to resort to chemical remedies in this situation.
I’m not going to spend much time on what trees to plant as each area in South Africa has particular types of trees that will do better than in other areas. We live on the Highveld and would dearly love citrus trees in our orchard, but with winters that can get to – 8 C so this is not an option for us. But we do grow stunning nectarines, peaches and other deciduous fruits like sweet cherries, almonds, apples and apricots. Something that many people cannot grow as they do not have the required cold for proper dormancy of stone fruits. Speaking of cold requirements, many fruits require a period of cold to set fruit properly. This is typically termed as chill units, and trees (depending on variety) require between 300 and 700 hours of chill for them to complete their dormancy correctly and set fruit properly the next season. The trees that are most affected by chill units are deciduous trees. Chill units are counted as temperatures below 18 Deg C. The chill units are also offset by warm days or nights and typically you would like an extended run of cold to ensure a good fruit set. So if you are in a warm area and would like to have deciduous stone fruit, check your annual weather charts and work out if a stone fruit will produce in your area, just because a tree is available in your local nursery does not mean that it will produce in your garden. Growing and producing are two totally different things. I for one will always think twice about buying from a nursery that is offering fruit trees that are not suited to my area. Especially if they do not give the correct advice or caution about it’s bearing ability in your area.
So your best bet is to speak to the local growers in your area, they should be your first stop. They have been growing fruit trees in the area for years an they will know what works. I’m horrified at some nurseries that offer totally inappropriate fruit trees to new or unsuspecting gardeners and will sell unsuitable trees without batting an eye. Take a drive down some back roads and stop in at a few farms where you see fruit trees growing and have a chat, hey you might even make a new friend or mentor, it’s also the perfect way to find your dream property.
Finally a word on planting your trees, all fruit trees like well drained soil, so dig your holes 1 meter cubed, it’s a fair whack of work but at the end of the day (actually 3 or 4 years later) you will be well pleased with the results. We fill the hole with 100% pure compost that has been well compacted and then back fill the last 30 cm with topsoil. In addition, before the hole is filled we insert a length of 40mm black irrigation pipe that we use to water the trees. Our trees get watered once a week via this pipe and all the water is then directed at the root level and ensures water conservation and water retention in the soil. The trees roots will also become established at a lower level thus ensuring that the tree is well anchored. Finally, every 6 months each tree gets two barrow loads of compost added to the top surface where it creates a living mulch encouraging earthworm and beneficial gogga populations to aid in soil health.