Starting an orchard and growing fruit on your homestead is one of the most rewarding of our food production. But it can also be frustrating if you've planted and aren't getting any fruit or a low harvest. We'll talk about the proper steps to ensure a good harvest when putting in an orchard and how to add to your existing orchard for better harvest, aka, more fruit!!
Learn how to start an orchard with the correct fruit trees and berry plants for your climate. Why choosing the correct variety and pollination type is the difference between hardly any fruit and bushels of harvest for years to come, how to select the right plants and trees for your property.
I share our fruit orchard and berry tips, as well as the mistakes we made so you don't make them, and how to choose which fruit and berry plants to add in this year.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #169 5 Tips to Starting an Orchard and Growing Fruit , of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
Starting an Orchard On Your Homestead
Why bother growing your own fruit?
Having an orchard and fruit production on your own land is an amazing thing. There is a vast difference not only in price, but also in taste when you have homegrown, vine-ripened food, especially when it comes to your fruit. Good news, starting an orchard even if you don't have a lot of acreage is very doable!
I love fresh, ripe strawberries. They’re one of my favorite things! Years ago, I'd see them on the shelf at the store and they'd be pretty and red and I would buy them and every single time I would be totally disappointed because they were flavorless! And then I'd get irritated with myself because those little pint-sized packages of berries can be four, five, even six dollars or more at the store.
Thankfully I can now say that we have not purchased berries or fruit from the store in years. We grow almost all of our own fruit here on our homestead, and then preserve it and put it up, so I don't have to buy it from the store.
We're not only saving money, but the flavor difference is like night and day. If you've only had fruit from the store and you’ve never had it fresh-picked and allowed to ripen fully on the vine, then you really do't know what you're missing! And you’ve gotta go get yourself some berry and fruit plants this year.
But before you rush off and plant your orchard, there are a few things you should know…
How Long Before You Get Fruit
While growing your own fruit at home is an absolute must (in my humble opinion), one caveat is that it often takes a few years before you’ll actually get a harvest from any of your fruit trees or plants. So if you’re just renting or living somewhere temporarily or you’re expecting to get a large harvest right away, you might want to hold off on planting certain types of fruit trees and plants.
Typically you aren’t going to get much of a harvest from fruit trees until those trees are about seven years old. This includes cherries, apples, plums, pears, peaches…fruit that grows on actual trees.
If you want to get fruit faster, you do have the option of purchasing trees from nurseries that are already two or three years old. But generally you’re in it for the long haul when you're planting fruit trees and it’s going to take some time before you get any sort of a significant harvest.
You can also get bare root trees that are usually only one or two years old max, so then you're looking at five years of growing time. They're not quite as old, but they aren't as expensive either and you can get them through the mail because they do not come in a pot with soil (hence their name, “bare root plants.”)
Now, you need to put bare root plants in the ground near the end of winter/beginning of spring, depending on where you live. But as long as your ground is thawed enough, and it's not covered with feet of snow, then you can go ahead and plant your bare root plants from January clear up until the first part of spring. Ideally you need to get them in the ground and planted before they start to bud out and blossom.
Fruit trees that come in containers with their roots in soil, on the other hand, can pretty much be put in at any time of year. It's best to avoid planting in summer as the roots won't have a chance to become established and coupled with heat, will likely die.
Berry plants will give you a harvest much sooner than fruit trees. You do, however, need to have a few more berry bushes or berry plants than you would have fruit trees in order to get the same yield when it comes time to harvest.
For example, you might get enough apples to last you the entire year off of a single mature apple tree, whereas a single blueberry bush won’t produce the same number of blueberries, so you’ll probably want to get a few berry plants for every one fruit tree you put in. The flip side, of course, is that you’ll get a harvest from things like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and elderberries in their second or third year.
Another benefit of growing berries is that they're smaller, which means you don't need a lot of land to grow them. In fact, strawberries and even dwarf varieties of blueberries can be grown in containers so you don’t really even need any land at all. You can even grow some dwarf fruit tree varieties in large containers as well.
How to Pick Your Fruit and Berry Plants When Starting an Orchard
If you’re looking to add some fruit into your gardening and you’re trying to decide what to add, there are a few things you'll need to consider before you plant:
- What types of fruits does your family most enjoy eating?
- How much space (and sunlight) do you have on your property?
- Is your soil good for growing fruit plants?
- Does your area and garden zone provide enough chill hours for your fruit plants to thrive?
- Do you you have (or need to add) plants and trees that will cross-pollinate with each other if necessary?
Choosing Fruit Varieties That Are Right For Your Family
The first thing you should consider when starting an orchard is what types of fruits your family enjoys eating! What types of fruits do you find yourself buying at the store most often? Consider which of those fruits will grow in your climate and start off by choosing one or two varieties from that list. You can always add more every year.
We grow apples, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, peaches, elderberries, and blackberries. But just start with one or two (or maybe three) varieties and go from there. Don’t overwhelm yourself by planting too many new things at once.
Another important thing to consider is the space that you have available to plant and the locations that get the most sun on your property. Fruit trees and berries really do need to be in full sun. There's some varieties that will tolerate a little bit of afternoon shade, but in order to get a really good harvest most fruit tree need at least eight or more hours of full sun in the spring and summer months.
Best Fruits to Grow In Small Spaces
If you don't have a very big yard you’re probably going to look at putting in some fruit bushes and plants.
The best fruit plants for small spaces are berries:
Blueberries and elderberries (you'll need to keep elderberries pruned back) are particularly good candidates because they’re really easy to tuck into the existing landscape, even into existing flower beds. They also have a shallow root system, so you don't have to worry about digging as deep. And they don't produce via runners, so they're not going to need more space because they'll multiply (as in the case of raspberries). Plus, their beautiful foliage makes a nice visual addition to your landscape during the spring, summer and fall.
Strawberries grow well in containers and, even though they grow runners, they can easily be divided into new containers or the runners can be cut off.
Raspberries need a bit more space but you could easily grow them along a fence in a fairly small garden.
The Right Soil Matters
Another important thing to think about is that most berry plants and even some fruit trees prefer more acidic soil, so if your soil is more alkaline then you’ll want to amend it before putting in berry plants (especially blueberries, raspberries and elderberries).
You can learn more about how to find out your soil’s pH balance and how to amend it here: Episode #135 How to Test Soil Ph & Mistakes to Avoid When Amending Acidic or Alkaline Soil so that you can make sure that you're putting those fruit trees and berry bushes into soil that is going to give them what they need to give you a bountiful harvest for years to come.
Types of Fruit Trees
When it comes to fruit trees, you’ve got three main types:
- semi dwarf
The type(s) you choose will depend a lot on what sort of space and timeframe you're working with.
Standards are full sized varieties of trees. They can get up to 25+ feet tall when fully mature. My parents have standard apple trees that are over 60 years old and still producing. These are the big boys.
Semi dwarfs, as their name suggests, are not quite full-sized, but not quite dwarfs either. They’re right in the middle, usually between 12 to 15 feet tall and pretty wides. But they still have a really good life span on them. They're gonna give you fruit for 20, 30 or 40+ years.
Then you've got your dwarfs. These are the ones that can be grown in containers. Usually they get between 8 to 10 feet tall when fully matured. They have a shorter life span of 15 to 25 years of bearing fruit.
Personally we put in semi dwarfs on our homestead. All of ours are semi dwarf. You need to look at the space that you have available and the lifespan of the trees to decide which type you're going to be putting in.
Chill Hours needed to produce fruit
The next thing that you really need to look at when you're putting in your fruit trees and/or your berry plants is something called chill hours.
Chill hours are basically the number of low-temperature hours that certain plants (ie. blueberries) need to go through in the winter in order to produce blossoms and set fruit. Apple trees, blueberries, and quite a number of other fruit plants do require chill hours, so be sure to investigate before you decide what to plant if you think your winters may be too mild.
First you need to know your gardening zone. That’s going to help you a lot. Then for your area you also need to know what the average amount of chill hours are for your area. So on average how many hours in a year is it between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit where you live? If you’re not sure you can you can look all of this information up online or ask about at your local garden supply store.
Once we’ve established which fruits and berries our family loves most, what type of space, sunlight and soil we’ve got to work with and whether we have enough chill hours for the fruit that we want to be putting in, there’s one more thing we need to consider before we go and purchase or add in any new fruit trees or bushes: pollination.
Within your fruit trees alone you’ve got cross-pollinating varieties, self-pollinating varieties, and then you even have something called triploid when it comes to apples.
Fruit trees produce blossoms, and anything that produces a blossom needs to be pollinated in order to produce fruit.
Self-Pollinating vs. Cross-Pollinating Fruit and Berries
Blossoms on plants that are self-pollinating have both the male and the female part inside that blossom, so it pollinates itself without any outside help. Self-pollinating plants include tomatoes, beans and legumes.
When it comes to your fruit you've got some varieties that are self-pollinating and some that aren’t. It’s really crucial when you're putting in fruit trees that you know whether what you’re planting is self-pollinating, or whether it requires cross pollination.
When it comes to your cross-pollinating varieties, you need a different variety of the same type of fruit to cross-pollinate with. For example, if you're starting a home apple orchard, you’ll still cross-pollinate an apple tree with another apple tree, but you’ll need a different variety of apple tree.
If youI have two Honeycrisp apple trees they're not going to pollinate each other. You need to have a cross pollinating variety that will cross pollinate with a Honeycrisp somewhere nearby. Then you need a pollinator (usually bees or other insects, although sometimes wind if the trees are close enough) to take the pollen from one blossom on the one variety to the other blossom on the other variety. Only then will they actually form the fruit that we will eventually harvest and eat.
Even self-pollinating varieties of apples will give you more of a harvest and do better if they have a cross-pollinating variety nearby them. With apples you can even have varieties that are called triploids that will not pollinate anything else. Even though they produce blossoms they unable to pollinate your other varieties.
A great solution for pollinating apple trees is to plant a crab apple tree in your orchard.
Crab apples are great because they will pollinate with just about every other apple variety and they have two bloom sets, which means there are blooms on the tree for a longer period of time than almost any other variety. This is helpful because whether you have other apple trees that bloom early or late in the season, the crab apple tree will most likely be in bloom at the same time and can therefore cross-pollinate with the other trees.
Learn from our mistakes
We made so many mistakes when we first started planting our fruit trees. For starters, we paid no attention to cross—pollination requirements. I just bought all of our fruit trees according to what was on sale. I wanted a plum, so I bought a plum without really understanding it and what it needed. We had Gravenstein and Honeycrisp apples because that’s what we enjoyed eating, unaware that Gravenstein apples would not help to pollinate anything else in the orchard.
We also made the mistake of planting fruit trees in the winter months when our maple trees didn't have any leaves on them, so they weren't casting any shadows. I thought I was putting my trees in full open sun. Then came spring and summer and those maples leafed out and my poor fruit trees were stuck in the shade for almost the entire day. So be very diligent when you're deciding where to put your trees and plants.
You can move the trees if you need to when they're still little. You can do it when they're older and more mature too, but you’ll most likely need a backhoe. We moved ours by hand with a shovel because they were small enough. But whenever you move them you're really setting them back an entire year because it takes the root system time to establish once again, so try your best to plant them in the right spot the first time.
So, to recap, before you choose what fruits you want to add to your own property, you need to consider
- what types and varieties of fruit your family enjoys eating most
- how much space and sunlight you have (remember to take into account what your landscape looks like when everything is leafed out and in full bloom)
- whether your soil is acidic enough for the fruits plants you want to add
- whether you have a sufficient number of chill hours for the plants you want to add
- whether you have plants and trees that will cross-pollinate with each other if necessary
Adding New Fruit Varieties To Your Orchard For Maximum Yields
Ask yourself the following questions to help you decide what fruit plants to add to your property:
- What needs to be replaced?
- Do you need more cross-pollinating plants?
- What plants do you want to add more of?
- What new varieties do you want to try?
We first put in our mini orchard about 10 or 11 years ago. Last year I added in two elderberry bushes, so that they would be able to cross pollinate with each other. I added them into our existing landscape, so that they look pretty around our back patio.
This year I need to add in some new raspberries. The past two years they’ve been declining. I haven’t been getting very strong, good, new canes. I didn't have them netted and my chickens got into them and exposed all of the roots during a really hot part of summer. They just never really bounced back from that drought and getting their roots all torn up during a critical part of their growing season.
So I’m ordering new raspberry plants to put in with the few that I have that are doing good, and replacing some of the ones that have just been waning and haven't been giving a good harvest.
For existing orchards
If you've already got an existing orchard, ask yourself if you need to add in some new cross-pollinating varieties, or whether you have some older plants, or trees that need to be replaced. Now if it's just a disease, or a soil issue that's a different thing. You'll need to attend to that and not just yank it out and put in something new because you're just going to have the same problems.
Of course you should also just have a little fun and choose new varieties that you want to try out. I'm gonna try a couple of different varieties of raspberries this year so hopefully I'll extend my harvesting season by having having my raspberries produce from summer right into fall.
Have fun. Take some time now to look at seed catalogues and dream about your someday orchard. But remember to start small and then add more as you go.
What fruit trees and bushes do you plan on adding to your property this year or are you starting an orchard for the first time? I’d love to know so leave a comment for me below!