Planting out the orchard

It was many weeks ago when the last of our orchard trees arrived. As the planting site was not ready and the weather was poor, we healed them in, in one of the vegetable beds. Before we ordered the trees we had found somebody to give us a hand preparing the planting sites, as this is quite a big job with 18 trees to deal with, but we were let down and it took a while to find somebody else to help us out. Last week, though, we finished moving them from their temporary site to the orchard. I am sure that the healing in is not detrimental, and it is, or at least was, a common enough practice, but one ought to plant out whilst the trees are still dormant. Thanks to the mild spring, they broke into growth early this year, and it was rather late to move them. We had no choice, however, so moved them with as much care as possible, aiming to minimise the disturbance of the new root growth.

Orchard layout
Orchard layout

Last year we planted a chestnut and walnut at the end of the plot. This year we added six apples, three pears, one each of gage, plum, damson, quince, crab apple, medlar, and mulberry, and two almonds. We have some hazels, inoculated with truffle fungus, to plant out later, once they have grown on for a while.

We had marked out the site some weeks ago, placing stakes where the trees were to be planted. Aside from the mulberry, which we have given more space at the far end of the plot where the chestnut and walnut are located, the trees are spaced on a grid at intervals of fourteen feet. The size of a mature tree depends on various factors including the vigour of the rootstock, the vigour of the scion variety, the soil conditions, and the pruning regime. The rootstocks chosen for the orchard trees are all semi-vigorous: MM106 for the apples, Quince A for the pears, and St Julien A for the plums and almonds. These can produce mature trees of around 12 to 14 feet in height and spread, with the plums being perhaps a little smaller. Our ground, though, is not ideal for the development of tree roots. After cultivation, the soil is good for the kitchen garden, but in its uncultivated state it is very compact and rather stony, the surrounding area being used for gravel extraction. At least it is not prone to becoming waterlogged.

We are all too aware of the problems the soil conditions pose to tree roots, as we had several trees to remove from the kitchen garden site. None of these had flourished and none had produced a good root system. Some had become bound up in their planting holes, whilst others produced a network of very shallow roots. This is a little worrying for the orchard. However, more encouragingly we do have couple of old apple trees nearer the house; neither is in good shape now, to the extent that I decided that rejuvenation was probably not worthwhile, however they have both developed to a good size. In any event, without heavy machinery, there is little that can be done to improve matters. We did our best to give the trees a good start. The turf was removed for some four or five feet around the planting position and a good sized hole dug out for the root ball to a little more than a spade’s depth. The bottom of the hole was thoroughly loosened with a fork to the depth of another foot or so. A good bucket of manure was mixed in with the soil along with a handful of bone meal, which is reckoned to be beneficial for root growth.

Each tree was positioned in the planting hole and the best orientation chosen. A robust stake was then driven into the sub soil avoiding the roots. The stake was cut off at an appropriate height; there is no need for a tall stake – it is there primarily to protect the root ball from excessive movement. The trees were planted in the usual way, paying attention to the previous soil mark so as to ensure that they are positioned at the same depth. The soil was partly filled around the roots, firmed and watered in, then the soil topped up. The trunks were secured to the stakes with proper tree buckles. All but the almonds were one year old; some were whips whilst others were a little feathered. Any laterals below the tree buckle were cut close to the trunk, and any new shoots were rubbed off, before a spiral guard was placed around the trunk to prevent damage from our healthy rabbit population.

The orchard
The orchard

We needed to decide on the final form of the trees, as this determines the pruning needed at this stage. The formative pruning, over the course of the first three or four years, is critical in developing a healthy, robust, and productive structure. Apart from the almonds, which are discussed below, there are three main options for our orchard trees: bush, half standard, or standard. There are other methods, of course, especially for modern commercial orchards planted at high densities, but these are the forms one would consider for a traditional orchard setting. The pruning regime is more or less identical for these three forms, and the boundaries between them are rather blurred, with different authorities suggesting different heights. A standard is the largest form, with a clear trunk of six feet or so. One can walk below the trees and animals can comfortably graze the grass beneath. Harvesting, though, is difficult, as most of the fruit will be out of reach, and even with ladders it would not be an easy task. A half standard has a clear trunk of something around 4 feet. The canopy is thus lower and harvesting somewhat easier, but a ladder will still be needed for fruit high in the canopy. A bush has only a foot or two of clear trunk, branching low down, with much of the fruit within reach. It is usual to select a rootstock suitable for the form, such that a bush would tend to be grown on a weaker rootstock than a standard.

In our situation we want good sized trees, but also need to be able to move between the rows and, once the grass returns, strim around the trunks. On the other hand, I do not want the height and challenging picking of a standard. For a standard I would have chosen a more vigorous rootstock, such as M25 for apples, Pyrodwarf for pears, which, despite its name, is more vigorous than Quince A, and Brompton for plums. The chosen stocks, though, are ideal for a half standard, and, especially on our compact stony soil, a good sized bush. In the end, I opted for something between a bush and a half standard, with around 2.5 to 3 feet of clear trunk. With pruning, I hope to keep the size quite manageable, and, with the trees planted 14 feet apart, there should be comfortable walking space between them. They should be plenty large enough both to provide a good yield and to look fitting in this orchard setting.

Once the height of clear trunk has been decided, pruning is a simple matter. Assuming that one is beginning with a maiden, first, remove all existing laterals and rub out any developing shoots to provide the desired height of clear trunk. Depending on the state of the maiden there may be nothing that needs removing at this stage. Second, just above the length of bare trunk, identify some suitable buds that could form 3 or 4 main branches. These should be reasonably well spaced around the trunk, and I like to leave plenty of candidates at this stage. The leader is cut above the topmost of these buds, with a sloping cut away from the bud. For a standard, and perhaps even a half standard, the main stem may not yet be sufficiently tall and may need to grow on for some time before it can be headed. On the few feathered maidens that had some potential branches already in place, these were cut back quite hard to outward facing buds. In the first winter pruning following planting, the 3 or 4 chosen branches will be cut back significantly, removing two thirds to half of their length. They will be cut back to outward facing buds to encourage an open centred goblet shape to develop, which allows good air circulation and light penetration. Any growth below these will be removed entirely, and any laterals arising from the chosen branches will be cut back to something like 3 buds beyond the basal cluster. The following winter will see a similar approach taken, after which point the trees should be firmly established with well placed main branches strong enough to bear fruit.

For the almonds, our chosen varieties came in two different forms – one tall and feathered and the other a bush. For the feathered tree, the leader was cut back at a similar height to the bush form, and the feathered branches pruned back fairly hard to outward facing buds. Both will be developed now as modest sized bushes.

Many trees are now sold on rather weak rootstocks. These need permanent staking and do not do so well with grass growing around the trees. In the traditional orchard setting, the staking is typically temporary and grass will usually be allowed to grow around the trees. With our chosen rootstocks, the stakes will probably be unnecessary after three or four years, and the trees will tolerate low vegetation growing around them. As mentioned above, we removed a good area of turf from around the planting hole; perhaps this might have been unnecessary, but it does give them some time to get established before they must compete with other vegetation.

Until they become established, and certainly for the first year, they will need watering during dry spells. Aside from irrigation, though, little else should be needed now until the first winter pruning.

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