Planting an orchard is an investment in the future of your homestead. Though the harvest will take years to arrive, putting down roots on your land now shows your commitment to sustainability and faith in the eventual “fruits” of your labor. This is what the essence of homesteading is all about.
Orchards and homesteading have a long history together. In fact, the very first homesteader in U.S. history improved his property with plantings of peach and apple trees. If you’re ready to plant an orchard on your property, answer these three questions in your planning to avoid costly mistakes and unhappy fruit trees:
How Much Space Can You Devote to an Orchard?
Fruit trees require full sun for at least eight hours a day for best production, so you must choose a site that isn’t shaded by buildings or a hedgerow. The ideal spot is a south-facing slope, which will allow for plenty of sun and also provide good drainage. Once you have a spot in mind, measure your square footage and make a plot on graph paper to help you plan where to site your trees.
Now that you’ve figured out your horizontal real estate, it’s time to think vertically. Standard fruit trees range in height from 12 to 20 feet at maturity, depending on the variety. Planting tall trees means investing in specialized equipment to prune branches and harvest fruit. Standard trees provide outstanding yields, but if you aren’t comfortable with heights, dwarf or semi-dwarfs that top out at eight to 10 feet may be a better choice.
What Grows Best in Your Area?
You may love clementines, but there’s a reason most are imported from Spain. Few areas in the United States offer the long, hot growing season required by most citrus fruits. Make sure you plant fruit that will do well in your climate.
You’ll also need to decide which specific variety of each fruit you’d like to grow. Breeders have developed variations for different climates, disease resistance, shelf life and flavor, so chances are good you can find one that meets your needs. Planting trees that are only borderline successful in your area will mean a lifetime of babying the plant with extra care and only getting small yields, so choose wisely.
What Will You Do With Your Harvest?
If you’re only planning to eat your fruit fresh, you won’t need a big orchard at all. Most homesteaders are interested in preserving winter stores, though, and some varieties of fruit are specifically bred for their storage qualities, including freezing, canning and shelf life.
If you are planning to sell a portion of your harvest at a local farmers' market or personal farm stand, shelf life may be less of a consideration than appearance or flavor. If you live in an area with a strong market for heirloom varieties, rare specimens can be a good investment to command a higher price at market.
There’s more than one way to plant a homestead orchard, and your ultimate design will depend on your site, climate and what you plan to do with all the fruit you pick. Deciding what you want out of your home orchard is the first step in making a successful investment your future harvest, so consider carefully before planting that first tree.