Some Common Orchard Questions
Some Common Orchard Questions

Some Common Orchard Questions

reprinted from Urban Homestead

What kind of site works best for an orchard? Fruit trees should always be planted in a sunny location. Full sun encourages vigorous growth, while discouraging fungal disease. A minimum of six hours of sun is requisite. Avoid planting near the edge of a woods, which may seem sunny, but allows little direct light. Also, choose a site that has good, but not excessive, air flow. Upland slopes that run perpendicular to prevailing winds are the ideal. Valleys often have troublesome frost pockets; hilltops expose trees to temperature extremes and drying winds. Aspect is also important. Pome fruits prefer a cooler northeast or northwest exposure, but will produce well on all but a very hot southern face. (Stone fruits do best on a more southerly exposure.) Do not plant apple trees near black walnut trees, which have a toxin in their roots. The ideal pH for an apple tree is 6.5.

When should I plant? Apples can be planted spring or fall as long as they are dormant. We recommend fall planting, from the middle of November to the end of the year, for most parts of Virginia and the South. Fall planting allows a tree to get its roots established before putting out new growth. The old-time rule is: A fallplanted tree gets an extra half-year’s growth by the end of its first season. In the North and the West, spring planting is the general rule, as this avoids exposing trees to extremely cold temperatures and harsh, prairie winds.

How big should I dig the hole? And do the trees need to be staked? For most trees, a hole 2’ across and 18” deep is sufficient. We provide complete planting instructions with each order. It is a good idea to stake large (4-6’) trees their first year or two. This keeps the tree from moving around in windy weather, thereby breaking tender rootlets.

How far should I space the trees? Semi-dwarf trees should be spaced 18-25’ apart. Some growers say that the wider spacing makes for easier management. Semi-dwarf trees may be converted to standard or full-size trees by planting the graft union below ground. Standard trees should be spaced 30-40’ apart.

Should I prune the trees at planting? Yes, pruning compensates for root loss and makes for sturdier branch structure. Head one-year whips to about 3’. Prune two and three-year trees as follows: Remove any broken branches. Thin branches that are crowded or rubbing. Prune last year’s growth back about half. Space lateral branches 6-18” apart on the central leader. This spacing may seem severe at first, especially with a young tree. But giving proper space to laterals, early on, eliminates a “clump” of low branches that can end up competing for dominance with the central leader. If side branches cannot be spaced properly at planting time, they may be removed in subsequent years, when other, better spaced, laterals develop. For more information on pruning consider investing in a copy of Michael Phillips’ Apple Grower.

How many trees should I start out with? And what varieties do you recommend? Twelve to fifteen trees is a good number to work with if you are new to home orcharding. More than that and you may end up with more apple chores than you want. For a harvest of different kinds of apples over an entire season, we recommend our Nurseryman’s Dozen, thirteen of our top varieties listed here in their general order of ripening: Yellow Transparent, Carolina Red June, Lyman’s Large Summer, Summer Rambo, Benham, Fameuse, Grimes Golden, Wolf River, Winesap, Virginia Beauty, York Imperial, Black Limbertwig, and Arkansas Black.

When will my trees begin to bear? Most varieties grafted onto EMLA 7 and EMLA 111 rootstocks are able to produce their first crop of apples 3 to 5 years after planting. Some of the more vigorous varieties such as Northern Spy, Wolf River and Twenty Ounce Pippin can take six years or longer to begin bearing. Occasionally a young tree will try to bear fruit its first or second year. It is tempting to allow the tree to do this, and to sample that first apple sooner than you expected. But the tree should not be allowed to fruit (the fruitlets removed), as fruit production requires so much energy that a young tree is easily stunted by it.

Should apple trees be mulched? Yes, deep mulch around a tree’s roots provides nutrients, and helps keep the soil moist. But be careful not to mulch too deeply at the trunk of the tree; this can cause the scion to take root, thus overriding the dwarfing effect of the grafted rootstock. Also, matted mulch material such as hay or straw is to be avoided. It provides habitat for over-wintering mice and voles, which can do great damage to a tree’s roots and trunks.

What about fertilizer and water? Regular waterings and a good organic fertilizer, applied two or three times a year, go a long way in making a healthy orchard. (In our nursery, we irrigate newly-set grafts when nature does not cooperate. For fertilizer we use bone meal, compost, soybean meal, and cottonseed meal.)

Should I be concerned about pollination? When planting only two or three trees, pollination can be a serious issue. Stayman Winesap, for instance, requires a pollinator tree to produce any fruit at all. Also, if a very early apple, say a Yellow Transparent, is planted with a very late apple, say an Arkansas Black, since the bloom times of these trees do not overlap, cross pollination will not occur, and fruit set will be poor. The easiest way to insure adequate pollination is to grow a good mix of varieties that fruit over an entire season. Also, it is a good idea to include one or two noted pollinator trees in your orchard. Some of the best pollinators are Golden Delicious, Grimes Golden, Hewes Crab, and Winter Banana. Varieties that provide little or no cross pollination include: Arkansas Black, Baldwin, Bramley’s Seedling, Jonagold, Spigold, Stayman Winesap, and Winesap. These trees must have a pollinator to produce fruit, but they do not provide viable pollen for a companion tree. Varieties that are self-fruitful include: Dolga Crab, Gala, Golden Delicious, Newtown Pippin, Rome Beauty, and Virginia Beauty. Theses trees bear fruit without cross pollination. Varieties that are partially self-fruitful include: Jonathan, Liberty, McIntosh, Thompkins County King, and Winter Banana. These varieties bear an adequate crop without cross pollination, a heavier crop with cross pollination.

Can I add new trees to my orchard by planting apple seeds? Yes, you can. That is what Johnny Appleseed did. And that is how many new American varieties came into being in the vast cider orchards of colonial America. But know also that seedling trees are usually nothing like the parent tree. An apple core over the back fence often yields a fruit of only passable, or even inferior, quality — the pomological equivalent of a mongrel dog. Only occasionally do all the stars, or chromosomes, line up to produce a superior apple. Still, if you are horticulturally inclined, we think that trying your hand at a few seedling trees is not a bad idea.

How can I learn to graft? There are number of good books available on grafting. The Grafter’s Handbook, by R. J. Garner is perhaps the best, and is commonly available at public libraries. Also, there is a fine bulletin on grafting, by Storey Publications, and also a nicely illustrated and more technical bulletin put out by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension.

For hands-on instruction in grafting, we would urge the serious hobbyist to consider joining a group of fruit fanciers called North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). NAFEXERS have been a great help to us over the years; we have made some fine friends in the group. In our estimation, attending the annual NAFEX meeting is like taking a graduate seminar in pomology. For more information, check out NAFEX online at

Can I grow applies in the deep South? Yes, but only a few varieties have what it takes to negotiate the South’s low-chill winters and hot, humid summers. Here is our list of “Heat Tolerant Varieties:” Arkansas Black, Ben Davis, Black Ben Davis, Buckingham, Grimes Golden, Horse Apple, Limbertwigs, Magnum Bonum, Mollies Delicious, Ralls Genet, Red June, Stayman Winesap, Winesap, York Imperial, Yates, (*will Fruit in Zone 8).

Also, for more information on this topic, see the article “Virginia Beauty and Her Kin: An Inside Look at Pomology’s Southern Belles,” in the October/ November 1996 issue of Mother Earth News.

Can I grow apples in the extreme North? Yes, there are a number of coldhardy cultivars that will do well in the North: Baldwin, Blue Pearmain, Carolina Red June, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Duchess of Oldenburg, Early Harvest, Fameuse, Freedom, Golden Russet, Liberty, Liveland Raspberry, McIntosh, Northern Spy, Red Astrachan, Salome, Sheeprose, Spartan, Sweet Sixteen, Wolf River, Yellow Transparent, (*hardy to Zone 4). Also, be careful not to use varieties that require a long growing season to ripen their fruit. Late sorts such as Arkansas Black, Ben Davis, Granny Smith, and Ralls Genet should be avoided for this reason.

Can I grow apples without using synthetic pesticides? That is the route we take. But we are not growing apple trees to sell fruit. Some diseases such as flyspeck and sooty blotch are largely cosmetic and can be tolerated. Other diseases such as scab, fire blight, cedar apple rust, mildew, and summer rots can be quite troublesome. To cut back on the incidence of disease, keep your orchard clean—pick up dropped fruits—and be careful about summer pruning which can open trees to fire blight infection. Also, the seasonal use of bordeaux, dormant oil, lime-sulfur, Tanglefoot and sticky traps plays an important role in maintaining a healthy orchard. In areas where disease pressure is very high, you likely will not be able to grow some of the more susceptible varieties. Your neighbors’ orchards are a good indicator of which sorts will do best in your area. Here is our list of the leathery survivors: Arkansas Black, Black Limbertwig, Freedom, Golden Russet, Grimes Golden, King David, Liberty, Liveland Raspberry, Mammoth Black Twig, Mollies Delicious, Mother, Myers Royal Limbertwig, Red Limbertwig, Roxbury Russet, Rusty Coat, Spartan, Sweet Sixteen, Yates, Yellow Transparent, York Imperial. Also, for more information on disease and pest management, check out Gardens Alive! at

How did you get interested in heirloom fruits? This is a question that cannot be answered in a few sentences. Though we come from a long line of nurserymen, we knew little about fruit varieties of the past when we began selling old-time apple trees in 1992. As one thing led to another, though, we began shaking the family tree and eventually turned up an apple thought to be extinct, the Reasor Green, first introduced to the nursery trade by our great-great-grandfather, C.C. Davis, in 1887. For more of the story, see the article “Apples of Your Eye” in the November 2002 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. An online version of the article is available at