Choosing trees and shrubs for the home orchard
The first "seed" catalogs of the year are always the tree catalogs, and now is a good time to begin siting and planning for next year's tree stock. We try to add trees to our home orchard every single year, sometimes just a couple, sometimes more.
Now with 27 acres, it may seem that our choices are very different than yours, but in fact, with a large herd of goats, the areas that we can ensure are 100% goat-proof are no larger than many people's good-sized yards. Moreover, because of our cold climate, we have to site many of our most sensitive trees and shrubs in an area the smaller than many urban courtyards. While our area has seen -30 more than once (although technically we're in zone 5, our elevation makes it colder), we have a smaller, southfacing area protected on three sides by our house that was Eric's grandparents garden. It has the best soil on the property (it was trucked in ;-)), and some of the best drainage, but most of all, has a dramatically different microclimate than the rest of our property. Here we grow peaches, apricots, quinces and medlars. otherwise much too tender for our place.
In many ways, we are dealing with the same constraints in orchard planning that those on much smaller pieces of property are dealing with - never as much space as we'd like, limitations of climate and soil, etc... still, we are finally, after 10 years, making significant inroads into our family's considerable appetite for fresh and preserved fruit. We've learned a few major lessons in the meantime, that perhaps you can learn from me more quickly, and without as many mistakes ;-).
The five fruit trees - two apricots, two apples and a quince that we planted on one of the first days after we arrived in our new home 10 years ago are all gone, and they revealed with the wisdom of a lesson I knew, but ignored - don't plant fruit trees the minute you arrive in a place. It takes a year of watching land for sun, soil, and water - and sometimes longer to learn what your plans are. We looked at the "zone 5" designation and assumed that everything would survive here if they had the same numbers on it. In fact, that is, as any gardener worth their salt knew, ridiculous (in our defense, this was the very first time we'd lived anywhere we could plant trees and we were very excited). The first two apricots sulked for three years and succumbed to cold and wet. One of the apples and the quince did very well - but were sited on the sunny northwest slope right behind the house - exactly where later, when Eric's grandparents changed their minds about having a small separate house built and wanted to be closer to us, we would build the addition. Neither survived being moved again. The final apple tree was planted at what I thought was a perfectly reasonable distance back from the driveway to keep it safe from the snowplows. It didn't even make it through that first winter ;-).
The second lesson we learned is how productive making good use of microclimates can be - we have a sheltered area near our house that is several zones higher than the rest of the property - and by making good use of that, we have been able to not only grow warmer climate fruit, but also to minimize pest and disease issues, because so few people near us grow peaches or apricots, we don't have the same trouble we have with transmitted diseases that we would have in an area where they were more common. Again, this is a watch, wait, learn thing - although we've found that if you have cats, they are invariable identifiers of the warmest spots, inside and out.
On a related note, expanding our horizons fruit-wise had been a good thing for us. Quinces, medlars, the aforementioned peaches and apricots, and unusual fruits like Aronia have tended to do well here, in part probably because so few other people were growing them. It does involve a shift in the way we eat - but mostly a pleasurable one.
Still another lesson has been to think hard about the preservation value of the fruits we've been choosing. - because most families won't eat a couple of trees worth of fruit in the period where it comes ripe, it is worth asking some significant questions. Does it store well as is? Does it come ripe over a long period, or have to be dealt with all at once? Does it ripen at a time when I have the ability to preserve it? How does my family like this preserved? What kinds of preservation might be open to me? Sometimes people write me telling me that they don't eat jam or like sauce, so what can they do with things? There are often other options, but really, if you don't want to preserve something and you don't have a large family or lots of friends to share with, a very few trees, or one or none are going to be enough.
For us, devout apple eaters, getting a full season of apples has been a priority. We want apples as close to all year round as possible, so we emphasize long storing varieties (Mutsu and winesap are our best keepers in the imperfect conditions we can manage, usually lasting into April), as well as early apples that get us started again as early as we can. Other families might be content to enjoy apples only in the fall and early winter. In warmer climates, where citrus produces all winter apples may be an occasional treat.
Filling the early gap between the last winter fruits and the first strawberries has been a priority - we are experimenting with honey berries to see if they are worth the effort, because they produce in late May here, during a season when there's not much but rhubarb.
If you can only fit in a very few trees, or if you need your fruit to be portable, in large barrels, because you may move or don't own, choose what you like best for fresh eating. There's nothing like juice dripping down your chin or the first taste of a ripe fig, so make sure you get that if nothing else. If you can expand into preservation, so much the better, but in many places bulk purchase for preservation or pick-your-owns can fill that gap for those without much space.
We've found that hegelkulture, or mound beds help us with drainage and fertility issues, and that our trees do best when planted in mixed plantings - the exception to this are plums, which seem to pollinate best when planted very close together. Most of our shrubs aren't as fussy.
The most important lesson we've used is to think creatively about hard-to-use spaces. We knew that in terms of organic production, wet areas can be more productive than cultivated farmland in nature - but we wondered if it was possible to begin shifting wet areas that had been turned into (mushy) pasture into vibrant, diverse food, fiber and fuel producing areas that support both wildlife and us, and our early explorations fo this have been quite successful. Coppiced willow hay helps feed our goats all winter in wet areas. Elderberries, cranberry viburnum and blueberries along with swamp white oaks, alders and wetland herbs like marshmallow and blue vervain combine to create diverse and extremely productive areas. We certainly haven't maximized production, but we are seeing the possibilities expand before us.
Learning to do things ourselves has been another lesson - at first we were limited to what trees were available in catalogs, and while there is a wonderful selection out there, it can get expensive. We've learned to do some grafting and much more propagation - layering alone can get you dozens of lovely shrubs. By talking to neighbors and taking cuttings and working with their extras, we've found that it is possible to get more plants than we thought possible.
Over the years we've made better choices, and while we still aren't keeping up with the fruit desires of our voracious herd of little boys, we get closer every year.