Small Farm Fruit Gardens and Orchards

The following information on small farm fruit gardens and orchards comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

Whether or not the farm orchard and fruit garden, as ordinarily planted and mismanaged, is an asset or a liability to the “average” farm and the farmer is a debated question upon which the Missouri Experiment Station has published a bulletin (No. 307), not based upon speculative ideas but upon actual records made in a three-quarter acre orchard planted for this very purpose and maintained until 13 years old.

From the data presented it seems that efforts were made to imitate the hit or miss methods of the “average” farmer and to prove them slip-shod by the actual records. As this case is unique (at least, so far as I know) a rehearsal of its main points should serve as a warning to whoever is about to plant a fruit garden. I condense the main statements in the following paragraphs and, in brackets, add a few comments of my own.

Standard nursery stock was bought. It included 12 apple, 6 cherry, 3 plum, 4 peach, 4 pear, 8 nut, 13 currant, 12 gooseberry, 50 raspberry, 25 dewberry, 25 blackberry, and 12 grape. After planting, the land was cultivated for 3 years, though from then forward it was kept in grass to prevent further soil washing. During twelfth year some potatoes were planted. Spraying, pruning and other attention was given, not as professional fruit growers would do them but about as they would be done by the “average” farmer.

Cost items included nursery stock, harvesting, spraying labor and materials, cultivation, pruning and training, mowing and mulching, planting and staking, fertilizers and application, but not “overhead” such as rent of land, taxes and deterioration of tools.

Though the text does not specifically state that the planting was done piecemeal during several seasons the tabulated data show that strawberries were not planted until the fifth year, but from the sixth to the eleventh inclusive they bore annually. Raspberries bore sparingly from the fourth to the tenth; dewberries from the third to the tenth; blackberries from the third to the thirteenth; grapes from the fourth to the thirteenth; plums began during the fifth and except for one failure continued till the thirteenth; cherries began a year later and also missed one season until the thirteenth; peaches bore only three times, and only one of these times liberally; apples and pears did best of all—began to bear the fifth year and bore steadily increasing amounts of fruit annually.

The cost of plants, planting, developing and maintaining during the 13 years was $148.15, an average of $11.43 a year; total returns for this period were $341.66, a gross annual average of $26.28 or a net of $14.83 for the three-quarter acre, or at the rate of $19.76 an acre—less overhead. This $19.76 is approximately 13.33% on the total cost of the orchard ($148.15) or 6% on $326 for one year. Profits on the principal tree fruits should increase annually for another 10 to 25 or more years but cease long before that on all the small fruits except grapes. [With better planning, fertilizing, inter-cropping and cover cropping, returns should have been several times the amounts made.]

The bulletin calls specific attention to the “unfortunate” location of this orchard—on a slope which washed so badly that cultivation was abandoned and, about the third year, the area seeded to grass [a generally bad practice] except where strawberries and potatoes were planted. Mulching did not prove profitable; the fruit plants suffered from weed competition and reduced the yields of berries and grapes. It was found unprofitable to plant Persian walnut, southern pecan, almond and Japanese “heart-nut” because the wood or the buds are destroyed by low temperatures.

In spite of the record the bulletin declares: “Many may think that the home orchard will require an undue amount of work. This is not true for the home orchard of one acre or less in extent; in fact, the care amounts to so little that no farmer, if his work is properly managed, should be handicapped or delayed in handling other farm enterprises.”

[Whether or not the evident mistakes were made purposely is not clear from the bulletin. Certain it is, however, that they were made. For instance, planting on a slope so steep that cultivation can not be given; placing the trees so close together (36′ for the large growing trees, 18′ for the small) that before maturity they will crowd and grow spindly and tall and therefore difficult and costly to spray and harvest; placing the berry plants in such ways that cultivation can be given in only one direction instead of two; failing to use the ground between the trees for berry crops or vegetables or both while the trees are young and thus paying the cost of rearing them to bearing age or for several years longer; planting trees not known to be hardy or profitable; applying no fertilizer until the fourth year, none again until the tenth and a total of only $3.90 during the whole 13 years—including cost of application!]

placing orchard trees

Fig. 53. Methods of placing orchard trees. These distances are much too close for apples, sweet cherries, pecans and walnuts. (See Appendix.)

[Had a plan such as described in the following paragraphs been adopted returns would have started with vegetables and everbearing strawberries the first season, with “regular” strawberries and grapes the second, with bush fruits the third, with peaches and sour cherries the fourth, and with other tree fruits from that time forward according to the characteristics of the varieties and the type of care given the trees. Many a fruit grower following similar lines has brought his tree fruits into profitable bearing with “a clean slate” as to cost: indeed, has had money in the bank from crops grown between the developing trees!]

With improved methods of cultivation, better knowledge of pruning, harvesting and storing, etc., it is so much easier to grow choicer fruit than one can buy, that each year more people are planting home orchards to supply their needs. Many of the most satisfactory small orchards are developed along the following lines.

When the available space is unlimited it is advisable to set out the various fruits in separate areas, just as commercial fruit growers do, planting apples in one section, pears in another, and so on. This facilitates operations in handling the various crops. The only conspicuous exception to this method is the “filler” plan of planting peach and apple trees alternately. (Chapter 43) Usually, however, this is not an advisable plan.

When the space is restricted but still liberal enough to plant an “orchard” this plan may be modified by dividing the fruits into four or preferably five groups; namely, 1, tree fruits; 2, grapes; 3, strawberries; 4, cane fruits (raspberries and blackberries); 5, bush fruits (currants and gooseberries), the last two groups planted adjacent to each other.

When only, say, half an acre can be devoted to fruit and where the greatest assortment of kinds is desired the best plan is to divide the space so each of the above groups will ultimately have its allotted space, though while the orchard is developing the space between the trees may be filled temporarily by the other fruits. Grapes, however, should never be planted in an orchard or near trees. They do best on trellises. If these were placed among tree rows they would interfere with cultivation. The vines are also likely to give trouble by climbing into the trees, especially if neglected—even for a single year.

One favorite way and a modification to get the greatest possible assortment of fruits in a limited space, such as half an acre or even less, is described below; but first the undesired kinds should be eliminated—poor quality kinds, purely culinary varieties and staples which can be bought in the markets and stores.

Next to omit, or at least plant sparingly, are varieties that ripen when the normal supply of other fruit is likely to be so abundant that there might be waste—during August and September when grapes, blackberries, peaches, plums and early apples and pears crowd each other for consumption. Each of these should be represented but none too liberally because they are highly perishable.

On the other hand, gaps must be avoided in the sequence of supplies. The most likely to occur is after September when there are no really choice peaches or plums, when raspberries and blackberries are rarities and currants and gooseberries never seen. During this period, however, some of the most delicious varieties of apples, pears and grapes are in season and everbearing strawberries are welcome luxuries. Very few of these are obtainable and these few at high prices in the markets or the stores, but with only ordinary care they may be had for four to eight or ten weeks hence are well worth having for home use.

The three most popular systems of orchard lay-out are the square, the hexagon (or equilateral triangle) and the rectangle. (Fig. 53) Because of its simplicity of setting the square is most popular for small farm orchards, though the rectangle is a close competitor. The hexagon is used for large commercial orchards because 15% more trees may be planted in a given area and because, the distance between trees being the same, cultivation may be given in three directions instead of only two. It is not desirable for the small orchard.

Having decided upon the varieties, the next step is the plan of arrangement. For convenience of discussion suppose that the available area is 100′ by 200′. This is slightly less than half an acre. By visualizing the trees as if full grown and calculating distances on this basis mistakes as to crowding may be avoided. The distances given in the Appendix are mostly adaptable to business plantations. If they are adhered to strictly in the small orchard they will make proper tillage difficult or impossible and all appearance of symmetry and convenience will be lost.

The best way to avoid such objections is to adopt a unit distance that will provide both adequate space between the trees and permit the temporary growing of small fruits, but not grapes, between the trees. The plants should be placed so they may be cultivated by either horse or garden tractor, preferably (while young, at least) in two directions—for the first year or perhaps two.

For the small orchard 50′ may look like an extravagant distance between apple and sweet cherry trees, but with small growing trees between there will be no crowding even when the trees are full grown. This would not be the case if a distance less than 40′ between the large growing trees were adopted. Even at this latter distance the filler trees would either have to be removed while they were still bearing well or they would be almost sure to interfere with and perhaps actually injure the large kinds. Though the average commercial life of the peach tree is only about 10 years it may be extended to double or triple that time, even in commercial plantings. Why not give it the care that will assure this longevity?

As the orchard is to be a permanent investment it should be placed on the best land and given the best of attention. Preferably the land should be prepared at least one season ahead of the planting by breaking up the sod, getting rid of stumps, large stones, and by growing a well fertilized, well tilled crop of corn, early potatoes or other profitable vegetable on it, partly for the crop itself but mainly to get the soil in the best possible condition for tree planting. Really the seeming loss of a year will be a gain because the trees will thrive much better and make greater growth in well prepared soil than in raw sod freshly turned over.

Whatever crop is chosen for this preliminary work it should be one that must be harvested not later than mid-September. Immediately following the harvest of this crop the ground should be plowed, harrowed and sown with a mixture of rye and winter vetch as a cover crop. If the sowing must be delayed until after the middle of September Canada field peas may be sown either alone or with rye. Vetch when sown as late as this will not make a worth-while stand. (Chapter 26.)

The easiest way to get rows straight and the trees uniformly spaced is as follows: 1. Establish a straight “base” line across the longest dimension of the field at half the distance the trees are to stand apart—12 1/2′ in the present case. This space is for the turning area for team or tractor.

2. Place a stake the same distance—12 1/2’—from the end of this line to show the position of the first or corner tree.

3. Use this stake as a starting point and place stakes at 25′ intervals along this base line.

4. Start again at the first stake, measure off 8′ toward the second stake and place a temporary stake there.

5. Again start at the first stake, guess at making a right angle with the first line and about 6′ toward the opposite side of the field place a temporary stake.

6. Now measure 10′ from the temporary (8′) stake on the first line toward the temporary one at 6′ on the (tentative) second line.

7.Move this (6′) stake until it is exactly 6′ from the first tree (or corner) stake and also 10′ from the first temporary stake on the base line. The line drawn through this stake from the corner stake will be at right angles to the first (or base) line. The principle here involved is that when the sides of a triangle are in the ratio of 3 to 4 to 5 the angle opposite 5 is a right angle.

8. With this angle established, extend the new line to the opposite side of the field.

laying out orchard

Fig. 54. Methods of laying out orchards by chains or wires.

9. For planting small fields these two lines will be sufficient; for large ones most planters make lines on the other two sides (or at various places across the area in each direction) and “sight” from side to side and from end to end to locate the stakes for the trees.

10. Measure off and place stakes at each 25′ interval on the second line.

11. Use two light (surveyor’s) chains or stout wires each 25′ long, placing the end of one at the second stake in each of the two base lines and extend each wire parallel with the other side. The ends will meet where the next stake is to be set in the second row of trees. The four stakes will be at the corners of a square.

12. Move the end of one wire to the third stake in the base line and the end of the other wire to the last stake (the one just placed) and extend the wires as before to place the next stake. Continue this method until all stakes are placed. When carefully done the rows will be straight and the trees evenly spaced. A man and two boys may work this plan better than one or even two men.

To insure getting the trees placed properly in position a planting board is a help, almost a necessity. The most popular style (Fig. 55) is about 5′ long, 5″ or 6″ wide, 3/4″ thick, with a V-shaped notch 3″ wide cut at each end and another at the middle on one side. To use it place the middle notch snugly against the tree stake. Then place a temporary stake in each end notch. Next remove the tree stake and the board and dig the hole where the tree stake stood. Then fit the board to the temporary stakes in the earth, place the tree trunk in the center notch and fill in.

Tree setting board

Fig. 55. Tree setting board. (See text.)

One style of planting board which obviates the necessity of using temporary stakes consists of two pieces, each about 30″ long, hinged together, preferably with two strap hinges to make them rigid. One piece has a notch in its free end; the other has two 6″ or 8″ legs fitted snugly in it. To use it the board is extended full length with the notch snugly against the tree stake and the legs pressed full depth in the ground. The notched end is then swung backward, the tree stake removed, the hole dug, the notched end returned to open position, the tree trunk placed in the notch and the earth spaded in.

In all tree planting it is advisable to make the holes large enough to get both feet in so as to pack the earth firmly about the roots. Also it is best, when digging the holes, to throw the good (top) soil in one pile and the poorer (subsoil) in another so that when filling the hole the good soil may be thrown in next to the roots which will thus have the best possible chance to make a good start. The subsoil being placed on top will also reduce possible trouble with weeds. Under no conditions place any manure or chemical fertilizer in the tree holes because these will burn the roots. The only safe fertilizers to use thus are the non-chemical ones such as ground bone, dried blood and tankage.

Another caution: Not until after the trees are planted do any pruning of the tops. Should this be done previously, twigs or buds that should remain may accidentally be broken without chance of making substitutions.

During the growing season keep the land cleanly cultivated for a diameter of at least 5′ around each tree. If the whole area is cultivated (which is the best practice) cease tillage between July 1 and 15 and sow rye and winter vetch, but preferably after the last cultivation. Clean cultivation until midsummer will insure conditions that favor best development and will also reduce the danger of damage by borers which are always more destructive where weeds and grass grow around the trunks and thus form shelters. More peach trees are killed by borers than by all other causes put together.

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Small Farm Fruit Gardens and Orchards

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