URBANA, Ill. — That backyard orchard you were dreaming of? You might not be able to plant as many trees as you planned.
For most homeowners, the most limiting factor when looking to become a home orchardist is their yard.
“The size of the yard will determine how many apple trees you can manage,” said University of Illinois Extension specialist Richard Hentschel.
Even dwarf or double-dwarf apple trees require sufficient space to grow and produce fruit, Hentschel said.
“The home orchardist will need enough room around each tree to properly train, prune, and manage insects and diseases. Just about every fruit tree catalog provides recommended planting distances between trees and between rows.”
Let the sun shine in
Full sunlight is critical to the success of any fruiting plant. Apple trees use sunlight along with nutrients and water from soil to produce apples.
“Where you plant your apple trees is important for both water and air drainage,” he said.
Be sure that water will not stand and puddle around your apple trees for any longer than just a few hours after a rain event. Standing water in the winter can cause trunk damage near the soil line.
“We don’t often think about air drainage, yet it is critical to prevent cold, frosty air from settling in around your apple trees when they are about to bloom,” Hentschel said.
Flower buds are more sensitive to cold temperatures than the foliage buds.
The top or side of a slope is a good location for apple trees, but not at the bottom of the slope or in a valley.
In urban settings, there is little a homeowner can do other than to plant apple trees in locations that receive the best sunlight possible and amend the soil to drain at planting time, he said.
Apple trees are pruned differently at home than in a commercial orchard. In the home orchard, the trees are usually visible from the kitchen or back deck.
These orchards are pruned to have a more normal tree-like appearance, a balance between aesthetics and fruit production.
The most common method is called central leader in which fruiting scaffolds radiate from the trunk in a systematic manner allowing for easier pruning, spraying, and harvesting of the apples.
“To get the scaffolds in the right places you must train the apple tree beginning on the day you plant it,” Hentschel explained.
“A common mistake is waiting for the tree to become established for two or three years before you start the training. Waiting results in large branches growing where you really do not want them. You wind up with a dwarf apple tree that is larger than you expected or want.”
As you read your fruit tree catalogs to plan your home orchard, note the section about pollination requirements.
Apples typically require cross pollination to bear apples. Two trees of the same variety will not cross pollinate each other, so you will need at least two different varieties that bloom at the same time. In an urban setting, ornamental flowering crabapples can be the pollinator.
If your apple tree in the backyard is blooming at the same time as your ornamental flowering crabapple in the front yard, you will have the cross pollination needed to produce your apple crop.
Pollination occurs when bees and other pollinating insects visit the blooms of the apple tree, carrying pollen from another apple or crabapple tree.
“When you decide you want that home orchard, you will be committing time and resources,” he said.
“Your apple trees will need to be trained for three to five years before they bear fruit in any quantity and during that time you will need to protect them from a variety of sources.”
To protect trees from the weather, mulch the soil to prevent sudden changes in soil temperatures sometime after the soil has become cold.
Wildlife, such as rabbits, deer and field mice, can eat the bark of the tree or eat the tree itself.
And the young, non-bearing apple tree needs protection against insects and disease. Leaf-feeding insects along with foliar diseases both lessen the tree’s ability to develop into a mature fruiting tree as early as possible and set up a situation that will be harder to control after the tree is bearing apples.
“Pruning should start in late winter through early spring to train the scaffolds, and sprays for insects and disease should start prior to bloom and continue throughout the season.
“Summer pruning and training may need to be done as well,” he said.