Orchard Update 1

We’re learning more slowly than we would like what works and what doesn’t in the wonderful world of fruit orchard trees. Here are a few notes from the orchard.

My brother Dave Gray walks in his orchard nearly every day, pruning, tasting, inspecting, and fussing over his treasures. Amanda and I do that too, but on a less rigorous schedule. It’s easier for us, because our orchard is closer to where we live. A walk in the orchard for us is the same as a walk to the mailbox for most people. One of the oft-repeated maxims of vegetable gardening is that your veg should be growing as close as possible to where you live. Goes for fruit trees too.

The orchard consists now of what we call the “Blueberry Strip,” the “Barn Orchard,” and the “East Orchard.” The Blueberry Strip has 12 blueberries – all rabbiteye – in a continuous line immediately north of the pole barn. From West to East they are as follows:

  • 2 premier
  • 2 climax
  • 4 tifblue
  • 2 climax
  • 1 premier
  • 1 brightwell

This fall we plan to increase the 12 to 21-22, adding several centurion, one or two more brightwell, and the rest tifblue.

The Barn Orchard consists of 13 fruit trees:

  • 2 bruce plums
  • 2 AU Rubrum plums
  • 2 June Gold peaches
  • 2 Winesap apples
  • 2 Anna apples
  • 1 brown turkey fig
  • 1 celeste fig
  • 1 LSU gold fig

celeste-fig-for-blogSpeaking of figs, we enjoyed one of our first figs yesterday for lunch, this one growing on the celeste. It’s delightful to know that the figs are likely to bear fruit into late October, because that really spreads the season out.

The East Orchard consists of 4 pear trees:

  • 2 Moonglow pears
  • 2 Orient pears

These next ones are not in the orchard proper, but you need to know that we have on Veg Hill four muscadines on trellis and nine thornless blackberries, also on trellis. We have reserved space to add 4-5 kiwifruit to Veg Hill as soon as the variety we want to grow (golden kiwi) becomes available. We also have about 30 row feet of strawberries and will add more in the spring.

Expansion. The Barn Orchard and the East Orchard are separated by a triangular stand of trees on land that’s more or less flat (anything that’s not on a hillside qualifies as “more or less flat” at Longleaf Breeze). Our plans are to wait until after our Master Gardener classes are finished, and then to begin bringing down all the trees on that triangular stand save one. The one tree we intend to protect is the mascot of Longleaf Breeze, lovingly named Sad Longleaf. The first time we saw Sad Longleaf, he was about five inches tall and bent nearly double under the weight of a hickory stem that had fallen near him. Amanda gently lifted the hickory branch aside as we both murmured sweet nothings into Sad Longleaf’s disheveled needles. It’s now three years later, and Sad Longleaf is unabashedly happy, about 3 1/2 feet tall. So whatever happens, we will work to protect Sad Longleaf.

Everything else goes. Down comes the much bigger, but bent over, longleaf pine, the 14-inch DBH hickories, the unnumbered oaks and sweetgums, and the wild muscadines. This orchard is for production, so that means full sun and straight lines. It will be painful, but we know in the long run we’ll be glad we did this.

We haven’t yet decided what we will plant as part of the orchard expansion, but we know we should have lots of room. We THINK we will include the following:

  • 4-6 oriental persimmons (trellised)
  • 4-6 oriental pears (trellised)
  • 6 muscadines (trellised)
  • 4-6 peaches (trellised)
  • 20 or so thorny blackberries (trellised)
  • 4-6 hard pears
  • 2-3 pomegranates
  • 8-12 blueberries
  • 4-6 figs
  • Some number of olives (if we can find a variety that grows and produces fruit in central Alabama)

All will be drip irrigated, which will require a new trenching project. Fortunately, we have one more unused port on our irrigation controller. Once we have run PVC pipe and control wire to the field valve, we will have a separate zone for the orchard that we can add to the controller’s schedule. That prospect alone, of no longer needing to schlep hoses from fruit tree to fruit tree, is enough to motivate Amanda to do this, even if there were none of those delicious oriental persimmons in the offing.

No matter how many times I pace and we measure the space, there’s just no substitute for seeing it free of trees and really understanding it with the measuring twins. Consequently, we won’t really know exactly what we will plant as part of the Orchard Expansion until we have finished clearing and can begin plotting and measuring trellis runs, understanding where the stumps are, and placing stakes to mark tree locations.

About those stumps. You may be wondering why we don’t just hire a bulldozer and get the stumps out at the beginning. We could. It would certainly make planting easier. The problem is that our loamy sand soil, perched as it is on hillsides, is vulnerable to erosion. Leaving the stumps (and associated roots) in place gives us a better chance to hold on to the soil while we work to get the orchard trees established. Yes, it will be a pain, and yes, we’ll be cussing at some tree roots as we plant the young fruit trees. But we think the long-term health of the orchard will be better by leaving the stumps in place and allowing them to rot slowly.

You may also be wondering why we’re planning to trellis so many trees. This we’ve learned from Dr. Arlee Powell, perhaps the most respected pomologist in Alabama. Arlee now works with his son Jason, the owner of Petals from the Past, and he’s testing the limits of what fruits one can successfully produce in Alabama. One of the conclusions he has reached is that peaches, oriental pears, and persimmons are vulnerable to significant crop loss from high winds when laden with fruit and that trellising reduces that loss significantly. We had planned to trellis the blackberries and the muscadines all along.

In the near term, preparing for this winter, we have three figs that we know are vulnerable to freezing temperatures, because this is their first winter. Our plans are to build a tiny “igloo” of 1/2″ PVC pipe over each fig tree and drape that igloo with frost blanket when we’re expecting a hard freeze, and then remove it as soon as the danger of freezing is past.

We know that if we had a delectable orchard like this and left it wide open, the deer would decimate it in short order, particularly in the fall when they become so desperately hungry. We plan to surround the entire orchard with an electric deer fence. We’ll have to be careful to make sure we turn it off whenever we have company!

As we envision it, the orchard will provide us fresh fruit we can pick from the tree and eat from early June (with the premier and climax blueberries) into December (with the oriental persimmons, which have enough sugar in them to withstand a light frost undamaged). That should minimize the amount of fruit we need to “put up” for the winter.

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