It seems like it has taken an eternity to get our orchard planted, but thanks to some help from a friend this last weekend, the trees are finally in the ground!
So what took so long? First we had to decide where to put the orchard, then we had to clear the weeds, brush, trash, and copious amounts of poison oak out of the way. Then last year my health, or at that time, lack thereof, set us back an entire year. This last winter though, the deer fence finally went up, trenches were dug, irrigation pipe was glued up, and the orchard space started to take shape.
All the while, the fruit trees we’d purchased the previous year sat in giant ceramic pots on our front deck, away from the deer, but also not in the orchard where they belonged.
Over the past few weeks, while dodging raindrops, and trying not to create an erosion problem on the slope, we’ve been gradually planting our trees. This however was no simple or straightforward task. You see, the deer, who are now fenced out, are only part of the problem. The gophers and voles can still get in the orchard. As such, for the eighteen trees awaiting a permanent home in the orchard, every single one needed to be fitted with both gopher root guards, and vole trunk guards.
Let’s face it, those prefabricated gopher baskets are expensive, and most are too small to accommodate a sizable bare-root fruit tree. Instead, we bought a giant roll of gopher wire. We dug our holes a minimum of three feet wide by a foot or so deep, adjusting the dimensions as necessary for some of the larger rooted trees, and lined the holes with the wire.
The wire will eventually break down, but by then, we hope at least, that the trees will be large enough to sustain some root damage without permanent injury to the tree. Or maybe by then, we’ll get the gopher population under control…although I doubt they will ever go away.
With the tree tops protected by the deer fence, the roots protected by the gopher-wire, that just left the middle of the trees vulnerable to attack. Voles have been gradually becoming quite a problem here, last year decimating some of our neighbor’s crops. Voles can be deadly to young fruit trees, because they have a nasty habit of stripping the outer bark from the trunks…not unlike an errant string-trimmer, and if enough bark is removed around the circumference of the tree, the tree will die.
We looked for commercial vole guards, but most readily available trunk guards are rather flimsy, or overpriced, and generally not of sufficient quality to assure good long-term protection for the trunk. So instead, we purchased a roll of 1/4″ hardware cloth, broke out the tin-snips, and the hog ringer, and fashioned our own.
Knowing that I’ll never remember the names of all of the trees in the orchard, each tree had a lovely aluminum name tag bestowed upon it, including not just the name of the cultivar, but also the name of the rootstock. If we have any particular disease or hardiness issues down the road, it’s good to know what the rootstock was, in case we need to try a different one.
So each tree was positioned in the hole with the graft union facing northward to protect it from the scorching sun. The roots were decorated with gopher wire, the trunks with hardware cloth, and the branches fitted with stylish aluminum tags…did we forget anything? Oh! Yes.
Lastly, and most importantly, the trees need some food to get them off to a good start. When the holes were dug, the only thing returned to the hole, other than a little bone meal to supply phosphorus for robust root growth, was native soil. I remember when planting almost anything involved amending the dickens out of the soil before you dared to place a plant in the ground. Over the years, that wisdom has shifted as we’ve come to realize that plants are smarter than we give them credit for, and unless you’re trying to plant directly in something akin to concrete, it’s best to let the roots seek most of the nutrients they need, rather than feed it to them on a silver shovel. That said though, top dressing the root zone with a little organic fertilizer, rich in mycorrhizae will help to get the trees off to a solid start, and encourage strong healthy root growth.
To help the trees along during their first season in the ground, this will be a fruitless orchard in 2010. As each tree sets fruit, the newly formed fruits, while still small (preferably less than an inch in diameter) each fruit will be pulled from the tree. As much as we’d love to just let the trees set fruit this year, we’d rather they work on developing a strong, sturdy network of roots. Next year, we’ll see about letting them set fruit.
With the orchard now planted, and blooming, it’s finally time to get to work on the vegetable gardens! Not a moment too soon, as our tomatoes are just about ready to be planted out!