Ah, an orchard in springtime. Such a romantic vision, for so many reasons: the breathtaking beauty of the bloom-covered branches against pale blue skies; later, the promise of lush, ripening fruit dangling in the summer’s breeze; finally the autumnal joy of harvesting bushel after bushel of heirloom apples, peaches, plums or pears—many of which haven’t graced American tables since George Washington was young. Even the word, orchard, invokes an air of tradition and permanence, of hearth and home, of established place and purpose.
If any or all of these musings have occurred to you at some point or other, rest assured, they are indeed true. Very few other elements of gardening give more sensual pleasure than an orchard. But I need also add that very few other elements of gardening require more work for such a glorious reward. I should know, as I’m looking out over my 17-tree orchard of heirloom apples, peaches, and pears as I write.
When I first moved to my two-acre lot outside of Boston 23 years ago, the very first thing I did was plant an orchard. I had been seduced (like many, including my father, who had had his own orchard many years before I was born) by tales of wondrous, now almost forgotten varieties with names like Roxbury Russet, Northern Spy and Cox’s Orange Pippin, varieties that promised delectable mouthwatering delights so unlike the so inappropriately named Delicious apple now ubiquitous in our supermarkets. So, realizing that orchards aren’t things of a day—the first, tiny yields come three to five years after planting—I carefully researched the varieties I wanted (heirlooms all), selected my site (an open, slightly sloping field in full sun), mail-ordered my tiny trees (called whips in the trade, veritable branchless sticks), and headed out to plant them as soon as they arrived. All this while the house was entirely uninhabitable after renovations and the rest of the grounds nothing more than dense thicket due to years of neglect.
For the first few seasons, nothing much happened. Most of the whips took hold, and started to grow. A branch here, a branch there emerged from the straight stems, but nary a fruit to be seen. There were the inevitable casualties: My then-horse Claudius nibbled more than a few; mice under the snow girdled a few more; I backed the excavator over one or two as well. But mostly, the trees thrived in the deep rich soil, and things were looking promising indeed.
And then at last, in year four, my first fruit: a single red Wealthy apple. I protected and nourished that delicate little red globe until I thought it was ripe, and then one warm fall day, I eagerly arrived with knife in hand, ready to slice the translucent flesh into quarters, pop them into my mouth, and savor the labor of all those years.
Unfortunately, someone had beaten me to it—or something: a larva of the plum curculio, whose name might imply a preference for other fruit but who in reality infests apples with utter impartiality. Unbeknownst to me, sometime in the early spring a little curculio had laid eggs on my single, precious apple, which later hatched and bored into the interior. The damage was mostly cosmetic, able to be excised with a few turns of the knife, but still, it was hardly the debut I had anticipated. Worse followed, as I then suffered through several years of trees defoliated by fungus and barren of edible fruit.
Thus perished my first orchard myth: Growing an organic orchard east of the Rockies is next to impossible, unless you wish to make it your full-time occupation. Here’s why: Over the course of centuries, we’ve managed to import almost every major affliction apples suffer, from the aforementioned curculio to fire-blight to cedar apple rust, making a regular program of spraying a necessity. There are ways to do this with an eye toward using minimally invasive, naturally derived, targeted compounds specifically designed for orchards, but the method of application and the timing of the sprayings (so as not to harm beneficial pollinators or yourself) are so complex that the whole procedure is best left to professionals if you have more than a few trees to tend.
Next came another rude awakening. Fruit-bearing trees need to be pruned—expertly pruned—several times a year in order to guarantee production. I certainly understood this going into the process, but I was unaware of the extent, skill or effort involved. The problem is that many of old varieties of apple and pears sucker extensively, thrusting up a thicket of vertical shoots each spring and summer that must be meticulously removed. This isn’t a particularly hard task, but it takes time, and multiplied across my 17 trees, involves several full days each spring and fall.
Finally, there’s the embarrassment of riches called harvest-time. In the first few years, there isn’t much to do, but as the seasons roll on and the trees mature, soon you have one, two, three, twenty bushels of fruit to deal with. And deal with it you must, unless like me you have a host of willing ducks, geese and one crazy English bulldog who loves to eat the falls. In a good year a single mature apple tree will produce between two and five bushels of fruit. Fortunately, the harvest strain can be mitigated somewhat by careful selection of varieties, as certain cultivars begin bearing in late summer, while others don’t ripen until well into late October, allowing you spread out the bounty. In my case, I eat many, many apples out of hand during the season; others go to make cider and sauce, and in years of bumper crops, volunteers from the local food bank come to pick and distribute excess fruit.
So you’re probably asking, if this is so much work, why do I bother? Well, the sorry fact is that the romance of the orchard is real. There truly is no more beautiful sight than bees buzzing about your own orchard in springtime, and the fruit and flavor sensations to be had from these rare, long lost cultivars are worth every bit of effort and time involved. We all know that very little of value comes for free in this world. Even less comes from the garden, and it’s merely a question of making informed judgments about how and where to apportion your time and efforts. Simply put: If you want the romance of your own orchard, be prepared to pay for the dream.
If I haven’t entirely dissuaded you from planting your own trees, there are a few things you can do to make your journey a bit easier than mine was. The first is visit an heirloom orchard and sample the varieties you might like to grow. Years ago when I started this wasn’t an option, but now there are quite a few specialty growers that offer samplings of heirloom fruits. You won’t believe the taste and use differences between various varieties, and as these trees are going to be with you for quite a while, you need to select cultivars you truly enjoy eating. I went in blindly, and while there are no duds in my current group, there are other varieties I wish I had planted instead. Second, investigate various root-stocks. All apples, for instance, are grafted onto different types of root-stocks that produce trees in three sizes: standard (too large for most residential applications), semi-dwarf and dwarf. I chose semi-dwarf as I wanted an orchard-looking orchard of individual trees, as opposed to something more akin to a row of espaliers, but had I to do it over again, or if I were gardening on a smaller plot, dwarf trees might be the way to go. Finally: Take a class on fruit-tree pruning at your local nursery or botanical garden. I learned on the fly, and my trees suffered for it.
Still, an orchard in springtime… Ahhhh.
Landscape designer and PBS horticultural guru Michael Weishan gardens outside Boston and writes a nationally acclaimed weekly garden blog at michaelweishan.com.