When we lived in Oregon, our property had old, old fruit trees on it -- apple, pear, plum, and quince. The apple trees, in fact, were the remnants of the oldest apple orchard in southern Oregon (that's documented, by the way), and even at well over 100 years of age, they produced beautiful fruit in abundance.
When we moved to Idaho, it was a priority to plant fruit trees, so we dutifully (and naïvely) planted five each of peach, pear, and apple. Big mistake.
We didn't take into consideration endless variables against us: wind (70 mph isn't unknown), hard clay soil, rodents (burrowing under snow to nibble bark), cattle (yes, our trees weren't fenced -- cows love to rub against tree trunks), deer, and a nasty layer of hardpan which (we learned) lies about 18 inches below ground and is seemingly impenetrable.
Needless to say, all the trees died. We gathered our pennies and grimly re-planted, and they all died again with the exception of two pears. One pear tree thrived, and one pear tree almost didn't make it but managed to recover.
Over the years as our garden expanded, we felt the loss of additional fruit trees, so this spring we decided to bite the bullet and give them one more chance. But this time we addressed all the issues that contributed to killing our other fruit trees in the first place.
Last year Don expanded the fencing by the garden to encompass the pond. Over time we've reinforced this fence so it's deer-proof, cattle-proof, and horse-proof. We've done this by making the fencing eight feet tall and aproned at the bottom (more on that in a future blog post).
Some of the extra space this new area enclosed was earmarked for an orchard. A few months ago, I got a list from our local feed store on what fruit trees they had ordered the previous fall. I made our selection of four apple (Braeburn, Gala, Honeycrisp, and Snow Sweet), four peach (two each of Reliance and Veteran), two plum (both Stanleys), and two walnut trees (Cascade and Manregion).
On April 19 Don drove the truck into town and picked them up.
We were determined, absolutely determined, to succeed with these trees, so the race was on to get them properly planted.
So we commenced working on the orchard infrastructure. We decided to plant the ten fruit trees together in the orchard area, and plant the walnuts (which grow very large) elsewhere.
We started by marking off where to plant the fruit trees in the orchard area.
We ran a tape and put flags every 15 feet.
Meanwhile, we decided to keep the trees in the back of the truck, a sort of mobile orchard. We had occasional violent squalls, and didn't want the young trees damaged. Keeping them in the truck allowed us to simply back it into the barn to protect them.
A few days later, a neighbor came over with his backhoe to dig us some holes.
He dug along the flagged lines we had marked, and scooped the dirt to one side.
The result was ten great big holes and ten great big piles of clay-y dirt alongside. The holes were deep enough to punch through the layer of hardpan.
A few weeks before, we had a dump truck of sand delivered. Sand, we've learned, is ideal for breaking up clay -- and since it doesn't break down (like compost), it's a long-term fix. So the next step was to mix sand with the clay. Don scooped up sand with the tractor and mixed an entire bucket-ful with each excavated pile of clay-y dirt.
Each pile was thoroughly rototilled together, then the holes were once again filled with the sand/clay mix.
Ah, but you didn't think we'd be foolish enough to plant directly in the ground, did you? No sirree. We learned our lesson the hard way. Instead, we planted the trees in tires.
Yes, tires. We had been reserving some über-gigantic tractor tires, easily twice as big as the ones we use in the garden.
Don used a Saws-all to cut out the sidewalls on both sides. (This differs from how we prepared the garden tires, where we only cut one sidewall out.)
Then we chained up each floppy tire and moved it into the orchard. (Cutting both sidewalls out made the tire a lot more floppy.)
We centered the tires over the holes which had been backfilled with the looser clay-sand mix.
Each tire was filled with a mix of topsoil, sand, and compost. Don had churned this all together a few days before, and we had an enormous mound of it. As it turns out, we had just enough to fill all ten tires.
The reason we chose this route was to give the trees room to develop roots in lovely decent soil before hitting the less-good clay/sand soil and, subsequently, the impenetrable hard clay soil below and around. Sure, we could have back-filled the holes with the lovely soil and planted directly in the ground, but then the roots would hit the hard impenetrable clay much sooner. Putting them in three-foot-high tires over three-foot holes backfilled with clay/sand gives them a greater fighting chance.
Before planting, Don rototilled the orchard area to discourage the prairie grasses. Incidentally, we have abundant room in this area for either another line of fruit trees; or, more likely, raised beds with something like blueberries. We haven't decided yet, but the space is there when we need it.
The next step, obviously, was to plant the trees. In each tire, we dug a hole generously larger than the volume of the pots the trees came in.
Since the trees were still in the back of the truck, it was a simple matter to drive the truck into the orchard area.
The pots are made with heavy-duty cardboard-like stuff.
At first we thought we could slice them with a pocket knife. Nope. Then Don tried a box-cutter. This worked, but it was very hard going. Finally he transitioned to his lighter battery-operated Saws-all. This worked like a charm.
He started by slicing the base of the pot.
Then, holding the base in place, he carried the tree to the tire.
Once the pot was in the hole, we slipped out the base...
...and Don carefully (not going too deep) sliced open one side of the pot.
This made it easy to remove the collar of the pot from around the tree without disturbing the roots. Then we filled the hole with the dirt and tamped it firm.
Repeating this process, we snugged each tree into its tire. At the end of several hours' work, we had an infant orchard in place.
But right away we had to get them staked. The evening weather report called for scattered thunderstorms, and since thunderstorms invariably bring gusty wind, we needed to get the trees hastily secured.
For the moment -- and this is only a temporary solution -- Don put three stout screws around each tire...
...and I gently wrapped baling twine around the trunks and lower branches. This is not a long-term method since the twine can damage the branches, but it will work for a little while. (Sure enough, we had some wild wind over the subsequent couple of days, so it's a good thing we did this.)
The last thing we did was give the trees a watering.
That was it for the fruit trees, but we still needed to get the walnuts planted. Since walnuts are supposed to get very large -- something like a 70-foot canopy -- we needed to give them room to spread out.
So we planted one tree in our front yard. Over the years we had tried and failed to plant trees in the yard -- we have a permanent scar to prove it -- so we decided to give it a go once again.
Don augered four holes close together, which "joined" to give one large hole.
He mixed the clay-y soil with sand, then planted one walnut (it was the Cascade). We didn't try using tractor tires for the walnuts and realize we're taking our chances, so we'll see what happens.
We repeated the same process for the other walnut, which we placed in a weed-infested side yard. We hope to reclaim this junky spot for a proper yard someday; but meanwhile the tree will be protected from the cows.
So there we go. We now have a baby orchard. I certainly hope these trees survive and thrive this time!