Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Baby orchard

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 strengthened at the bottom.

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!


  1. I sincerely hope all your hard work pays off in the form of tons of luscious fruit in years to come.
    With all the hard work it takes to feed a family, it's a wonder the puritans, colonials and pioneers survived!

  2. You did of course tarp the trees before you transported them - right?
    Hate to say this but the roots will not grow very well in those tires. Fruit trees have shallow roots. Why not just replace that amount of soil?
    A clay sand mixture will turn to concrete unless you have around 50% or more of sand in the mix. Fruit trees require a slightly acidic soil. My guess is you have alkaline and the compost which is great stuff also tends to be alkaline.
    The string you used to stake the trees most likely has already damaged the bark as it is very susceptible to that. Get the string off fast and replace with old panty hose or garden hose if that's all you have.
    The Stanley plums are a good choice.

  3. Well, if things do work this time around, it just isn't possible. You've done everything and I sure hope you have an abundant harvest!

    What will you use to secure the trees instead of the baling twine? I just planted an orange tree my family gave me for Mother's Day but it's secured with baling twine. Sounds like I need to rethink that choice. :)

    1. That should be, "If things don't work...

  4. Right at first you really need to satuate them with h20 as the dirt you planted them in will compact quite a bit. You really need to shove a hose into the dirt you have added around them to make sure there are no air pockets. You will probably need to add some more soil to the tires after everything compacts a bit.

  5. Do you know that grass will not grow under a walnut tree?

    1. You are wrong, I mow under mine every week....

    2. The black walnut is the variety that is so hard on other plants. It releases a toxin into the soil, so that nothing but weeds grows under it - can you guess how I know?! ;-)

  6. Great job. Well done. To tie the trees up use 2 foot pieces of old garden hose over the ropes where they pass over the trees.--ken

  7. Patrice, this will be very interesting to see how your experiment works out. Conventional wisdom says that if you baby the roots too much, they won't expand out of the amended area. Also, having their roots aboveground may make them more susceptible to damage in the winter from the cold. But it may turn out that planting them in tires actually works great!

    You were very smart to plant the walnuts well away from everything else. Walnut trees are allelopathic, which is why as another commenter noted, grass and other plants tend not to grow under walnut trees. But as I recall, you were a forestry major in college, so you probably already know that!

  8. Seems pretty well thought out. But I am disappointed: As the story progressed, I was anticipating you using dynamite to bust up the hardpan. I was kinda disappointed there were no explosives involved. (Sigh...)

    Steve Davis
    Anchorage, Alaska

  9. So the tire experiment keeps rolling along...

    If the trees survive and thrive do you anticipate cutting away the tires in a few years?

    1. They're getting a lot of mileage out of those tires, so tread lightly with your comments! ;)

  10. I can almost taste that sun ripen peach...for now I just dream. I recently read an article on supporting trees and it stated that once the tree started new roots it was best to let nature run it's course. Trees without support developed stronger roots and branches because of the effects of the wind.

    Maybe you can find information online. I think it might have been in Countryside or ? but I'm sure it will be online too. We often think we are helping when the opposite is true.

    I enjoy your blog and will be thinking of you when I search out the perfect peach this summer.

  11. I hope they make it, what a lot of work. Were in Central Wa and don't have that hardpan in our yard. Jo in Wa

  12. We had two walnut trees in our yard when I was a kid. The grass grew green and lush under both of them.

  13. Very ingenious approach to dealing with clay soil (if it can be called that!) My property is the same, clay and slit from a lake 1000s of years gone. As already pointed out, walnut trees are allelopathic. The responsible toxin is juglone and is spread through the leaves of the tree. Depending on the particular plant, over time juglone will stop all fruit, flowering, even growth within the surrounding area. In my area, the recommendation is don't plant anything you want to fruit or flower closer than 150 feet radius of a walnut tree. The walnut tree is native to my state. As for planting above ground, I would recommend you start planning how you are going to permanently support the trees over their life. As the trees grow, the canape and fruit will have considerable weight and also present a surface area that will create considerable increasing horizontal force as the wind blows. Think of a 20 foot pole in the ground with a satellite dish on top... maybe 6 square foot surface area presented to the wind. A base of at least 3ft x 3ft x 4ft would be needed to keep it from blowing over. While fruit trees may be shallow rooted, they do send roots out a considerable distance for moisture, food and anchoring. They are tiny, but in large numbers.


  14. Tires are a bad idea for trees, 1 because of root girdling and 2 the heat and cold extremes on the root system, dig a hole 2 to 3x the size of the potted tree, replace soil if need and water..... Sorry Don, Bad Idea... just trying to save you heart ache and work...

  15. Best of luck! We are replanting our homestead with fruit and nut trees after devastation from oak wilt killed old, lovely trees. So, I understand the work and desire.

  16. Best tomato plants I ever grew were less than 60 feet NE of huge Black Walnuts, my raspberries love walnuts too, I've have 29 of them in my west fence line on forty acres, all better than 36 inches across. planning to have them harvested for lumber this season, then a new barn or tractor....

  17. In regards to the concerns presented about the problems with the trees being above ground in the tires you could remove the tires and put dirt around the trees making mounds. That would remediate the freezing and instability issues. I have seen trees planted on mounds because of water table issues and it seemed to work fine so it may work for you also.--ken

  18. The juglone in walnut trees is not just in the leaves, it is in every part of the plant, including the roots. If you are able to grow tomatoes near a walnut tree, it is only because the tomato roots didn't happen to come in contact with the walnut roots. When tomatoes come into contact with walnut roots, the tomatoes wilt down and no amount of water will save them.

    Our local Extension agent told the story about an apple orchard near here that had a spot where trees always died. He got talking to an old time and discovered a walnut tree use to be in that spot. Walnut roots take a long time to decompose, and many years after the walnut tree was gone, it was still killing apple trees in the spot where it once stood.

  19. Not about the trees or anything--but when I opened up this page today I just sat and drooled for a few minutes over the picture at the top of the lovely room full of books...sigh. Is that your personal library? If so, I'm jealous. :)


  20. I don't think the tires are a good idea but time will tell. We had a small orchard here in southern Illinois, around a 1000 trees. The key to orchards and fruit trees is spraying them during the warm months about every 2 weeks. Without the proper spray the bugs will cause a lot of damage not only to the fruit but to the tree its self. Captian and sulfur are the two big chemicals used for this. Also be sure to spray before leafs come out in the spring with a oil based spray. Good luck.

  21. So cool! This is a brave venture so I look forward to hearing about all of the good luck with the orchard and the pitfalls.

    God Bless,
    Janet in MA

  22. The county in which I live, is planted in 25,000(61%) acres of walnuts, 11,000(17%) acres of almonds, 10,000(11%) acres of olives and 7,000(7%)acres of Prunes(Plums that are dried for prunes. Half our county is clay soil( red hard clay) that's pasture land the other half is the orchards. My husband worked for a 2200 acre almond/walnut orchard for 20 years. With that said, I know that fruit tress do not like their roots sitting in water, it causes root rot. If your clay holds water and you add sand which also holds water you may be creating a problem causing root rot. Roots tend to spread out for several feet around the trunk to support the canopy of the tree to keep it upright in the wind and the weight of the crop. All I can say now is, I sure hope it works for you. :)

  23. I would also do some guilds around the trees. I add peas for nitrogen and onions for helping with some pests. So you can grow food around them where it helps them grow too. (permaculture)

  24. For future plantings---The cardboard pots are meant to be planted with the tree as they rapidly decompose-- or not-- they are your trees

  25. Patrice,
    I’ve been going through all your tire posts as we are getting ready to set up the same here. We don’t live too far from you “as the crow flies”, up here in the Benewah.
    I have followed your blog for a number of years and enjoy it immensely.
    I have figured out who you get you tractor tires from with my experience and knowledge of the area but I do have a question. Where do you get sand from? That has proven to be a challenge. I tried to find an email address to ask you but either I’m blind or it isn’t apparent to me.
    Thank you so much,
    T in the Benewah

    1. Try Jack Crane with Crane Backhoe & Trucking in St. Maries, 245-1863 or 582-0481 (I'll probably delete this comment after you acknowledge since I don't like posting peoples' personal info without their knowledge). Anyway, I'm pretty sure it's Jack who delivered our sand. We get it by the dump-truck-ful.