I’ve been battering my brains for a couple months trying to come up with a micro-orchard plan that felt right. I’ve got a 50′x50′ space in my back yard that’s screaming to be something other than lawn…but I just can’t wrap my brain around it. Too much space, maybe. Just a big blank square, a totally blank slate. And I have essentially zero experience with fruit trees. Going from 2500sf of blank ground to…what? Permaculture guild? Something more like formal landscaping? Groups of trees just to fill up the space? Something totally whimsical and pretty? I can’t even settle on a concept for the space, let alone a plan.
So I more or less shelved the idea of doing anything with that space this coming spring. I was sure I wanted to put in a stand of willow on the north side of our garage, so I started working on that. I love Rob’s description of pit-and-mound gardening – it’s got aspects of hugelkultur, permaculture, and soil-building – and knowing willows love moisture, I decided to add a wood chip-filled trench under the drip line of the garage roof. This will catch the water off the roof and hold it, feeding helpful fungi and microcritters and releasing nutrient-rich water to the willows slowly, instead of just running off.
Then I stepped back and realized that the runoff from the house comes in essentially the same direction, flowing north across the pavement right in front of the garage, over the edge of the pavement, and into what is now full-sun lawn. I measured the space between the end of the willow bed and the turn-around/parking space bumping out the side of the driveway…24′ east/west, and easily 12-15′ north/south. What if I aimed to capture the water running off the driveway (captured from about half our total roof space) and directed it into a small orchard guild? How many trees could I fit in there?
Five, I think, with some bush cherries scattered in between. Each dwarf tree will get 10-12′ tall; the semi-dwarfs on bottom (north) side will be 12′-15′, I think. By planting the roots at the corners of the bed, I can still get about 12′ between the trunks of the larger trees. The trees will be accessible from all sides, though I’ll have to go under branches (eventually) to get to the bush cherries. Permaculture tells me if I prune the trees properly, enough light will get in to let the bush cherries grow. They should top out around 6′ tall.
Other details: There is a slight slope from south to north, but the site is nearly flat. I’m in zone 5b, but a cold and exposed microclimate, so I chose varieties that bloom late and have a good track record holding their own against late frosts. I’m buying a pig in a poke as far as taste is concerned; I know I like Northern Spy apples, and Nova Spies are supposed to taste like them, but I have no idea what the other fruits taste like. I do like tart cherries, even for fresh eating, and I picked the apricot and peach varieties recommended for my area that also had some raves about taste. The apples are good keepers, and the apricots and peaches are both good for canning and “high dessert quality.” The apricots are also good for drying. Which is good, because there’s no way I could eat 2 trees’ worth of apricots, but you need 2 for pollination!
It was odd…as I looked at variety descriptions, Gurney’s “semi-dwarf” peaches should be planted 12-14 feet apart, but the ones from Grandpa’s Orchard (on a “standard” root) has a spread of only 8-12 feet. And Grandpa’s apricots, though all on “standard” roots, have a big variety in spreads. So I really had to read the fine print. In the end, it looks like I’ll get all my trees from Grandpa’s Orchard, which is in SW Michigan about 130 miles from here. Should be cheaper than Gurney’s, too
Well, anyway…this bed is half built already, and the willow bed is ready, mulch trench and all, just waiting to be planted in the spring. Thus begins my foray into tree crops! This feels so much more manageable than the swathe at the back. Just goes to show that if things aren’t falling into place, you might just be barking up the wrong tree.