Fruit tree guild plans

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?

Note: south is at the top, north is at the bottom. (Click to enlarge)Fruit tree guild

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. 🙂

Published by Emily

I'm an instructional designer and gardener based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Free moments find me in my garden or the forest, hugging trees and all that jazz.

9 thoughts on “Fruit tree guild plans

  1. Glad you found your mojo! Space them (everything) a bit wider (12′ at least for the peaches) and leave room for 2′ wide paths. The paths could be your contoured swales even, but my “permaculture” orchard benifits from liberal mulching several times a year – imagine how many trips in with a barrow and then decide how straight or windy you want them. Dendritic modeled paths work wonders for me – work flows like water.

    May I recommend service berry and honey berry in the shrub layer? And pepper in false indigo for nitrogen – it packs a whollup. Final thought. Honeycrisp keep until March and, of course, are better than crack. Just sayin.

    1. My thought is the “paths” are around the edges…just need room to squeeze in for cherries. Peach tree professes an 8′-12′ spread…these are 12′ apart e/w and about 8′ on center from the apples. Am I trying to force too much into the space? I can expand a little to the north, maybe another 3′, but the width is fixed.

      Planning to start with the shrub layer more open. Could swap serviceberries and maybe honeyberries (are those invasive? honeysuckles scare me…) for a few cherries and put the spare cherries elsewhere. I like false indigo, too…it’s in my oak guild and elsewhere, but again, trying to balance permie with neatnick. 🙂

      And Honeycrisps are tasty and good keepers…but also patented. Hate, hate, hate patenting food plants…not sure if tastiness is enough to make me back down from that.

      1. This fruit tree field sounds like a great idea!

        (Wikipedia is saying the patent it expired; not sure if that’s true, and not sure if it makes a difference; thought I’d mention it though.)

  2. If I were planning this, I would do two peach varieties and one apricot. Two apricot trees sounds like a whole lot of apricots.

    This may not concern you, but what I learned in California is that varieties on dwarfing rootstocks have a lower yield than standard varieties. There’s been a fair amount of breeding work into trying to develop dwarf rootstocks for commercial production, because it would reduce the amount of ladder work (and its associated time and risks). It hasn’t resulted in success. You might consider a standard rootstock and some rigorous pruning; that might allow you to avoid some of the disadvantages of adding dwarfing rootstocks to the picture.

    Remember, too, that (at least on stone fruit crops; I don’t know about pome fruits) the best-tasting fruit on the tree will be near the top.

    Interestingly, your diamond-shaped layout is something that is increasingly done in commercial orchards. I do think that you’re packing a lot into a pretty small space.

    There is a lot of good information at the Dave Wilson Nursery site.

      1. Ah, yes, I forgot about pollination! You need that for plums, too, but peaches and nectarines are mostly self-fruitful. Something interesting is sometimes done for plums – they will graft two varieties onto the rootstock – one for fruit, and another at the very top of the tree that they let grow a bit wild and wooly, for pollination. It’s called a pollinator branch.

        Yes, the Dave Wilson site is a treasure! They are the major supplier of the commercial orchardists in California. I don’t know a whole lot about the multi-hole planting, but they seem to have experience with it. I do know that multi-variety grafting – putting three or four varieties on one tree, sometimes called a “fruit salad” tree – eventually results in the strongest variety taking over the plant.

  3. I want to second the comment about being cautious with dwarf rootstock. I’ve taken a few fruit tree classes and have been told that semi-dwarf is more reliable and you can always prune to whatever size you want. Dwarf rootstock trees have incredible small rootballs, need much more water, and are reported to only have about a 10 year lifespan.

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