You Don’t Know Nothin’ About No Farmin’!

Despite its questionable grammar, this sentence–spoken to me by my friend Bill, on whose farm I was making my first attempt at planting an apple orchard–rang so, so true, and has reverberated in my head since that sunny day
in Fall 2014 when he concocted it.

He had found me that morning, driving up in his sedan to where I stood, covered in dirt, sweating, scratching at the hard-packed clay soil of Northern Colorado with a shovel, and wondering just what I’d gotten myself into. A farmer turned financial services business owner turned farmer again, I’m sure he understood the cold reality that was quickly dawning on me–that I hadn’t anticipated just how hard planting an orchard would be, that it was going to take a ton of work and learning and adaptation, and that, yes, I didn’t know s**t about it. Yet.

It’s the ‘yet’ that kept me going, through aching joints and trees lost to rabbits, extreme frost, not enough water, too much water, and who knows what else. I haven’t been wildly successful by any means–I lost all but 20 of the 200 apple trees I planted in 2014, for instance–but I’m improving and learning, with more trees in the ground in 2015 and a better-informed and better-equipped approach.

And here’s the thing–I’m putting my experiences down in writing so that aspiring apple orchardists can learn from and apply them in their own orcharding endeavors.

If you’d like to plant your own apple trees, and in so doing avoid my mistakes and benefit from my successes, read on…

Humble Beginnings

It started out as an idea–well, an idea and this unused field on a farm just north of Longmont, CO:

Covered with grass and weeds, this field didn’t look like much, but it was soon to be transformed. Or so I hoped.

The Plan

Note: In describing my situation below, I freely use terminology that you may or may not be familiar with. For those of you who know it already, great; for those of you who don’t, don’t worry–I’ll strive to explain the terms in other, how-to content, or at least refer you to other resources. Contact me if you have any specific questions not covered on the site.

Fall 2013, and the front range of Colorado was essentially devoid of the cider-specific apple varieties I had hoped to have access to in order to take my cidermaking to the next level. I’d done some research about varieties I wanted to plant, as well as varieties that had some track record of surviving in the region. I took soil samples and selected the location above based on the results (other areas on the farm had too much salinity in the soil, which can seriously inhibit apple tree growth). I would order some bareroot trees, graft other onto rootstocks, set up irrigation, plant the trees, manage them in terms of fertilizer, pollination, and pest management? Easy, right? Well…

Spring 2014

Cutting Scions

Early Spring 2014. February. I ventured to Cedaredge in Western Colorado and to Hygiene, just down the road from my Longmont home. There, I cut scion wood (typically, year-old growth such as waterspouts from the year before) from various apple trees, wrapped them in wet paper towels, stowed them in ziplock bags to seal in the moisture, and returned them to my fridge to keep them dormant.

Grafting

When the rootstocks arrived, it was time to graft the scion wood to the rootstocks. This I did with much assistance from my then-wife, now-ex (long story) and family. Essentially it’s a process by which you make shallow cuts into the scion and rootstock, marry up the cambium layers, and seal them off against dehydration. If all goes well, the scion wood will grow onto the rootstock, and the resulting tree has the best qualities of each–size control and certain disease resistances from the rootstock, and fruit of the scion variety. Extensive guides are written on the subject, but that’s the basic concept.

The grafted trees were then potted in small nursery pots and kept indoors under grow lights until the weather improved (young rootstocks can easily freeze solid in February and March in Colorado).

The finished product–grafted scions:

Grafted rootstocks sealed with Parafilm

Bareroot Trees

In addition to the grafts, I’d ordered a number of pre-grafted, bareroot trees from a nursery in New York state. Dormant trees have the advantage of surviving shipping when pulled from the ground, provided their roots remain moist. Thus, you can order trees by mail for spring delivery…possibly as late as April depending on where you’re ordering from.

My original plan was to plant these bareroot trees in the Spring but–and this is a theme you’ll see many times during this adventure–I ran out of time to coordinate the digging of holes and the placement of irrigation for the spring of 2014. As a stopgap, I borrowed a number of very large nursery pots from a friend in the tree business and potted up the bareroot trees until the fall. I don’t recommend this–it’s backbreaking and the huge amount of potting and/or top soil it takes will eat into your budget in a big way.

Bareroot Trees Awaiting Planting:

 

Potted bareroot trees awaiting planting

Fall 2014

Now Or Never

My bareroots, having resided in pots since spring–watered manually over the summer with a hose–were past ready to plant. So were the rootstocks–they had been moved outside once the threat of them freezing had passed. It was now or never. My plans for having planting holes augered had fallen through again, I finally took some time off work and started planting.

Load ‘Em Up

Bareroot trees are light–you can fit 100 of them in a large UPS box and throw it in the back of a truck. By contrast, potted, watered trees are exceedingly heavy. A landscape trailer was necessary to move them to the field from their sheltered location between two barns.

Lay ‘Em Out

Having not measured and flagged out the field already (again, not a recommended approach), I placed the potted trees in rows at the distances needed (see the orcharding pages for more specifics).

 

Dig ‘Em

Here’s where my bravado screwed me. I started digging the holes manually. 200+ trees/rootstocks, and little ‘ol me. I got through 15 holes by hand in a day in the hard-packed clay soil, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never been more sore than I was the next morning. This first day was when Bill made his sage comments about my farming prowess.

Fair enough–I adapted. The next day I enlisted the support of Bill’s employee, Luke, who could drive the backhoe Bill owned. Now we were cooking with gas. Well, diesel. Using the backhoe scoop, Luke dug giant holes that were a pain to backfill, but less of a pain than digging them by hand. A couple more days, and I had the trees in.

Planted apple trees, 2014

Water? Who Needs Water?

Here’s one of the biggest mistakes I made in orchard planning–not getting irrigation in place BEFORE planting. For a year now, I’ve hauled water out to these trees, spending many hours along the way. Mine was a failure of planning and time and a hesitation to invest substantially in the irrigation infrastructure needed to automate the delivery of water to the trees. Depending on how wet the area you live in, irrigation may not be as pressing a need, but for me, it was, and I’ve paid quite a bit in time and physical labor for my lack of up front irrigation spend and planning. But–if you believe me, given the tale so far–I’m about to get that done.

Disaster#1: Rabbits

Rabbits. They’re cute, right? I thought so too, until they decimated my tender, small, grafted rootstocks. They chew the bark at the base of young trees, you see, which kills them. I hadn’t fully appreciated the rabid, Tasmanian devil-style potential of those cute little bunnies (correction: what were once cute bunnies before they became my nemesis) to chew through trees. Lesson learned–use tree guards and/or animal repellents like Liquid Fence to keep the monsters at bay.

As it turned out, though, this was the least of my problems.

Disaster #2: The 2014 Polar Vortex

Not everywhere is well-suited for the growing of apples, even in the temperate zones of the U.S.. In the front range of Colorado, for instance, we have major temperature extremes within a short period of time, and frequently have late frosts which will kill the late spring apple blossoms and thus the harvest for the entire year. But such is life here…it’ll never be an apple-growing Mecca, but it’s a wonderful place to live.

In the Fall of 2014, we had a particularly brutal temperature shift in an unseasonably warm fall in which the temperature dropped precipitously from an extended stint in the 70s to well below zero. In a day. Normally, apple and other trees can withstand very low temperatures, but here’s the kicker: they need some cold days in the fall to signal them to go dormant. In this case, it was so warm that the trees hadn’t gone dormant, and were quite active when the hard freeze occurred. The result: dead trees everywhere, especially among small deciduous trees.

The result for me? While I couldn’t tell for sure until the following Spring, as it turns out, all of my 2014 plantings died, except for Liberty varieties–about 20 of the original 200 trees. The resulting psychological hit was larger than I’d like to admit–and explains why I haven’t managed to write about the experience until almost a year later–but as it turns out, I’d learned enough to make 2015 a much better year…so far.

See more about the 2014 polar vortex’ effects on Colorado trees here.

Spring 2015: Lessons Learned

Not knowing how many trees I’d lost, I ordered Spring 2015 trees on the basis that I hadn’t lost any. As it turns out, that was fine–I had the additional room, and I could always re-plant the original rows later.

Digging: This Time, Like a Boss:

Having planned ahead a bit better, my Spring 2015 order was larger and included more cider-specific or heirloom varieties–the latter of which I’d learned more about since the last time around.

This time, there would be no digging holes by hand, nor even by backhoe if I could avoid it (as it turned out, I didn’t avoid the latter altogether, but I minimized it at least, and learned how to drive it…).

Instead, I’d finally managed to time things right and secure my friend Greg Jordan’s services. Greg owns a skid steer (think the Bobcat vehicle used for construction and landscaping) with an auger attachment which did in a few seconds what took me half an hour by hand–namely, dig a tree-sized hole and break up the hard-packed clay soil for easy subsequent planting.

Observe the majesty:

Planting: This Time, Right Away.

With the Skid Steer, we drilled several hundred holes in a couple hours, allowing me to plant bare root trees immediately.

Mychorrhizae:

I dropped a few dozen in a bucket with their roots soaking in water and Mycorrhizal Root Dip. What are Mycorrhizae, you ask? Mycorrhizae are one of the ‘secrets’ in the orchardist’s arsenal. They are a symbiotic fungus which grows with and into plant roots, enhancing the health of both. It’s a topic that could get into the weeds (or roots, har) pretty easily, so I won’t belabor it here. I will, however, belabor it in future content. Read more about Mycorrhizae here.

2015_bareroot_augered_hole_1

Bareroot tree in freshly-augered hole (white powder is Myke–a Mycorrhizal amendment)

Within a few days, I had all 200ish bareroot trees planted. I still hadn’t set up irrigation, but luckily 2015 has been the wettest year on record–a great fact for the apple trees in this otherwise dry climate, but also good for the weeds, which are legion this year. The moisture has also brought some additional challenges in the form of certain apple pests.

Animal Repellants

This year, I was better prepared for the scourge of adorable bunnies that will absolutely wipe out young trees. I have been periodically applying a repellant known as Liquid Fence which, among other ingredients, contains rotten eggs, giving rabbits, deer, and other herbivores (and you) the impression of putrescence, repelling their otherwise ravenous attraction to your plants.

Summary

This first post spans my first two years at this as an illustration of the learning process. It’s very easy to make major mistakes in planting your orchard which can be painful. This and future orcharding content aims to make this process easier for you, from planning to long-term maintenance. As with other farming or gardening activities, there will be issues–of this I’m sure–but you can and will improve over time if you adapt.

Adaptation is the hallmark of our species, and also of the organisms we work with or against in this context: the apples themselves, the insects, and the animals involved are in a constant, shifting, dynamic dance, and what is helpful and what is harmful depend on your role. Welcome to the jungle, er, orchard.

Lessons Learned

Here are just a few of the things I learned during my first two seasons:

  • Plan ahead, but be ready to adapt. No planning is disastrous–you have to test the soil, plan the spacing of the trees, and (probably, depending on where you live) irrigate your orchard. But even good planning won’t account for every contingency. If that’s the case for you, don’t panic–there’s likely a solution, or at least a mitigation, available to you.
  • You won’t be able to get every apple variety you want right away. This is ok–you can re-graft existing trees later to other varieties.
  • Estimate the time it’ll take to plan, plant, and manage your orchard, then double it. In my case, I was off by more like 300% than 200% for the initial few years, but I’m getting more efficient and will be faster the next time around. Experience helps, if you learn from it.
  • You–or someone–has to monitor the orchard frequently. Tree health can change quickly. Pests can appear overnight, and even if you notice them, the treatments you choose must be monitored for effectiveness and changes made if the original approach was ineffective. You have to be on your toes, but it’s worth it! Bear with me…

More To Come

I have more to share about orcharding, and will add that information as soon as possible.

Here are a few topics you can expect:

  • specific pests I encountered and what I’ve done about them
  • specific approaches I’ve taken to address soil conditions
  • how (once I’ve done it) I set up irrigation in the orchard, and some recommendations around this
  • how various varieties have worked (or not) for me in my area
  • resources–equipment suppliers, organizations, and individuals–I’ve discovered along the way which have proved useful

And don’t worry–the content won’t all be about apple orcharding. There will also be cidermaking, meadmaking, and related content to be had, so…settle in and join me on this journey.

Questions? Comments?

If you have content recommendations, send me a note on the contact page, or leave a comment below.

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