Ensure the success of your orchard investment

Many growers have started an orchard renewal plan to plant high density orchards. The investment in money, time and management is high, so it is critical to plan ahead, to ensure the orchard establishes successfully to achieve the return on your investment.

Trees in high density orchards grow differently. Remember - High density works because the system directs energy to cropping, not wood. Look closely at trees in high density orchards - they have a much higher ratio of fruiting area to structural wood.

These elements are essential for success:

  • Feathered trees to provide early cropping
  • Dwarfing rootstock to control vigour and increase fruit size
  • Tree support from planting to encourage fruit, not wood
  • More trees/acre to increase early yields
  • Fall or early spring planting for quick root establishment

Here are my Top 10 Tips to Planting Successful High Density Orchards:

  1. Choose the best site. This might be a current orchard, but perhaps a field with better drainage, soil condition or access to water would be better.. Consider the risk of frost, hail and wind. (Tip 1a. Take a year to make needed improvements)
  2. Buy the best trees. Tall leaders, enough feathers, and good roots are worth the money. In fact, 20-year studies prove that the cost of the tree doesn`t matter as long as they produce yield early. (Tip 2a. Plan how to transport and store nursery trees to avoid dehydration before planting).
  3. Plant the right cultivars. Economic studies show that price has the highest effect on profitability, so plant the cultivars that the market wants - that pay the best. (Tip 3a. Ensure that harvest windows are matched to your crew, and that pollinizers are provided, either interplanted rows or with crabapples).
  4. Choose the right rootstock. Today's high density systems require fully dwarfing rootstock (M.9 size), and there are many to choose from. Remember that some rootstocks improve fruit size. Consider tolerance to fire blight, Phythopthora root rot, and apple replant disease (on old orchard sites). (Tip 4a. Order trees well in advance to get the rootstock-cultivar combinations your market wants and your site needs).
  5. Choose the right spacing. The target tree density is 1000-1200 trees/acre for tall spindle systems - many growers have success with 12' rows and 3' in-row spacings. (Tip 5a. If your equipment is too big, invest in "right size" - if your trees are too far apart, you will lose the income from early yields). (Tip 5b. Smaller cultivars like Ambrosia and Honeycrisp have done well at even higher densities, like Super spindle orchards at 2200 trees/acre).
  6. Choose the right training system. Tall Spindle trees planted at 1200 trees/acre on fully dwarfing rootstock are performing well. Final tree height is 0.9 x row spacing (eg. 11' trees when rows are 12' apart). (Tip 6a. These trees are NOT headed at planting, or ever! Feathers should be tied down for early crops, and high fertility is needed to push the leaders to reach the top wire quickly.)
  7. Get ready for planting day in advance. When the soil condition is right, have your crew, equipment, and trees ready. Plan enough labour for about 40 hours/acre to plant, and another 20 hours/acre to install trellis. If weather does not cooperate, have a plan for holding trees. (Tip 7a. Keep roots moist at all times - tarps, hoses, pails may be critical to avoid dried (and dead) roots.)
  8. Install the support system ASAP. Trellis is more cost effective at higher tree densities and avoids the wind twisting that happens with individual tree stakes. (Tip 8a. Build it strong - posts driven 3-4' in the ground, 30' between posts, anchors at 60° angle. It needs to support 30 ton/acre of fruit).
  9. Water, water, water. Keep roots moist until planted, and then water shortly after planting to ensure good root-soil contact. If rainfall is scarce, water each week to keep trees growing. (Tip 9a. Full season irrigation is critical to grow high yielding dwarf trees. Mulch can retain moisture in the soil if irrigation is not available).
  10. Control weeds and other pests to maximize growth and early yields. The best tree growth occurs when weeds are controlled for May through July. The highest early yields are from trees where trees are kept weed-free in this critical period. (Tip 10a. Control scab, mildew and fire blight until terminal bud set, and scout weekly for caterpillars, mites, aphids, and other pests).

High early yields will be required to pay for this investment. New York orchards have been able to produce 165 bins/acre in the first five years, so here is your challenge:

2nd leaf - 10 bins/acre
3rd leaf - 27 bins/acre
4th leaf - 53 bins/acre
5th leaf - 75 bins/acre
= 165 bins/acre total production in first 5 years.

Good luck with your new orchards!

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca