Is there anything yummier than the harvest of your own fruits and vegetables?  A home orchard is a long term investment in your health, your budget, and  your environment.  Eating locally produced foods uses less non-renewable energy - and it doesn't get much more local than your own back yard!  Here's some helpful tips to get you started.

Things to know before you plant:
  • Avoid low areas in your yard - these act as "frost pockets" in late spring.  Look for slopes around your yard - not too steep (this will cause other problems).
  • Start with well-draining soil (no puddling) and add some healthy compost during the early years of your orchard.
  • Find an area with full sun (6 - 8 hours of direct sun)!
Not every yard will have the perfect location for an orchard, but even if you've only got half of these best practices available, you can still have good harvests.  It will just require some extra time and effort on your part!

Why it's important to prune your fruit trees:
     Cutting off parts of this cute little fruit tree I just bought? Are you crazy? Pruning your trees will actually refresh their growth, increase the size of their fruits, provide the highest amount of sunlight to the interior of the trees (which means less disease and nicer fruits), and allow you greater access when it's time to harvest - especially as the trees mature.  The most successful pruners are those who make careful observations of their trees and the way those trees respond to being pruned. 

Getting started, the first year:
     Your goal when pruning a young fruit tree is to get the branches to spread out and become the main framework for the mature tree.  More branches may give you more fruit, but fewer branches mean the fruits you get will be larger and cleaner!  You will need to prune your orchard in late winter or early spring - always before the buds break open and leaves begin to grow.  The best time to prune is just as the buds begin to swell.  This is particularly important for Peach, Nectarine, and Apricot trees since they are sensitive to late-season winter injury and canker infections due to improper prune wounds.  Remember: never cut too close to the stem and always leave 1" of the branch.
     Apples, Pears, Sweet Cherries, and many Plums are upright growers and it's important to keep the central leader (the branch somewhere in the middle that wants to grow tallest) under control.  Your goal is to keep the tree on the short side (so the fruit is lower and thus easier to spray and harvest), with a low-spreading Christmas tree shape as it matures. 
  • Figure out which branch is the leader and cut it by about 25% in the first year.  Don't allow the leader to re-establish itself in later years.
  • Next, locate 4-5 lateral branches (on small trees) which will become the main framework for the mature tree.  No branch should be lower than 24" from the ground.
     Peaches, Nectarines, Sour Cherries, Apricots, and some Plums have a low spreading habit.  They need an even better air flow through the branches to prevent disease than the more upright types.  On these trees, you will need to find and completely remove that central leader.
     The last step to establish that main framework for the mature tree takes place in the summer.  You will need to train the lateral branches you identified in the late winter/early spring to grow outward and a little downward.  You can use scrap wood to separate and push these branches away from the central stem.  Clothespins will work for young and bendable branches.  Weights or small bags of rocks tied to your branches will bring them slightly downwards.  Your may leave theses training guides in place through the fall and remove them around Thanksgiving.  This summer training will need to be repeated for the first few years until the main framework of branches has been established.

This article largely came from an email sent from one of our tree suppliers, Pennsylvania Pride, entitled Home Orchard & Fruit Gardens, Part 1, by Don Eaton.