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Interested in growing fruit trees? How to start your own small orchard.

In the Garden

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Lance Ellis,

If you love trees, than producing your own fruit, or owning a small acreage orchard might be right for you.

But before you start digging holes to plant trees, its critical you find out if your location is reasonably good to grow fruit trees. As they say in the real estate world, “location, location, location”, is a must for tree growing.

If your acreage is in a low spot where the frost settles, or is located higher up in the valley like Island Park where there are less heat units during the summer, then growing an orchard as a profitable business may not be a good idea, and you should try something else. Although there are varieties of fruit that bloom later than others, it is just too risky to try and grow fruit trees where they likely won’t produce due to late frosts.

Additionally, if it’s just too cool during the summer for a particular variety, then the fruit will be small and won’t ripen in time before hard frosts damage it in the fall.

Next consider your soil; find out if it is good for trees or if it has undesirable qualities such as being extremely rocky, or doesn’t drain well due to being a heavy clay soil. Any soil type that prevents fruit trees from developing a strong and vigorous root system is almost impossible to change, and should be avoided.

Within the snake river plain, the soil types vary and change within a short distance, so digging test holes in various locations on your property can help you determine which is the most desirable spot for planting a small orchard. For example, I had an area picked out that I thought would be ideal for planting apples, pears, and cherries, but after digging test holes, there turned out to be only 4 to 6 inches of top soil before it tuned into large rocky cobblestones.

Lance Ellis,

A rocky (large gravel or cobblestones) type ground is terrible to dig in, but also doesn’t allow trees to root easily and effectively. They can also struggle to maintain sufficient moisture levels since the water drains away so quickly, and they may ultimately fail to develop good anchorage. If they do survive, but don’t have good anchorage then many times they will topple over due to wind or a heavy fruit load. These rocky locations are not suitable for gardening or fruit trees, but would have been just fine for lawn or ornamental grasses.

In my case it was a good location for growing pasture grass for my cows. Ultimately, I was able to find a good location with several feet of good top soil for the orchard. On an interesting note, the distance between the spot with shallow top soil and the area with deep top soil was only 5 to 8 feet apart, so soil type can change dramatically within a small distance. This is all related to how the snake river historically flowed through the valley, and created gravel deposits, sand bars and silt bars.

Lance Ellis,

Next consider how much irrigation water you have available, and if it will be enough to carry your trees through the growing season.

I have consulted with many people about how to start a small acreage orchard in the past, and when asked about their water shares or water rights to irrigate, they many times shared they didn’t have any, or not enough, and didn’t realize you have to water your trees, which ultimately meant they couldn’t grow fruit trees on their land.

We live in a high altitude desert, and without irrigation water, fruit trees don’t survive and produce. Another consideration to the above criteria is wind protection, so your trees can be shaped and trained the right way, without having the wind train them for you. And you don’t want to grow a crooked or unstable tree.

Some of the other many considerations involved in running an orchard business include how much time you have available, can you physically do the work of pruning, planting, irrigating, picking, and spraying?

Will you do the work alone, or as a family, or will you have to employ others to help you? There are a multitude of aspects to running an orchard, and it is critical to create an informed plan so you can address the challenges as well as take advantage of the opportunities you identify.

For further questions on small acreage orchards call Lance at 208-624-3102.