Site Selection and Preparation for the Home Orchard

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Are you considering purchasing apple trees during the 2024 Plant Sale being conducted by N.C. Cooperative Extension of Yancey County? If so, that is great! However, make sure that you choose the best site to establish your tree(s) and make sure it is prepared well before the April tree distribution date. Here are a few tips for you to consider implementing before your newly ordered trees are ready to pick up later in the spring:

1. Pick Out the Best Site

The ideal site for apple trees will receive full sun. Make sure to consider the surroundings to ensure that trees will not be shaded by trees or buildings during any part of the day. Avoid planting fruit trees in low areas with poor cold air drainage. Remember that, like water, cold air will move down hill and settle in the lowest areas where frost pockets can be created in the spring. If planted in low areas, blossom or developing fruit loss may be incurred much more frequently. If possible, chose a planting location at the top of a slope so that cold air can move away from trees. Avoid planting trees near where fences, buildings, or wooded areas are located, especially on the “down hill” side of the orchard. These can impede air-flow in the spring and cause frost pockets also. Ideal planting sites for apple trees will also be well-drained. Avoid planting trees on north facing slopes. Try to choose a location that has southern or southeastern exposure if possible.

2. Consider the Soil Nutrients

Once the best orchard planting site has been determined, it is important to start the site preparation process. The first step in site preparation is to consider the soil nutrient needs. Nutrient needs can easily be assessed using a soil test. Soil testing services are available through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, if you have not soil tested already, their is a cost of $6 for each soil test submitted to the lab in the months of December thru April. However, it is worth the cost as this may be the difference in success and failure for establishing your home orchard. Soil testing supplies are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Yancey County Center year round, and we can help direct you on how to take soil samples properly.

A soil test indicates phosphorous, potassium and other nutrient levels in the soil. It also indicates the soil pH of the potential orchard site, which usually determines if lime application is needed. N.C. Cooperative Extension of Yancey County can help you to interpret the soil test results and give recommendations to what nutrients or fertilizers should be applied prior to planting the home orchard based on soil test results.

It takes a few weeks for soil samples to be processed so it will be best to take samples as far ahead of the April plant sale distribution date as is possible. It also can take up to 6 months to begin to see the benefit of a lime application, and 1-2 years to have the full effect of a lime application if soil test results indicate the need. As you come into the Yancey County Extension Center to pre-order trees, make sure to pick up soil testing supplies before heading out, and complete soil testing as soon as possible.

3. Prepare the Soil for Planting

As we have weather and dry conditions in the late winter or early spring that allow for soil preparation, it is important to take a few steps that will get your planting site ready for when the trees finally arrive. In the areas where trees are to be planted, it is important to remove all grass and weeds from the planting area. If planting multiple trees in a row, remove vegetation in a 4-5 ft. wide row. If planting individual trees, remove vegetation from a 4 ft diameter circle around each planting hole. Even grass roots can significantly compete with trees for nutrients. Vegetation can be removed or killed in planting areas through tillage, or by spraying a herbicide.

Lime can be applied before tillage or spraying to remove vegetation. Fertilizer or other sources of soil nutrients that are needed according to the soil test report should be applied and incorporated into the soil closer to the planting date. Keep in mind that fertilizer and lime should be broadcast around each specific planting site. Never add fertilizer to the planting hole before planting as this might damage trees that are planted their.

Conclusion

Should you choose to purchase trees through the 2024 Plants Sale, choosing the best planting site, properly assessing soil nutrient needs, and preparing the planting site are three things that can be done now to help you successfully establish your home orchard. We will have more tips coming throughout the spring. So make sure to check out our other articles.

For more information about establishing your own home orchard, or if you would like more information regarding the 2024 Plant sale, contact David Davis (david_davis@ncsu.edu) or call the N.C. Cooperative Extension Yancey County Center at (828) 682-6186.