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Garden Help Desk: How to start a community orchard

By USU Extension - | Mar 12, 2022

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

A plastic drop cloth or similar covering can help to keep perfect soil moisture perfect when rain or snow is in the forecast before tilling or planting.

My neighbor and I started a community garden in our neighborhood (in Zone 5b). Year one was a smashing success and for year two we’re looking at putting in 10-20 bare root fruit trees. We’ll have multiple varieties of several types and keep them pruned small with goal to extend fruit season, cross pollinate, and not be overwhelmed with production. We’ve done a lot of research looking at bloom times, chill hours, zone tolerance, pollination needs, ripening times and taste. I’m worried about chilling hours, though. Are there varieties that we should avoid because they won’t get enough chilling hours?

Chilling hours are the number of hours a fruit tree needs to spend between 34 and 45 degrees during late fall through winter so that it can flower and set fruit in the spring. Most of the popular fruit varieties do well here and getting enough hours isn’t a problem for our area because fruit trees usually get the hours they need well before the end of winter.

It sounds like you’ve done your research for pollination, bloom time and other issues, so you should be fine there. I do have some concerns for your project, though.

A community garden or orchard requires some consistent attention, which requires a few committed, long-term people to keep things going from year to year as short-term gardeners or volunteers pass through. Of all the things you can add to a garden or landscape, fruit trees are the most labor-intensive and they also require maintenance by someone with some skill and training. It’s something that can’t be neglected.

You’re adding a lot of trees and a lot of work. Without at least a small core of reliable volunteers, the work will fall to the two of you. Think carefully about whether you’ll have the time for all the pruning, thinning, pest management, harvesting and cleanup for 10-20 trees if you find there aren’t long-term volunteers/gardeners to help carry the load.

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

You can use the squeeze test to check soil moisture before tilling or planting. If a handful of soil holds together when squeezed and doesn't break easily, the soil is too wet to work with.

This also applies to large family gardens and extended-family orchards and gardens. Can you manage that garden on your own or with just occasional help if your family isn’t as enthusiastic about the garden as they seemed to be at first? Is there a history of good helpers on other long-term extended-family projects? Tending an orchard includes several time-critical tasks.

Skipping a year of pruning during the first few years of a young tree’s life will affect the sturdiness and productivity of the tree later. Delaying or missing important pest management applications can affect the yield and quality of your fruit and even put the health of your trees at risk.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do this. Community gardens and family orchards can be wonderful places to meet people, make new friends, strengthen relationships and improve food security in your community. Best of luck in your garden and orchard.

Just how dry does garden soil need to be before I can till or plant? It seems like every spring the soil dries out almost enough to prepare the soil, and then it rains or snows again before I get anything done. I want to try planting early spring crops, but I never seem to get a chance.

Soil shouldn’t be wet when you’re tilling or planting. Tilling soil that’s too wet can damage the structure of your soil and create future problems for you in your garden. If your soil holds together in a clump when you squeeze a handful, it’s too wet to do any soil preparation. Early springtime gardening can be a challenge here, but you can be successful. I can’t offer you any formal research-based strategies, but I can tell you a few things I’ve tried that have been successful for me.

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

Large community gardens, community gardens with fruit trees, and extended-family gardens need a few reliable caretakers to ensure that important tasks are done at the right time every year.

First, I try to prepare the soil where I want to plant early spring crops in the fall. That reduces the number of good-weather days I’ll need in the spring. As soon as the soil and the forecast look good in the spring I can plant my garden spring.

Second, there are some years when the weather is really challenging and fall soil preparation isn’t enough. Sometimes we have a spring when it’s still too cold to plant, the soil is perfect, but rain or snow is in the forecast. When that happens, I cover the growing area with inexpensive plastic drop cloth to keep out the extra moisture until there’s a break in the weather. Then, I can uncover that part of my garden when temperatures are better and plant my spring crops.


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