Garden Help Desk: How to Start a Community Orchard | News, Sports, Jobs


Courtesy of Meredith Seaver

A plastic drop cloth or similar covering can help maintain perfect soil moisture when rain or snow is forecast before plowing or planting.

My neighbor and I started a community garden in our neighborhood (in zone 5b). The first year was a resounding success and for the second year we plan to install 10-20 bare root fruit trees. We will have multiple varieties of multiple types and keep them pruned small in an effort to extend the fruiting season, cross-pollinate, and not be overwhelmed with production. We’ve done a lot of research on flowering times, chill times, zone tolerance, pollination needs, ripening times, and taste. I worry about the chill hours, though. Are there any strains we should avoid because they won’t get enough chill hours?

Chill hours are the number of hours a fruit tree must spend between 34 and 45 degrees from late fall through winter in order to flower and fruit in the spring. Most of the popular fruit varieties do well here and getting enough hours is not a problem for our area as the fruit trees usually get the hours they need well before winter is over.

It looks like you’ve done your research on pollination, bloom time, and other issues, so you should be fine. However, I have some concerns for your project.

A community garden or orchard requires constant attention, which requires a few committed, long-term people to keep things going from year to year when gardeners or short-term volunteers pass by. 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 skills and training. It is something that cannot be overlooked.

You add a lot of trees and a lot of work. Without at least a small core of reliable volunteers, the job will fall to both of you. Think carefully if you will have time for pruning, thinning, pest control, harvesting and cleaning 10-20 trees if you find that there are no long term volunteers/gardeners for you help carry the load.

Courtesy of Meredith Seaver

You can use the compression test to check soil moisture before plowing or planting. If a handful of soil holds together when pressed and does not break easily, the soil is too wet to work.

This also applies to large home gardens and larger orchards and home gardens. Can you manage this garden on your own or with 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 extended family long-term projects? Maintaining an orchard includes several urgent tasks.

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

That doesn’t mean 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. Good luck in your garden and orchard.

How dry must the soil in the garden be before you can plow or plant? It seems that every spring the ground dries out almost enough to prepare the ground, then it rains or snows again before I do anything. I want to try planting crops in early spring, but I never seem to get the chance.

The soil should not be wet when plowing or planting. Tilling soil that is too wet can damage your soil structure 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 spring gardening can be a challenge here, but you can pull it off. I can’t offer you any formal strategies based on research, but I can tell you a few things I’ve tried that have worked for me.

Courtesy of Meredith Seaver

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

First of all, I try to prepare the ground where I want to plant the crops from early spring to autumn. This reduces the number of good weather days I will need in the spring. As soon as the soil and the spring forecast are good, I can plant my garden in the spring.

Secondly, in some years the weather is really difficult and the preparation of the soil in the fall is not enough. Sometimes we have a spring where it’s still too cold to plant, the soil is perfect, but the rain or snow is on the way. When this happens I cover the growing area with an inexpensive plastic drop cloth to keep out additional moisture until there is a break in the weather. Then I can discover that part of my garden where the temperatures are better and plant my spring crops.


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