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Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Posted by glenn_russell 6b, RI (My Page) on
Sat, Oct 11, 08 at 22:41

Hi All-

Ok, Ive mentioned previously that Ill be taking down 3 larger trees this coming spring to create a small front yard orchard. (This is in addition to the 7 or smaller apple trees I have on the property, some of which are in less than ideal locations) This will give me room for 5 more fruit trees and theyll now get full sun.

My problem is what to do with the soil. Id say its a good amount of clay, but also I believe there is a good amount of gravel. Some stones from the driveway and some from the road have made their way in too. Grass has a pretty hard time, and because I dont really water there, it can become hard-baked/dusty in areas. In other areas, where its shady some grass grows. Not exactly ideal orchard soil. But, then again, I guess its not terrible because there are 3 trees (large maple, 2 choke cherry trees), and a very large oak tree nearby dont have any problems. Ive followed other threads which have basically said "Clay isnt so bad" But, Im trying to do better than "Not too bad".

Long term plans for this area will be to probably remove some of the top layer and replace it with nice loam for grass, etc. But, thats part of a bigger yard project that I wont be able to start until the following year. And, I want to get these trees going now. I like doing the fruits with my young daughters, and every year we delay, they get a bit older.

Heres what I was thinking: When I have the 3 trees removed, I will have the excavator dig 5 holes in the areas where fruit trees are going to go. These holes would probably be 8-10 feet in diameter and about 3 feet down. For the bottom 18", Id put a layer of sand for nice drainage. On top of that, Ill place 18" nice loam. (I have almost this exact situation for another apple tree near the house, and it seems very happy. Also, Mr. Cummins told me that loam over sand is ideal)

The trick will then be to do all this such that later, when we loam the rest of the yard, everything will come out level So the plan mentioned above will be shifted up a little. (We did something very similar in the back yard with our volleyball court. In that case I built the court up more than 5 feet in an area. 3 years later, when we finished the back yard with 800 yards of fill, the levels matched up perfectly)

Is this plan crazy? This is my first attempt at planning orchard soil, so be gentle with the responses. :-)

Thanks as always,

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

  • Posted by chills Zone 6b Mi (My Page) on
    Sat, Oct 11, 08 at 23:39

Personally, I'd lose the sand and use pea-gravel instead.


RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

  • Posted by jean001 z8aPortland, OR (My Page) on
    Sun, Oct 12, 08 at 1:04

You wrote: "Id put a layer of sand for nice drainage."

Please don't do that. Contrary to popular opinion, it won't help with drainage. (It's a matter of soil physics.)

Nor would I use pea gravel.. Same result -- won't help -- and for the same reason.

Also, no loam in the hole.

Instead, dig the holes only as deep at the tree's rootball, and as wide as you want to go. Eight feet is a good start.

To refill the hole, use the same clay. Plant, then water to settle the soil.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Glenn, you should excavate now instead of next spring so the new ground can settle. You don't want your lawn bumpy or grafts buried in sinking soil.
You'll also have more time in the spring to check for drainage, plant orchard, irrigation.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard


Agree with jean, a layer of sand or gravel will be a total waste of money. If it does anything it will reduce drainage.

If your soil drains fairly well it will grow fruit trees just as it is. After all you are removing trees to plant the new ones. So just plant the trees with a hole big enough for the roots in the native soil.

If your soil isn't well drained enough, you need raised beds not big holes filled with topsoil.

Adding 12 inches of loam on top of everything is a good plan. But don't put 2-3ft more of loam or sand in a large hole at each tree. That won't help and might hurt.

The perfect fruit tree soil is not the same as the perfect soil for corn, soybeans or some other crop. Too good of a soil for fruit trees will result in excessive vigor and reduced fruit quality. You're better off leaving well enough alone.

The Fruitnut

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

My less than perfect but successful method to improve nasty red clay for orchard trees has been to improve the top 8 inches of the entire orchard over several years time using llama and horse manure and a rented tiller. Then I use a rented excavator to dig 6-8' holes about 3' deep. I place the improved soil in the holes and spread the nasty clay between the holes where the improved soil was before. Then I started improving the topsoil again. Key to this method is an easy and reliable source of high bulk manure. For my vineyard I used an excavator to dig 2' wide x 2' deep trenches and added manure and pushed soil back in over time.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Hi all-
Thanks for the advice!
Here are all my follow-up questions in one paragraph!
So, it looks like most people are saying that I shouldn't do much to the soil (even though it doesn't look like orchard soil to me)... is this true even if I find it's mostly gravel, like I expect that it is? (This lot was mostly filled 18 years ago) I don't think I could do 12" of loam later... probably more like 6" (too much area to do, loam so expensive). Is the idea that the loam nutrients will mostly leach down to the lower roots? Or will the roots grow up/out into that loam? These trees will all be bare root coming from Trees of Antiquity, Cummins, or Adams County. So, if I simply dig the hole, and put the same dirt back in, I'm only loosening up the not-so-great soil, correct? Also, if I'm pre-planning for the later loam and want to build up the area of the tree by 6", what can I put into the soil to make up the difference? Obviously the extra volume has to come from somewhere. As for manure, I thought you couldn't give manure directly to fruit trees unless it was composted first, correct? I'm not sure of any place to get composted manure around here... Is it hard to find? Id like to do the excavation now, but my gardening money comes in the spring. c'est la vie! Thanks again as always, -Glenn

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

  • Posted by jean001 z8aPortland, OR (My Page) on
    Sun, Oct 12, 08 at 20:13

Forget the loam layer. It, too, will inhibit drainage. Also root growth.

You asked: "Or will the roots grow up/out into that loam?"


You also asked: "So, if I simply dig the hole, and put the same dirt back in, I'm only loosening up the not-so-great soil, correct? "

Yes. and that's fine. It allows the roots to extend into the native soil where they must eventually be.

You wrote: "Also, if I'm pre-planning for the later loam ..."

As above, forget the loam. If you want to build up a mound for a tree, do it with the existing soil.

As for the manure, you could compost it yourself.

And I believe folks spread non-composted manure in the fall so that it breaks down over the winter. (I'm certain other folks will jump in with normal practices for manures.)

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

  • Posted by glib 5.5 (My Page) on
    Sun, Oct 12, 08 at 23:03

if you can afford a soil slightly higher than it is now, I would just put down one foot of wood chips. It will eventually turn into one inch of good soil, with decent P and K without adding unneeded N, a bit acid, basically the forest soil that trees like, while providing mulching for about two years. Most perennials are happy with this simple (and inexpensive) preparation.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

  • Posted by bboy z8 WA USA (My Page) on
    Sun, Oct 12, 08 at 23:40

For some reason many are enamored of complex and bothersome planting procedures, or ones that require a waiting period before planting. Wild trees pop up wherever the seed lands, to grow to maturity if the existing soil and other site conditions suit the particular kind of tree. You really won't be able to force your fruit trees to do well in that spot by monkeying with it. Better to study the location to see if it has the right exposure and soil for orchard fruit trees, and if it seems it does...

Planting Hole Preparation
􀂾 Dig a hole no deeper than the root mass, but at least twice as wide.
􀂾 Build a soil mound in the middle of the hole to help spread the roots evenly.
􀂾 Remove roots, weeds, large rocks, and other debris from the planting hole.
􀂾 Do not add gravel, fertilizers, organic matter, or other amendments to the planting hole.
􀂾 Do not loosen or otherwise disturb the soil at the bottom of the hole.
Plant Installation
􀂾 Fall planting is generally best in mild climates; spring plantings require more irrigation.
􀂾 Remove existing soil from the roots to prevent soil interface problems.
􀂾 Remove all foreign materials burlap, plastic, tags, etc.
􀂾 Orient the plant so the shoot-root interface is at or slightly above the soil surface.
􀂾 Prune out dead, damaged, or diseased roots; excessively long roots may be shortened.
􀂾 Prune out damaged, diseased or dead material. Do not top prune.
􀂾 Place the plant atop the soil mound and spread the roots out evenly.
􀂾 Backfill with unamended native soil.
􀂾 Water the plant well to help settle the soil; if holes appear, fill with native soil.
􀂾 Build a soil berm around the planting hole to increase water retention.
􀂾 Add a thick layer of well-drained organic mulch like wood chips, but keep away from trunks.
􀂾 Stake only if necessary; stakes should be loose and low (bottom 1/3 of plant) and removed
after one growing season.
􀂾 Fertilize with fish meal or ammonium sulfate. Do not use phosphate-containing fertilizers.
􀂾 If needed, use tree shelters or other barriers to keep out herbivores.
After Care
􀂾 Water new transplants during the first 1-2 dry seasons to help them establish.
􀂾 Maintain a mulch layer ≈ 3-4 inches thick.
􀂾 Keep the root zone free of turf and weeds to reduce resource competition

Here is a link that might be useful: Horticultural techniques for successful plant establishment

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Reasons why others are saying to use only un-amended native soil when planting the trees rather than putting sand in the bottom and good loam above:

Clay is composed of very fine particles. As a result, it can hold substantially more water than coarser soils such as a loam or sand, maybe 3" of water per 12" of soil compared to less than 1" of water per 12" of sand. With the greater water holding capacity, it will tend to "pull" water in from other soils. If you use non-native materials in the hole, the clay will tend to pull the water out of the planting hole. Thus, you will end up with your clay pulling the water away from the fruit trees and you could end up drouthing the trees out despite thinking you are keeping them well watered--actually, your clay will be well watered, but not your tree.

Another potential problem with using amended soil is a significant difference in density between the amended soil and the clay. When the growing new tree's roots hit the clay, it will be harder to penetrate so the roots will tend to turn and follow the edge of the planting hole, circling the tree. You will have the effect of planting the tree in the ground still in a container. Over a couple of years, the roots will penetrate the clay and take off, but in the beginning they may become "pot bound".

Manure--I always think of manure coming in 3 ways--fresh, dried, and composted. Fresh manure is still wet and contains relatively high amounts of nitrogen from urine. Putting this on a tree in any higher quantity than a single cow pie will not do it any good. It is just too much. Once the manure has dried, much of the nitrogen has dissipated into the atmosphere, so the nitrogen levels are much lower and you are essentially adding raw organic matter, such as mounding grass clippings or leaves around the tree. This material has to compost and break down and if present in sufficient quantity or depth, it may heat to do so, which won't be good for the tree. If it is a thinner layer, it will just slowly rot, which is fine. If your source of manure is from an animal that digests it's food less completely, such as horses, weed or grass seed in their feed will pass through and your manure mulched tree will have a forest of weed seedlings coming up. Cattle do a better job of digesting seeds, but not enough. Sheep and goats do a pretty good job, as will pigs, and poultry are probably pretty close to 100% seed eliminators. So, with fresh dried manure, you are mulching with an organic matter source which may also be seeding the ground down to weeds depending on which type of animal it came from. In addition, weed seeds in the bedding, regardless of the type of animal, will be completely viable when you "plant" them.

With composted manure, the rotting process has substantially completed and the material will contain fairly high levels of nutrients, though nitrogen will be relatively low. The heat and process of composting will kill the weed seeds in the manure so you won't be seeding yourself to weeds.

Continuously mulching your clay soil with rotted manure or other organic matter will gradually build the soil up. Worms and other soil critters will gradually mix the mulch into the top layers of soil as they dig, so you will uniformly improve your clay to higher levels of organic matter over time, loosening the clay and improving water and nutrient infiltration and release to the plants. In eastern soils where moisture is usually plentiful, clay loam soils are highly productive because the clay not only holds large quantities of water for the plants, but it also holds high quantities of nutrients. So--your clay isn't bad, just improve it with organic matter rather than replacing it.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

looks like good advice to me. dittos to Jean001 and bboy and the others that added to what they said.
I would add one more thing. I like planting a "green manure" crop in the area a new orchard is going in. I use a mix of rye and clover, both annuals so they don't persist. The serve to build the soil, and create a good growing environment for new trees.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Hello everyone. Thank you again for all the advice. I know now how to proceed, and I think the job will be quite a bit easier now. Thanks!

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Hi everyone-
Well, Ive just finished the major work for my front yard orchard. Im excited because Ill finally be able to give the trees pretty much full sun (maybe 7am 4pm) once we get a little bit more into the spring anyway. I left the large oak in the background because in the summer, its always been a decently looking tree, and its due north, so it doesnt block any light.

I decided not to amend the soil at all. Just loosened up the soil that was there a bit and then put down another 3-5" of loam on to it. The soil beneath seems to mostly be a mixture of loam and clay.

The planters are a bit small right now maybe 3 feet by 6 feet and shaped like an eye to facilitate mowing, but Ill likely increase there size as the trees get bigger. Its about 20 between the trees. The dirt in there is raised up a bit, with a layer of weed block, and a layer of mulch on top. Ive got my hardware cloth cylinders to protect against girdling.

The Ashmeds Kernel (on 111) and Spitzenburg(111) from Trees Of Antiquity are planted, and the HoneyCrisp (EMLA106), Granny Smith (EMLA7), and Korean Giant (0xHF97) from Adams County Nursery will be here next week. The 4 apples will be trained to an open vase.

I plan to start grafting other varieties on next year. As Ive mentioned, Ill be putting in a sprinkler system next year, in that area, and also the rest of the yard. But, Ill likely keep the amount of water in this area to a minimum.

Now, I just need to wait for the grass to come in, and the trees to grow. My girls are age 2 & 4 right now, so hopefully theyll be able to enjoy them for a while. Thankfully I have other apple trees (and other fruit) to keep us busy while these ones grow.

Thanks to everyone here (in this thread and all the other threads) for putting up with all my questions!

P.S. I think my neighbors think Im crazy!
P.S.S. If theres anything glaringly wrong, maybe I dont want to know!



Spitzenburg & Ashmeds Kernel:

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

That looks nice. I can tell you're east coast by the trees. Out here in California Oak trees are entirely different.

Are you going to plant anything besides apples? Speaking of apples, Gravenstein are one of my favorites. Maybe because I grew up in Sebastopol.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Thanks Lifespeed. It could be the trees, or the "RI" in my zone that gave the "East Coast" away. :-)

Yeah, those trees are the difficult part around here. The canopy is so thick and so tall, that it's hard to get light to the ground! That is why my apples have all had just 5.5 hours of light or so (until now)

Well, I do have the apples... The varieties I picked were ones that, along with my other trees, spread my harvest for as long as possible through the season. Williams Pride being the very earliest, and Granny Smith being the latest I can do.

Besides apples, I do already have other fruit: 15 beds of 12 varieties of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, gooseberries, currents, a peach bush, service berries, kiwi, and coming this year lingonberries and honeyberreies. Some of the above plants are still young as I only started all this edible landscaping about 3+ years ago. I'm not sure why I've really gotten into peach/nectarines/plums. Perhaps at some point I'll add a fruit cocktail tree, but I was told that squirrels really go for peaches. And I've got a zillion squirrels. I'll probably plant some more blueberries along the curved part of the driveway, away from the apples.

Any more fruit and my wife might not be so supportive! :-)

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Glenn wrote: "I think my neighbors think Im crazy!"

I say, "Alright! Welcome to the club." I figured out a long time ago we're all crazy.

Just from this forum alone, consider. We have one who waters his trees at all hours of the night, during freezing weather, in his pajamas. Another who asks for pickup loads of horse manure. I've heard of people using a tiller to till up their lawn, people scanning for road kill to help pollinate their pawpaws. Me, I've got my own stories. Had the police pull me over for picking up people's yard waste on trash day (apparently worried I was going to go steal someone's identity by taking their lawn clippings.) Last fall I totally trashed our yard by installing a field tile for drainage and building more mounds. I've now built so many mounds, my neighbor asked me if I was raising dirt, or trees. Now with the spring rains, our yard is one huge mud pie. Naw, you're not crazy, you're just warmin' up.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

I really think Granny Smith is nearly worthless in our climate- the summers are just too short to create anything but a chalky, poorly flavored apple. I'd love to taste it as grown in CA though. I'm told it's one of the best tasing apples when grown around Santa Cruz and in the Sierra foothills. Of course some people enjoy the taste of unripe apples so it's all subjective.

I consider Goldrush to be as late an apple worth growing in our climate although it now appears that Cripps Pink (pink lady) may be a great late here as well. Goldrush tends to be bienniel here, however, because the season is too short for it to recharge. I don't know about CP. Both apples are such exceptional storers that I will live with bienniel cropping for the pleasure of crisp January apples (and Feb and Mar). I can always remove flowers on one side of the tree and alternate cropping from one side to the other. Actually I have 2 Goldrush and will only allow one to fruit this year.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

You would all freak if you saw how little I did to plant a tree. Just a shovel and five minutes. But then I don't have to contend with clay.

RE: Preparing the ground for a small orchard

Hahahha! That's what I like to hear! :-)

I know that the Granny is at the very limit of what I can get away with growing here in 6b. The tag from the original nursery that I got the tree from said it was fine down to zone 5. Ha! I'm not sure how that would ever work. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps I'm eating them slightly unripe, but they certainly aren't chalky (unless I pick them early). The bottom line is that they are my favorite apple, and they're way better than in the stores, so we're still happy to have them. So happy, that I'm adding a second tree.

General question about the Granny Smith Are there any apples that taste anything like a GS? What would be the closest variety?

I didn't do too much more than that previously (with my trees in the back yard)... but this is my front yard. Next year, I'll be doing more major landscaping (away from the apple trees). My goal is that it will eventually look nice. I think in 5 years, during bloom, my front yard will look really cool.


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