Last fall, Colin and I decided to get going with planting an orchard of fruit trees. Drainage ditches had been put in around our field the previous spring, transforming our sodden and squelchy ground into a walkable and plantable area. Our ideas of October seemed well in advance of March, so we approached a local fruit growing expert, Bob Duncan, and asked for his suggestions for the varieties of apples to make up a cordon espalier orchard of about 40 trees. We were interested in early, mid, and late season apples, with cross pollination dates and a variety of uses for the fruit, as well as a handful of pear varieties. Bob has been growing fruit for 30 years on the Saanich Peninsula, and now has over 300 types of fruit on his property of less than 1 acre. He specializes in dwarf apple trees, (over 200 heritage varieties of unusual and hard to find varieties), but also has over 80 varieties of pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, figs, grapes, kiwi, quince and medlar, over 30 varieties of citrus, and hardy subtropicals such as pomegranates, persimmons, loquats, feijoa, jujubes, and olives. We know where to go when we are looking to expand our fruit harvest!
Bob put together a list for us and said we could pick them up in four months. By mid February, Colin eyed up a bunch of trees on the perimeter of the orchard space and decided that they would need to come out first- small and unhealthy cedar trees that leach nutrients from the soil, and some fir trees sporting signs of rot. A week later and the open field was littered with scrambling heaps of green branches, tops of trees, and a variety of thick and rotten trunks. It was then that we got an email announcing the imminent pick-up dates for our trees, some of which were bare root and would need to be planted right away.
We spent the next two days clearing. Our decision not to burn anything except in a fireplace left us separating all the debris into piles- the greenery and thin branches for the chipper, the thick branches to be cut up with the chop saw for firewood, and the trunks chopped into rounds for more firewood. Colin picked up the trees, as well as metal fence posts, a roll of wire fencing, bonemeal, dolomite lime, an organic fertilizer blend, tree tags, tree strapping, a box of 16 post saddles, three bags of concrete, and a new shovel. Luckily, there was a trailer full with two yards of sea soil sitting just down the road waiting to be sold, so we didn’t need to do an extra trip across the water to fill up with composty soil amendment.
Colin laid out the four rows, 2.5 feet wide and 35 feet long each, running north south and spaced with 5 feet between them, and began to dig four post holes in each row to support the wires upon which we would train the cordon trees. We observed that we had about one and a half feet of nice topsoil, then a solid delineation of clay. It rained quite a bit in the time of all this digging, and it became clear that the water filtering through the topsoil was hitting the clay layer and pooling, rather abundantly, in our holes. This didn’t bode well for any tree roots that might be planted nearby, so we resolved that we would also need a drainage ditch running across the ends of all the rows and moving any water off to the side. The gentle slope of the orchard area will help move the water towards the ditch.
We spent another day mixing concrete, filling the post holes and setting the saddles. We hammered in the perimeter fence posts and ran the wire fencing around the outside of the rows, leaving a measured gap for an old garden gate. Then we dug some more. Colin removed the soil from the rows, a foot deep and two feet wide. I amended the soil in wheelbarrow sized batches with sea soil, one cup of bonemeal and lime, and shoveled it back into the trenches, with a lofty 4 inch berm. The bare root trees went in first- six pears, two peaches, a nectarine and an apricot- three feet apart with the main stems set at a 45 degree angle, pointing north. (Except for the stone fruit. These will be grown in a fan shaped espalier at the south end of each row, filling in the space created by the first tree planted at an angle.) Our choice to train the dwarf trees in a cordon system was based on the understanding that this system results in a high production of fruit in a small space that can be attended to very easily.
Of all the 30 apple trees, there are 17 different varieties, most of which are a complete mystery to me. The first apple tree that I picked out of the pile was named Discovery, and as I tucked it in I wondered what a Discovery apple looks like, tastes like, and what time of the season it would be ready to harvest. In fact, knowing nothing about any of the varieties made me realize that this whole project was going to be one of immense discovery and learning; all the different flavours and timing and uses. We have apples called Snow and Lodi and Karmijn de Sonneville. I am familiar with the Gravenstein and Cox, but what will a Vanderpool apple taste like? From getting these trees planted to pruning them, training them, and generally keeping them alive for the 3-5 years until they are in full production, (and beyond) will be a whole new subject of learning for me and Colin.
We still have posts to put up, and support wire, as well as a plastic roof system that will cover all the trees 2 rows at a time, with Bob’s recommendation. He has been struggling for 30 years to organically avoid blight and canker, and has come to the conclusion that it is all related to the high amount of moisture that we receive on the coast. Adding the clear roof also allows us to put in those more water tender stonefruit trees (apricot, peach, and nectarine). Bob Duncan can be found at Fruit Trees and More.