Home orchards: Romance and reality

    “I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods.”

    — Wendell Berry, “A Standing Ground,” 1998

    In “A Standing Ground,” farmer-activist-poet Wendell Berry writes of his home in Kentucky as a safe haven where he returns to replenish his energy and his spiritual grounding. He continues, “However just and anxious I have been, I will stop and step back from the crowd … and be apart.”

    “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry” was published on the cusp of the new millennium, and “A Standing Ground” certainly foretells the need for Americans to have a place of refuge in the 21st century, away from the tensions of living and interacting in an increasingly polarized society.

    The image of an orchard as a healing place resonates strongly with me. I want to create such a space in my suburban front yard by planting a row of fruit trees that will line the path leading up to my house. I envision stepping through my vine-covered arbor into a verdant tunnel, welcomingly shady from a canopy of leafy branches reaching out to each other across the path.

    Besides the grapevine, I have already planted a dwarf Santa Rosa plum tree and a dwarf Ayers pear tree. Yet, Before I allow my romantic imagery to lead me down a path fraught with problems, I checked in with Phil Damewood, a local orchardist and educator. Phil offered some advice for planning a home orchard.

    First, measure the space you have. Whereas standard-sized trees will reach 40 feet tall at maturity, dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are usually more appropriate for residential orchards. They are much easier for homeowners to keep pruned at about 9 feet tall, and this height allows for easier harvesting.

    Space dwarf-sized fruit trees about 10 feet apart to allow plenty of sunlight and air to circulate through the branches. Pruning back dead and crossed branches in the winter will also help to keep the trees healthy.

    Make sure your soil drains well by digging a hole where you want to plant your orchard, filling the hole with water, and watching how long it takes for the water to drain. Fruit trees need good drainage to thrive, and they need a loamy soil with plenty of organic matter.

    However, Phil advises against filling the planting holes with compost because this will deter the tree roots from spreading. Instead, amend the orchard soil over time by working compost into the soil throughout the area each year.

    Be aware that some fruit trees are self-fertile, while others need to be cross-pollinated from related trees nearby. My Santa Rosa plum and Ayers pear trees are both self-fruitful cultivars; however, all fruit trees will be more productive if a pollinizer is provided. Phil says one way to increase pollinators is to plant bee-loving herbs close by, such as borage and lavender.

    Home orchardists should know about common fruit tree pests in our area, which include peach leaf curl, fire blight, and infestations of codling moth. Several Oregon counties, including Jackson County, have ordinances that require home fruit growers to monitor and control pests to keep diseases and insect pests from spreading to commercial orchards.

    The OSU Extension provides a useful guide for “Managing diseases and insects in home orchards” (April 2015) at https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/.

    Residential orchardists should be realistic about the time and energy they have. Even with the right cultural conditions, keeping the trees healthy and productive is not completely carefree. Still, as Wendell Berry wrote in “A Standing Ground,” “Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet berries in a cup.” There are few things more calming and satisfying in a contentious world than taking a bite of a fresh piece of fruit you’ve grown in your home orchard.

    Phil will offer more advice on “Home Orchards” from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 20, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost of the class is $10 with advanced registration and $15 at the door. Register and pay online at http://bit.ly/JacksonMG2017 or call 541-776-7371.

    — Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at: http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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