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Planning a high density apple orchard

Tall spindle apple treeI enjoyed reading the varied responses to my post introducing high density apple orchard techniques, so I thought you'd like to follow along as I lay out my experiment.  Here are the first few decisions I had to make:

Do I want to use an industrial-type, apple-planting system?  Unless you're willing to commit time every month to playing with your trees, you might be better off trying something else.  Other options for diversifying your backyard orchard exist, such as espaliers and fruit cocktail trees, and if you just want lots of apples with little work, a semi-standard tree is the way to go.  But if your goal is to grow lots of apples in a small space, and you are willing to put in the effort to win those rewards, one of these industrially tested systems may work well for you.

Which kind of high density system should I choose?  There are perhaps a dozen different systems that let you cram lots of apples into a small space, and each one is managed a little differently.  The systems that put the trees closest together (such as the super spindle) cost more per acre to begin with since you have to buy a lot more trees and trellising, but many industry analysts suggest super spindle orchards also bring in the most profit by the eighth year because apple yields are higher.  Those of us growing trees in the backyard are probably less concerned about economics and more concerned with cramming as many varieties as possible into a small space without committing to an excessive amount of maintenance.  I eventually settled on the tall spindle system as best for most backyard growers since it combines nearly as high yields as the super spindle with less fidgety maintenance.  (I'll make a post on maintenance later --- this one's just about designing the planting.)

Apple rootstocks

What kind of rootstock should I choose?  Experts suggest G.41, (aka Geneva 41), G.11, G.935, M.9 (aka Malling 9), M.9T337, or Bud.9 (aka Budagovsky 9).  These are all extremely dwarfing rootstocks, so if you're planting a less vigorous apple variety, the next step up (like M.26) might be better.  Keep in mind that choosing one of these ultra-dwarfing rootstocks means it's going to be mandatory for you to keep your trees completely weeded, mulched, and watered at all times, so if you're going to be neglectful, you might want to follow one of our readers' suggestion and plant a semi-standard tree, then use pruning and training to keep the apple's size down.  I'm going to include a few semi-standard trees in my planting to allow me to compare and contrast with the dwarfs, but I chose Bud.9 for most of my rootstocks.

How close together should I plant the trees?  Depending on which expert you talk to (and which high density system you're using), trees should be spaced two to nine feet apart, in rows that are ten to fourteen feet separate.  This calculator is a great way to get an Staked dwarf applesidea of proper spacing based on your specific conditions --- I think that three feet is going to be about the right distance between trees in each row in my garden.  Meanwhile, the recommended between-row spacing should be taken with a grain of salt if you're squishing these dwarf apples into your home garden since the distance is really meant to prevent shading of the next row over.  So I felt quite comfortable leaving a mere four foot aisle between my new tall spindle apple bed and a bed used for perennial propagation since new cuttings prefer moderate shade.

How do I prepare for my trees?  I laid down a kill mulch of cardboard covered by well-rotted wood chips to prepare for late fall planting of my dwarf apple trees.  The mulched row will be about three feet wide, then we'll mow the grassy aisles just like in our vegetable garden.  The one big difference between starting a high-density apple row and a vegetable row is that I'm going to have to erect some kind of support for the dwarf trees before they arrive --- either a ten foot tall stake for each one or a trellis --- and will lay out an irrigation system now so watering doesn't get away from me in the spring.

Well-feathered apple treeHow many trees should I plant?  Experts suggest you may get 15 to 20 apples per tree the second year, 50 to 60 the third year, 100 apples the fourth year, and a bushel the fifth year if you start with well-feathered trees.  ("Well-feathered" refers to whether the tree has small branches --- experts on high-density apple plantings recommend selecting a tree at least 5/8 inch in diameter and 5 feet tall with 10 to 15 feathers less than a foot long, all above 30 inches off the ground.)  So take a look at how many apples your family consumes, how well the varieties you've selected keep, and how ripening times are scattered across the year when deciding how many trees to order.  (Don't forget to factor in other fruits ripening up on your homestead too!)

The only other tidbit I considered when planning my experimental tall spindle orchard was comparisons to normal apple trees.  I'm curious to discover whether the ultra-dwarfing rootstocks will be able to find enough micronutrients to keep apple flavor at its peak, so I'm including a couple of varieties in my planting that I already have growing as semi-standard trees in the forest garden.  Once they're all bearing, we'll conduct some side-by-side taste tests.

But that's a long experiment in the future.  Stay tuned for another post about training and pruning, an essential component of a high density apple planting, coming up soon.

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I'm always up for some new information or at least reinforcing info on fruit trees. This fall/winter I'm taking care of all the landscaping and hardscaping in the back yard so my fruit trees will be ready for their final transplant.
Comment by Marco Sat Sep 15 09:27:55 2012
Marco --- I suspect I'll be learning about trees for a long time to come.... There do seem to be a lot of options to experiment with!
Comment by anna Sat Sep 15 09:54:00 2012

If your interested in knowing: Bud 9 is a nice rootstock. It produces a nice eating apple aswell. Light pinkishy flesh, balanced sweet/acid. It can take the heat well like m111. I have had some fungal issues with it in the summer though. I only use it to test new varieties though. All of my Bud 9 trees are actually grown in 7 gallon pots, because it doesn't do well in the sand.

And because of its lineage including some of the Eurasian crab apples, it is good for pollinating. It has multiple bloom times in a season too in warmer areas, so it can be there for the latter flowering varieties.

Comment by T Sun Sep 16 18:37:29 2012
T, I'm very interested in knowing more about the rootstock! If I decide these high density plantings aren't too much work, I'll probably learn to layer my own rootstock since it's expensive to buy lots of dwarf trees. Which dwarfing rootstock do you like the best?
Comment by anna Sun Sep 16 19:04:58 2012

I don't have much of a choice in what I can use as a rootstock in my area. I have tried every one I could get my hands on. Nothing stands up to the M111. 20 foot tree, to a 5 foot tree, it has the versatility and adaptability. Apple borers will destroy a tree. I deal with them year round. Very few rootstocks can take them. None of my dwarf trees did, they would normally drop the scion. The only 2 I use are Bud 9 and M111. I'm waiting to get hold of some of the new Israeli rootstocks, but that wont be for a few more years or so. For now M111 is what I recommend and prefer, and what I sell all my trees on. I only use Bud 9 because it would make a tire grow apples. Even if only a couple. All of my seedling wood is grafted onto it, and it easily makes it fruit the third year, if not the second.

Imo, Outside of a commercial orchard setting, or a pot, its one of the biggest mistakes to be made, putting apples on dwarf roots. Most backyard growers don't want a full size tree so buy a dwarf. Then they wonder what they're doing wrong when their apple doesn't thrive. Nurseries charge more for the trees, but don't explain that they need more care, making up for the lack of pruning they need.

I get all this from hands on experience, in case anyone wonders where my pennies worth comes from. Ive grown apples in central Florida for almost 10 years. No mean feat.:)

Comment by T Mon Sep 17 02:54:18 2012

T, I'm very much looking forward to the side by side comparison of our semi-standard trees pruned to dwarf size versus those grown on Bud 9. I'm also going to try to remember to ask my local apple nursery guy what kind of rootstock he uses with his trees. They've done extremely well (not pruned to be dwarfs, though) in even the poorest soil parts of our yard.

We haven't had trouble with borers, although I've read about them. Our main issue at the moment seems to be cedar apple rust --- fungi generally get us on a lot of our crops.

I really appreciate benefiting from your extensive experience!

Comment by anna Mon Sep 17 15:08:49 2012
My Kiddo informed me this summer that we needed to add apple trees to our postage stamp sized property, and like a good Mom I promised that next spring we would plant them.(Along with Cherries, Apricots, Peaches, and greengage plums.) I've been researching Backyard Orchard Culture, and in everything I've read it has stated that rootstock generally doesn't matter. In this particular system the gardener ultimately decides how big the tree gets and then takes proper steps to keep it that way. Any thoughts on the subject Anna? I am curious about the spindle apple trees though, as is the process by which they are pruned and formed into their shape :D
Comment by MamaHomesteader Wed Sep 19 02:03:35 2012
MamaHomesteader --- I'm afraid I have no firsthand information about keeping apples on large rootstocks small. But I'm going to be experimenting with it starting this winter, so I'll be sure to post what I find out. I hope you chime in with your experiences too!
Comment by anna Wed Sep 19 16:35:58 2012
Do you top the apple trees? I am wondering about the continued pruning directions for this type of apple tree growth??
Comment by Elaine @ Sunny Simple Life Fri Apr 18 11:23:08 2014
Elaine --- This post will get you started in the right direction. In the long run, you will prune the top to a weak side branch, but since the tree is a dwarf, it won't be pushing too hard against the height restriction.
Comment by anna Fri Apr 18 18:14:21 2014