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Our heritage fruit orchard is still a work in progress, but this winter we’ve planted over 200 fruit trees. A range of types, and a range of varieties. Our aim is that within four years, we’ll be picking, and selling, year round. We’ve got apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, figs, pomegranates and more.
We’re also collecting information at the moment, about fruit ripening times of various heirloom fruit species. There’s very little Australia focused information available about fruit ripening, bud burst etc. We believe that collecting information regarding different varieties is an important part of sharing and preserving the varieties. It allows better use of these species, and better planning for both home and commercial growers.
If you have fruit trees, and know their variety, we’d love you to contribute any data you have. Click through here, and fill out as much as you can. If you are missing dates, or other information, please just leave those sections blank. We’ll compile the data and fill in the blanks from other people’s fruit trees. You can also opt in to receive updates as we receive and analyse the data.
Our Heritage Fruit Orchard
Choosing our fruit
Most people when planting a commercial orchard plant large amounts of one tree. They have an apple orchard for example, that might contain 4 varieties of apples. Or perhaps they have a cherry orchard, with a total harvest season of only six weeks.
We’ve approached our orchard differently. We don’t plan on sending our fruit off to the wholesale market. We plan to sell most of it through our farm gate with some distributed directly to local retailers and restaurants. This means that rather than wanting to harvest a large crop at one time, to send off, we need to have a variety of fruit over the longer term. Luckily, as soon as you venture away from the big commercial varieties, there are dozens and dozens of older, heirloom varieties, each with varied ripening dates.
For our heritage fruit orchard, we’ve concentrated on selecting varieties with good yields, high flavour, and natural pest and disease resistance. We’ve also aimed for a good harvest spread: to have fruit ready at the very start of the season, and available all the way to the end.
Rootstocks and pruning
We’ve grafted most of our own fruit trees which means we’ve gotten to choose and control the root stock as well as the scion. We’ve taken care to choose full size or semi-dwarfing root stocks, not dwarfing ones. There are lots of advantages to dwarf trees- easier to net to protect from birds, and earlier fruiting are the two main ones.
However, there are disadvantages to dwarf trees too. Each tree yields less fruit. They often require staking their whole life. They have a shallower root system, so irrigation is more important, and they might start fruiting at only 2 or 3 years old, but they might only fruit for 10 years total, as opposed to 50 years of a seedling root stock. Finally, a full size fruit tree takes advantage of more vertical space. It might have a fruiting zone of 5 metres, rather than the 2m tall canopy of a dwarf tree. We want to run animals beneath our orchards, taking up around the bottom metre of canopy. In a dwarf orchard, that would reduce the fruiting zone by half. In a full size or semi dwarf orchard it would reduce by only 20 percent.
We’ve chosen to start pruning our orchard into a high vase form. We feel that this allows for the natural de-suckering and shoot nibbling that will occur as a result of our animal rotations. It also increases aeration, and allows good light infiltration, which helps prevent fungal outbreaks.
One of the key factors in the design of our orchard, was our desire to rotate animals through it. Basically, we hate mowing. I don’t see the point in doing extra work, paying for the privilege (petrol) and getting nothing out of it. So the idea of animals in our orchard was born from wanting to turn our excess grass and weeds, into meat. However, as I wrote earlier, by running animals in the orchard, we reduce our fruiting zone by nearly 20%. So the animal rotation needs to make up for a 20% drop in fruit yield.
I looked into it more. Luckily the animal rotation easily serves more than one purpose.
- To prevent mowing, saving labour and machinery maintenance.
- To fertilise the soil; manure provides nitrogen, but poultry also naturally bring up the pH of the soil so long as it’s managed properly
- To clean up fruit fall and maintain good orchard hygiene; this helps to prevent disease outbreaks and break pest cycles (eg. coddling moth).
- To provide alternative yields (meat, wool and eggs).
Currently the animals are banned from the orchard paddocks, because the trees are small and vulnerable. Each was grafted this winter, and while nearly all have budded out, their leaves are still within reaching distance for our sheep, and their roots scratching distance for our chooks. So for now the animals are rotating through and improving the pasture that will be used for our market garden next spring. But once the trees are larger and less vulnerable we’ll move our rotation (small size sheep, followed by geese, followed by chooks) into our orchard.
Paddock set up
We’ve planted these trees in 12 different paddocks. And instead of separating them based on fruit type- all the apples together, for example, we’ve planted them based on estimated ripening times. So one paddock will be picked in February, one in March, and so on. There are a few ideas behind this. First is that by having a mix of fruit trees in each paddock, they are less likely to spread disease to each other. For example, if all our March apples have coddling moth, our April ones should still escape relatively unharmed. Secondly, this means we have our picking labour in a single paddock at a time, likewise with irrigation requirements, and even the organic sprays that we plan to use (compost teas for example). We’re aware this is a pretty experimental approach, but we’re excited to see how it goes. I’m sure that some of our varieties of fruit will ripen at the wrong time- (there’s not a whole lot of specific local data out there for fruit trees, which is why we’re trying to collect more here) but worst comes to worst we can re-graft in the appropriate paddock. Once our root stocks are well established and older, any re-grafts should be quick to fruit.
Finally, it makes it far easier to organise our animal rotation. it will mean we can have our animals mow the orchard in preparation for harvest, but exclude the month before, so there’s no fresh manure on the grass. It also means we can bring animals in straight after harvest is finalised, to clean up fallen fruit and keep orchard hygiene high.
Now everyone knows that bees are important for pollination and good fruit set. But in an organic system they aren’t the only important insect. All sorts of spiders and parasitic wasps are encouraged. In order to do so, we are working on planting a range of flowering plants and woody herbs (great for micronutrient accumulation and animal health). We’re also planting a range of hedges to help provide shade and shelter for the animals, and a wind break and frost protection for our plants. we are trying to grow hedges that are evergreen (to help suck up some of the water that can accumulate in winter) and nitrogen fixing.
Fruit in our heritage fruit orchard