Establishing an orchard on your lifestyle block can involve a good deal of work, and sometimes money, so it’s worth doing some careful planning before taking a spade to soil. If you get it right, it will reward you for decades with home-grown fruit and nuts.
Maxine Fraser is an experienced permaculturist and a member of the Tree Crops Association of New Zealand. She and her late husband Tony established a subtropical food forest on their 80-acre property at Te Pahu in the Waikato, and she has a wealth of practical advice for those starting out.
Maxine believes that trees of all types are a valuable management tool on any farm. They improve soil quality from leaf fall, retain moisture and greatly reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff.
It’s important to look at the conditions you have on your property before beginning planting because it’s easier to work with the natural patterns of your land than against them. Study air flow, water flow, orientation to the sun, and where the prevailing winds and frost come from. In the central North Island, prevailing winds are usually from the southwest and the frost comes from the south. This means that shelter is most needed on the south and southwest, and your orchard will do best if you can plant it on a north or northeast-facing slope, where it will catch the maximum sun.
A slope is a great thing to have in an orchard, because it allows cold air to run downhill, and provides frost-free spots at the upper end. Maxine suggests that if you don’t have a north-facing slope, think twice about trying to grow subtropical fruit such as avocados and tamarillos, because protecting them from frosts may be difficult.
Wet patches and very dry spots on your land are not necessarily a bad thing: you just need to put the right plants in the right places. Hazelnuts, for example, like a good sharp winter chill, so a hollow that harbours frost is just the right place for them. Wet areas, particularly those rich in nutrients like the far end of your septic tank leach field, are great for plums. Citrus also like high nutrients but don’t like wet feet. Dry, windy areas are ideal for trees that are prone to fungal and bacterial rots, so these areas can house nectarines, peaches, and walnuts.
Planting and maintenance
The layout of your orchard can be traditional rows, or something completely different. Maxine says that rows can be fine, especially if you are only growing a limited range of fruit trees, but it can create large gaps between plants which may need a tractor for grass and weed control. She notes that a minimum space of 4-5 metres between trees should be allowed, and large spreading trees like walnuts should be at least 25 metres apart. She favours not using a tractor in the orchard for many reasons including soil compaction and reliance on fossil fuels. For that reason, she prefers to design “food forests.”
In a food forest, planting is very mixed and is based on the best microclimate for the species involved. Thinking about the mature height of each tree is also important – trees such as avocados are evergreens and grow very tall. Therefore they need to be positioned so they don’t shade other trees. As an example, you might have a shelter belt at the top of your north-facing slope, and immediately inside that would be the dry- and wind-tolerant species such as feijoas. These would be followed by subtropicals (the top of the slope being warmer and less frost-susceptible) such as avocados, casimiroas, and cherimoyas, with quick-maturing tamarillos planted among them, and in good sunny “Mediterranean” spots, your citrus trees. Progressing down the slope to the wetter and cooler areas, you can plant apples, pears, persimmons, and cherries, along with other deciduous fruit trees you enjoy. Spaces can be filled with low-growing bushes such as berry fruits.
To minimise grass and weed growth, Maxine suggests heavy mulching with organic material (a mixture of lawn clippings and dry leaves is good), applied during the wettest possible conditions to enhance soil moisture retention. She also recommends planting a “herbal ley” which includes plantain, red clover, chicory, yarrow, etc for their nutritive value; and companion planting – for example, dahlias are helpful near apple trees because they harbour earwigs, which eat codlin moth caterpillars. Her final word on the subject of grass and weeds is “Don’t panic!” Grasses only grow to a certain height and then fall over in autumn. As long as you clear around young trees and avoid fire hazards, they won’t do much damage to your orchard.
Water conservation in the orchard is very important, especially if you don’t have a stream or bore available and are relying on rainwater. It’s very helpful to have storage tanks located as close to the top of your slope as possible. You can also use the ancient technique of building swales () – essentially small ditches like miniature terraces which retain water on the slope. And mulch heavily with organic matter to minimise evaporation from the soil.
Always investigate what cultivars grow well in your area before planting. For example, you may like Golden Queen peaches, but they may not do well on your property while another type of peach will thrive. Contact your local branch of the Tree Crops Association to get information on appropriate cultivars for your area, and detailed advice on care for each type of tree. For basic advice on planting and pruning trees, see here.
Animals in the orchard
While animal manure is very good for orchard trees, the animals themselves often aren’t. Maxine’s advice is never to run large animals such as cows or horses in an orchard: they eat, crush or ringbark trees. Goats should also be avoided as they not only eat but climb trees, doing further damage. Some sheep can be OK, but they need to be placid breeds and even then, all trees need to have tree guards installed to avoid ringbarking. Chickens are fine, and in some cases, small pigs such as kunekune may be acceptable.
Helpful sources of information
Maxine also recommends a number of basic books to help you with your orchard, most of which should be available through public libraries. Her most-used volumes are quite old but contain information that never goes out of date, and she suggests “Edible Nut Trees in New Zealand” by Peter Bull, David Jackson, and Tom Bedford; “Home Fruit Growing in New Zealand”, by Dale Williams; “Tree Crops: a permanent agriculture”, by J Russell Smith; and “Design Your Own Orchard”, by Kay Baxter.