by Gary Mount
For this farmer, winter is not over until it’s time to plant peach and apple trees. Each spring at Terhune Orchards, we plant new trees to replace 5% to 10% of our fruit acreage. This practice keeps our orchards young, healthy, and productive.
Once we know the type of trees we want to plant, we contact as many as ten nurseries in five states to find the variety and rootstock combination we want. If we know what we want far enough in advance, the nursery can grow them to order. All fruit trees start out as a “scion variety” budded or grafted onto a rootstock. The scion usually determines the size, shape, color, flavor, and ripening time of the fruit. The rootstock usually determines the tree size, anchorage, resistance to wetness and drought, and its ability to get water and nutrients from the soil.
Peach rootstocks are grown from peach pits planted in the spring. In late summer, the nursery staff bud the scion variety onto the young rootstock by slipping a bud from a branch of the desired variety into a slit made in the rootstock bark. The surgery site, which is tightly tied with a rubber band, heals or “calluses” over and remains dormant until the following spring.
Once the bud begins to grow, the part of the rootstock that grows above the bud is removed. The new tree continues to grow until fall when it once again becomes dormant. At this time, the bare root tree is dug. By now, the tree is between 5 feet and 6 feet tall, has a few small branches, and a slender trunk between 0.5 inches and 0.75 inches in diameter.
The tree spends the winter in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage until shipped to us in the spring. The tree we plant is actually 2 years old!
The nurseries ship the trees to us by April 1, the best date for our location. Any earlier and the ground is still too wet. Any later and the trees will not have established their roots before the summer heat begins.
In preparation for planting, I first mark out the orchard into rows. This is a nerve-wracking process because for some reason, a “good farmer” is defined by the straightness of his rows.
Because the trees are so small and seem lost in their spaces, I’m often tempted to plant them closer together. If I did, the trees would be overcrowded when mature. Discipline prevails, and we provide a 16 feet by 20 feet spot for our trees. If we plant more than 200 trees, we usually rely on a tree planter pulled by a tractor to reduce the labor involved.
To actually plant the tree, we dig a hole wide enough to accommodate the tree’s roots and at the same depth as their former home in the nursery. We replace the dirt and tamp it firmly in place with our feet (thus the origin of the phrase “a plantin’ foot). Big clods of dirt are broken down to prevent air spaces that might dry out and kill the roots. Fertilizer, which might cause root “burn”, is also held back at this time.
Finally, the tree is “headed”, by cutting the tree back to a height of about 30 inches. We do this to encourage branching as the tree grows and to keep the roots from becoming overly stressed by a too-large top.
During the past 21 years, I’ve planted about 25,000 apple trees and 8,000 peach trees at Terhune Orchards. Each year, planting time is a sure sign of life on the farm – starting anew.