Advice for ambitious newbie apple orchard

As a kid, I was obsessed with fruit trees but never really had the opportunity to grow them. Now I’m finishing university and my parents are starting a permaculture thing on 50 acres of land in southern Wisconsin (zone 5a) and I finally have the space and time for apples.

So I’ve collected ~70 apple scionwood varieties from local trees and ordered 1000 rootstock from copenhaven. I’ve done 100s of practice grafts on pear prunings, read a lot, and been to orchards but that is the extent of my experience (besides a few trees I planted 3-4 years ago which are doing alright now). I was hoping to write out my plan and get advice on the process.

I’ve read a lot on this forum but haven’t seen much for working on this scale. I know 1000 is a large number but I look at it as an opportunity to get a lot of practice and I want to plant many more in the future. I’ll hopefully have a lot of volunteer labor for the years to come so I think it will be doable.

Step 1 (grafting): I have my scions in moist sawdust in labeled ziplock bags in a designated fridge. When the rootstocks arrive, my plan is to do mostly whip-and-tongue grafts but a few cleft grafts on the larger stock. Any rootstock I don’t get around to grafting I will plant in my nursery bed anyways and graft onto it next year (some is 1/8" so I anticipate mostly just planting those). That should also give me time to acquire more scions from my wishlist to try. I’m going to wrap the grafts in parafilm and then grafting rubbers and coat the tips with treekote. When do you think the rootstock will arrive? How long do I have to graft onto it? Should I try to chipbud failed grafts later in the summer? Do I need to keep them inside for a while to protect from frost damage (zone 5a)? Can I graft on 1/8"? Will 1/8" be less hardy? What about 3/16" (a lot of them are this)? The rest are 1/4" or greater.

Step 2 (nursery bed): I was thinking 1’ spacing in the nursery bed and then transplanting to the final growing site over the next few years (in the meantime I will be prepping the soil and erecting fences around those sites). Does that sound like a good plan? Do I need to worry about too much sun here or should I just have the bed in full sun? Should I try to build some sort of greenhouse around them? When should I plant them? What is an efficient way to get 1000 trees into the ground? How much should I water them?

Step 3 (preparing the final site for planting): Our soil is very sandy with extremely varying levels of soil nutrients. What advice would you have here? Advice for building deer fencing?

Step 4 (planting on location): We have a lot of those 5’ blue tubes and various stakes. When it is closer to the time of actually planting I will start a new post with all of my questions for that. I just wanted to mention my general plan and see if there is anything I should be considering now (such as starting to collect stake material from our sawmill/local dump). For the dwarf trees I want to try high density and espalier. Any advice for this?

Cultivars (planning to add more and maybe graft over some of these):
Almata
Ashmead’s Kernel
Baldwin
Blue Pearmain
Blushing Golden
Calville Blanc D’Hiver
Chestnut Crab
Connell Red
Cortland
Cox’s Orange Pippin
Crimson Crisp
Daybreak Fuji
Duchess of Oldenburg
Earliblaze
Empire
Esopus Spitzenburg
Firecracker Crab
Flower of Kent
Fortune
Golden Russet
Goldrush
Granny Smith
Gravenstein
Haralson
Hidden Rose (Aerlies Redflesh)
Holstein
Honeycrisp
Idared
Jonagold
Kandil Sinap
King David
Lady
Liberty
Lodi (WAY more than I can use)
Macoun
McIntosh
Melrose
Mother
Mutsu (Crispin)
Northwestern Greening
Opalescent
Pink Pearl
Pixie Crunch
Pound Sweet
Prairie Spy
Red Delicious
Ribston Pippin
Roxbury Russet
Sansa
Sinta
Spartan
Tompkins County King
Twenty Ounce
Viking
Wealthy
Winesap
Winter Banana
Wolf River (WAY more than I can use)
Newton Pippin
Zestar

Rootstocks:
BUD 118
G 890
EMLA 106
G 41
G214 (only 25)
G969 (only 25)

Thank you Scott for creating this forum and thanks to everyone for taking the time to read this and help me out. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

-Aiden

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Sounds like a nice adventure!
Wish I had 50 acres to play around on.

You’ll find out making 1,000 grafts isn’t a job you can do in a couple weekends.
Other than that, good luck, looks like a good plan.

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Good luck on your new adventure!

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Some general advice-

I think you are trying to do too much too quickly. I would try to scale down your rootstock order to maybe 250 or less instead of 1000. A thousand trees are going to demand more labor than you can supply unless you have done a bunch of planning and have invested in equipment that will reduce the labor requirement.

Also you should try to do a test plot and figure out which scion, rootstocks and training systems are going to work for you. Something like 2 trees X 3 rootstocks X 2 training systems X 20 cultivars= 240 trees. If your long term goal is a commercial orchard the trees you plant are going to have to produce apples you can sell at a profit. Many of the scions you have on your list are really cool but are unlikely to yield apples you can market.
You won’t be able to compete with large commercial orchards in Washington state. Those are low cost producers. You’re going to need a niche market where you get good prices.

Also expect some failures. That’s why a test plot is a good idea if you find 1/2 trees aren’t going to work in the test plot that’s great. If you find this out and have to remove 500 trees on the main orchard …it gets expensive in terms of time and money.

Growing apples as a business is quite different from growing them as an advanced hobbyist. I would suggest you buy and read two books.

Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Orchard Fruits: Market or Home Production
by Danny L. Barney

This book is aimed at setting up and operating an organic orchard in the 5-30 acre range. It’s comprehensive. It’s covers a bunch of material… here is the link on amazon. Useful for non-organic orchards as well.

https://www.amazon.com/Storeys-Growing-Organic-Orchard-Fruits/dp/1603427236/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=organic+orchard&qid=1612564036&s=books&sr=1-3

So You Want to Start a Nursery
by Tony Avent

Now I know what you’re thinking why is this guy recommending a book about nurseries when I want to start an orchard. Well, this book focuses on the business aspects of running a firm that is involved in raising living things. It can be sobering at times but lots of useful info about the challenges you are going to face.

https://www.amazon.com/So-You-Want-Start-Nursery/dp/0881925845/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1JNTBJ6UNMJEK&dchild=1&keywords=so+you+want+to+start+a+nursery&qid=1612564320&s=books&sprefix=So+you+want+to+start+%2Cstripbooks%2C186&sr=1-1

I would also approach the local cooperative extension agent and see what information is available. Use the internet and search for information on setting up a high density modern orchard. There is quite a bit of information for the technical side of doing this and they also have detailed cost analysis on the web including comparisons with more traditional free standing trees. Pay back period for high density orchard is something like 7-8 years. For a traditional orchard on say m111 it is something like 15-20 years.

Are you doing a pick your own orchard? A cider orchard? A wholesale orchard? Or maybe producing apple boxes of exotic and heirloom apples you ship all over the United States? You need to answer these questions (and many more) before you move from a test plot to an actual commercial orchard.

edit******* It dawned on me that this post may appear a bit negative. I don’t mean it to be. I want to you to be successful and the apple business is hard. It take planning, skill and bit of luck to be successful running a orchard. Read the books and learn from others experiences and mistakes ( the nursery book is real good here and somewhat funny).
And finish your college degee too :slight_smile: .

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Talk about jumping in with both feet!
Have you ever worked for an orchard and gleaned information from such an operation? Something like that would be very useful.
I think you have overly ambitious plans, and may end up wasting a lot of money. 1000 rootstocks for someone that has only ever planted a few trees is going to be eye opening. The cost alone has to be in the thousands. Add in the cost of preparing enough ground to plant that and then actually getting 1000 trees in the ground will be a feat. Do you have additional labor available? How about reserve capital for things like sprayers, pest control, or weather related loss?
How stable is the situation on this family farm? Is it something that you plan on inheriting or purchasing down the road?
High density planting those 1000 trees could be done on less than an acre, however the cost of trellising that could be a deterant.
Im not trying to make it seem undoable, but i think youve got the cart in front of the horse.

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Thanks for your advice! I will take a look at both of those. Your definitely not the first one to tell me to slow down but there are a few more things that make this seem a bit less crazy:

  1. My mother requested 200 of the trees for something else.
  2. A lot of the trees are little eighth inch malling rootstocks (which effectively bring down the price of the total order because it puts me into the next bulk category)
  3. A lot of these trees will be used to graze sheep under so they don’t have to be perfect and they are mostly an experiment.
  4. We have some farm equipment already and tons of free labor!
    Basically I was getting 300 but 1000 was cheaper. :joy:

If/when I decide to start a commercial orchard it will be different from this. I just want to collect varieties now and do lots of experiments.

Why do you suggest testing different training systems? Do different training systems work better in different locations?

Thanks!

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You’re probably already familiar with them, but just in case check out Eliza Greenman and Mark Shepherd. Both are involved in operating silvopasture farms. I think Ms. Greenman is doing pigs combined with apples and mulberries, while Mr. shepherd is doing a bigger mix, chestnuts and apples I think. If you’re going to grow a bunch of different varieties, that could actually could be a benefit since you’d have stuff coming ripe all through the season in different spots to help keep the animals moving around.

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If this is a hobby orchard then I would suggest you reduce the number of trees even further. Just because you can buy large numbers of roostocks cheaply doesn’t mean that’s a good idea. Grafting 80 trees is a ton of trees. I mean in commercial production a dwarf will yield a bushel, semi-dwarf 4 bushels, and standard 10 bushels. A bushel weighs about 40 lbs. What are you going to do with all the apples? Especially if you can’t sell them. If you just want lots of different cultivars and a bushel of apples for each cultivar is enough just plant dwarfs or go with multi-graft trees.

Really if you’re spending this kind of money why not just buy small trees (small caliper) and save yourself 1-2 years and a bunch of work and time. For many places ordering 50+ trees gives you low level commercial pricing. It takes 3 years for a dwarf to crop, 5-7 years for a semi-dwarf and 7-10 years for a full size tree to crop well. Grafting will add 1-2 years to this. Actually with 1/8" rootstock it will probably be 3 yrs. I mean with the larger trees you could be married, living in Iowa and have children before the trees crop . You may end up leaving a mess for your parents to clean up. And I know you have no plans to end up in Iowa but with 10 yrs of time a lot of wierd things just happen :smile: .

Training systems have different advantages and disadvantages. The general trend has been from large widely spaced trees to small closely spaced trees. The book I recommended covers training systems in detail. Training is more of a cost/benefit thing …location is not a major factor.

If the trees are exposed to sheep they will need to be caged for protection until the trees are large if the trees are semi-dwarf or larger and trained to the open center or central leader. Or if the trees are dwarfs or trained to intensive management systems they would need permanent protection.

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I am just starting out myself Aiden, and on a MUCH smaller hobby scale. From my research here and elsewhere, I would suggest you check out the following:

Scott’s threads on his experience with apples (I believe the last thread was titled in 2018)

Scott’s guide (on the forum) on spray schedules

The Backyard Orchardist (book) by Stella Otto for general good growing information

Research permaculture techniques as it seems like you are heading that direction with integrating animals with your orchard. The two books I own that I think would be most helpful are Edible Landscaping by Michael Judd Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist by Michael Judd | Chelsea Green Publishing
and Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway https://smile.amazon.com/dp/1603580298/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_fabc_W82S19AWSWS3QBJ66A7F

I’ve heard from the permies.com forum that Permaculture : A Designer’s Manual is the Bible of the movement but I think it’s been out of print awhile and it is very expensive… https://smile.amazon.com/dp/0908228015/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_fabc_E972RNPV8FX75WVQR77Z

Otherwise, my personal advice based on my research is:
Think about the pollination schedule for the cultivars you choose and plant those that are similar together. Make sure you check the diploid /triploid status and plant your grid so that everything can be pollinated well.

Think about how much chemical spraying you are committed to performing and whether you want to primarily use organic or traditional sprays. If you are interested in a lower spray schedule, consider more disease resistant varieties. I personally went through the process of deciding whether a certain tree would have “good” fruit based on reviews here and elsewhere Adam's Apples: All the Apples

After developing a list based on taste, I tried to choose mostly those with the highest general disease resistance to lower my spraying. There are a few I picked that are not disease resistant just because they sound too stinkin good!

Check the thread here about the more experienced members discussing the things they would do differently if they were to start over again. I discovered it for the first time yesterday and I’m glad I did, because I am going to change my planting and pruning strategies based on their advice. In general, just do your research BEFORE you put your trees in the ground and regret your decisions a couple years down the road. There are a few highly rated places that sell scions and a few that are not recommended. Search around here before buying, there are great leads in a couple different threads and the resources section.

Sorry for the massive information overload but just keep in mind that knowledge truly is power and to do things well (and properly) the first time so you only have to do it once, just like buying a good tool.

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I’d say 300 grafts sounds very reasonable…although it would be best if you’d done at least a couple successfully in the recent past…
And with the smaller rootstocks, put them in a bed and grow them a year (or two) and graft or bud to another couple hundred in summer or next spring.

And I agree…you aren’t spending a ‘fortune’…I have 100 smaller than normal rootstocks coming that are costing me in the $1.25 range including shipping…and another 30 that are costing me around $3.50 each including shipping. And I ordered 100 seedling roots of Antonovka about 5 years ago that cost under $1 each–were skinny as matchsticks…grafted some successfully…but most I let grow and grafted to a few of them each season since. And I still have a half dozen Antonovka seedlings maybe 5 feet tall that I can graft to this spring if I choose.

Then, if you haven’t got any experience…be happy if 3/4 of your grafts take…you can try again on the same rootstocks later.

You’ve got work in front of you, but in my younger days I had a 40 hour job, took care of 75 hives of bees, and operated a income tax practice, (plus church, and also ballgames one night a week) …so if you think you have the energy for what you’ve decided to do, then don’t be discouraged. Just don’t let your rootstocks dry out or die while you are spending two weeks or so grafting like it was your 9-5 job!

You need a ‘nursery bed’ or a lot of pots…for 1,000 trees. Would be a big mistake to put even 300 trees out in rows in their permanent location just freshly benchgrafted!’
Again, good luck.

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Listen to mroot’s warning, this really does happen! I have no idea how I got here. Or what on earth I’m doing with this screen name. Must have blacked out on 151 somewhere near Dubuque.

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Deer or bears in the area?
Any thoughts given to dealing with those pests, or others, like rabbits, voles, etc., all of which like to munch on fruit trees?

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Kellog, wise advice. I take a slightly different perspective. Kids spend $10 or $20,000 dollars at some University for a year’s worth of learning (and often learn a lot of things they’ll have no use for, or in 5 years the concensus on the topics will be changed).

A thousand dollars and a lot of sweat equity isn’t a bad investment for what the young fellow will probably learn from the experience. :upside_down_face:

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Exactly my thought. One university course costs more than 1000 trees + supplies.

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What is the difference between a nursery bed and just planting them somewhere safe near the house where they can be easily monitored, protected, and watered? Should it be raised? Should I put some sort of fertilizer? Should it be insulated or covered at all? I think the nursery stage is the part I’m the most worried about.

Thanks for your advice!

Yes find a garden area near the house that you can plant the new grafted trees in to keep a close eye on them for a year or 2 before setting out in permanent location. You can plant the trees fairly close to save space. Three items I would focus on to accelerate progress.

  1. Keep watered
  2. Go heavy with fertilizer after they establish
  3. You need deer & rabbit fencing

There’s not one good answer but several. I’ll let others help. Myself, I have on hand scores of nursery pots…those black pots plants come in from Lowe’s or Home Depot or the Garden Center. So, I use what I have. A raised bed would also be a great solution.

How close? Is 1’ too close? If I don’t move them all until 2-3 years?

Mine nursery bed, trees are planted 6 inches apart in the rows, and 1 foot between rows.

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Good luck with your new endeavor and adventure. You will learn a lot, good and bad, after you have delved into this with both feet.
I wish you all the best.

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