Looking for help planning small home orchard: apples

Let me start by thanking Scott for setting up this forum, and all the rest of you for bringing so much to it. I’ve learned a lot from you guys, and I look forward to learning a lot more.

I’m in the process of planning a small home orchard, and I’m hoping to get some suggestions about things we might try, and things we probably shouldn’t. (Note: I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading up on things, but I have limited practical experience, so please bear that in mind.)

A little background: my wife, our four-year-old daughter, our dog, and myself live in a small town in the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts. We’re on the border between zones 5b and 6a. We get some hot and some cold, some wet and some dry. None as severe as some of you may get in other parts in the country, but we do have to deal with a little bit of all of them, and somewhat unpredictably. You could describe our climate as temperate but temperamental.

In terms of our particular site, we have a small corner lot in a small town, with side streets on the south and west and neighbors on the north and east. The whole lot is about seventy-five feet south to north by ninety feet east to west. I’ve been told that before our house was built around 1915, the land was a vegetable garden. The ground is mostly level, the soil is somewhat acidic sandy loam, and the drainage is generally good (a little too good, if anything). As far as sun goes, we have an area on the south side where we get full sun year round, an area in the northeast corner where we get almost full sun in the summer and quite a bit less in the winter, and strips along the northern and eastern edges where we get part sun, with the rest being in the shade.

In the big picture, we want to create a pleasant environment around our house, produce some tasty things to eat, and be able to take care of things without having it get too overwhelming.

The work that we’ve done so far has mostly involved taking out things we didn’t like. When we moved in three years ago, there were three older maple trees, a recently planted Norway maple, a few shrubs, and over thirty yew bushes. I’ve removed as much of the Norway maple as I could dig up with a mattock and maul, together with all but one of the yew bushes. Just got that last stump to go!

Now it’s time to figure out what we want to put in. We are planning to try growing a variety of tree fruits, berries, herbs, and vegetables, but what I’m hoping to get your thoughts about today are apples. They’re one of the things that we would most like to grow, but at the same time, we recognize that they can be one of the harder things to get good results with, particularly since we would be trying to grow them on a minimally toxic program: a “nothing with a warning label” approach, essentially.

My question for you is, even if this approach is not one that you would choose yourself, what do you think is the best way to go about it? (This is not to say that I’m not interested in hearing about what you think can go wrong. On the contrary.) Just to be clear, our goal is tasty, healthy fruit for home consumption. We would like to have a good proportion be sound enough for fresh eating, and another good proportion be sound enough to keep well, but they don’t have to be supermarket pretty.

Here are the outlines of my plan so far, which owes a great deal to what I’ve learned from you guys already, as well as what I’ve gathered from other sources:

  1. Select varieties that are less susceptible to disease and pest damage and well-adapted to local conditions. (We would also be trying to achieve successional ripening with a good mix of fresh eating, keeping, and cooking apples. I’m particularly though not exclusively interested in antique and unusual varieties.)

  2. Site and prune trees to maximize sun exposure and air circulation, thus improving production and reducing disease pressure. (I’m particularly interested in espalier techniques, given our somewhat limited space.)

  3. Improve soil in planting areas with annual mulch of leafy compost (mix of leaves from our big maples, kitchen compost, and enough manure compost to get the pile cooking).

  4. Bag and/or net fruit to provide protection from pests.

  5. Use companion plantings to support beneficial insects and provide some degree of pest deterrence.

  6. Be vigilant about cleaning up and disposing of drops and fallen leaves, thus reducing the buildup of pest and disease pressures.

What do you think? At this stage, I think I’m particularly interested in variety suggestions, but I welcome any thoughts you may have, and I’ll try to participate in the discussion as well (please bear with me if it takes me a little while – I do spend a lot of my time chasing after a four-year-old…)

Many thanks!

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Bagging and netting can be successful, but it’s easiest to do when the trees can be worked from the ground or at least a short ladder. This means paying attention to dwarfing rootstocks when you select your trees.

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Welcome. I’m in Worcester County.

Your intention is good. Start with apple is very good as they have many disease resistant that are also taste good.

Read up about apple rootstocks before you decide. Newbies usually do not understand the importance of rootstocks. It is important to know before you start.

Check out Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown. It’s own and operated by UMass. What they can grow, you are likely can grow, too. UMass put out several apple growing video. You can check that out, too.

@MES111 and @tomIL grow their apples espeliered. They could help you with that.

I bag my fruit a lot. I try to grow organically but do use chemicals if needed.

Thank you for the suggestions, ltilton and mamuang! The point about keeping the trees to a height where I can work on them from the ground is definitely an important one. And I also appreciate your reminding me of the importance of rootstocks.

With regard to height management, I wonder what you think about using summer pruning to prevent trees from getting too tall? Is that something that would translate to the Northeast? In which case rootstock selection might emphasize tree health/soil match relatively more and tree height relatively less?

Are there particular rootstocks that you think might be well suited to our sandy loam soil? (We’ve been under water restrictions quite a bit in the summers lately, so that’s something I’ve been considering.)

To mamuang in particular, thank you for the welcome! We are out west of you in Hampshire County. I appreciate the reminder about Cold Spring Orchard and the UMass resources more generally (though some of them seem to be more geared toward commercial growers). There are a lot of little orchards around here, many using different kinds of organic/low spray approaches, and I’ve been trying to look into what they’re doing and what they’re growing. One place I’d like to go visit is Scott Orchard in southern Vermont - they grow a wide variety of heirloom apples, and I figure anything that they can winter over and get to ripen there should be possible here as well.

Thanks again,


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M106 is suited to sandy soils, but at 15ft, it is probably larger than what you want. Bud 9 is a good dwarfing rootstock. My experience with it has been in heavy clay soil. I would be very careful to plant at least three feet away from your house, so that home maintenance does not become too difficult. I have my espaliers about 1 foot away from our fence. That was very helpful when we needed to replace it. (I never expected a tornado to take it out!) I would heavily amend your soil with compost before planting. It will help with water retention. If you summer prune from the first year your framework is established, you should be alright.

Hi Jamie,
A forum member here @SMC_zone6 went to Scott Farm Orchard recently. He enjoyed the experience. I will visit the orchard next year.

Re. Rootstocks, there are three kinds that are often used for apples, M (Malling), G (Geneva) and B (Budagovsky).

For the dwarf ones, it seems B9 is quite popular. I have apples on both B 9 and G41. I have seen people complain about dwarf M, M 9, as it is not as disease resistant.

If you google “Penn State extension, apple rootstocks”, it has a good description of these rootstocks for you to read and compare.

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@JinMA Welcome, sounds like a fun project. I’ll toss in my 2 cents FWIW:

It sounds like you are working with a limited space (your yard). One thing I have felt myself and see echoed here quite a bit is the regret some years into your orchard that one has so little space and there are so many trees/plants you’d like to grow. Not saying you and your family will necessarily follow in that path, but there is a somewhat easy partial cure at this stage. If you plant semi-dwarf trees (or even perhaps some of the slightly larger rootstocks) instead of full dwarfing ones, you have the potential for much larger yields with tress that can be pruned to be only somewhat larger than the full dwarf ones.

I mention it now because with grafting one can change (or add) varieties on the trees you’ve been growing fairly easily. However, moving to larger trees when you’ve planted small dwarf rootstocks would mean pulling the existing trees and replanting.

Anyway something to think about. And as Mamuang said do your research on rootstocks (of whatever size) before you select. There are limits in terms of soil types and disease that should steer your decision. What others in your area have found works is a very good indicator.

Good Luck.

Hi Jamie,

The info in the following link might interest you.

Dwarf trees are fine, but I’d look at semi-dwarf for their better competitive ability- something around the size of M26 that is capable of standing on its own roots.

You probably won’t need to bag apples at all if you do a 4-spray Surround program and you likely can grow a wide range of apple varieties, not just recent scab resistant introductions. There are many that likely will have adequate resistance even without fungicidal intervention. However, it is not a bad idea to start with varieties that are bullet proof to spring fungus, such as Liberty and Williams Pride and then graft on other varieties to established trees later.

Thank you all for the extremely helpful replies! I appreciate alan and Steve333’s suggestions for thinking about how things might evolve down the road, and building in some flexibility at the beginning to allow for that. Your point’s about considering options beyond dwarf rootstocks is definitely well taken. And thank you, mamuang, for providing the Penn State link - that’s the most detailed breakdown of the rootstocks I’ve seen. A lot to digest, but it will certainly be useful once I get my head around some of it a little more.

Thank you also to figgrower for your pointers about allowing enough space between an espalier and a wall or fence. That is definitely something to take into account. The tricky thing with our particular situation is that if you get too far off the wall, it could put the trees into the zone where snow gets dumped off our roof. (Another argument for using espalier there, I suppose.) I also appreciated the suggestion about compost. I’ve been spreading my first big batch of home-made leaf compost mulch this fall, and plan to do that annually going forward.

Just in general, I want to thank you all for the advice and encouragement. I realize that some of the problems I’m working through now are probably kind of old hat for you, and it’s very generous of you to take the time to help me sort them out.

PS: Z9gardener, thank you for the link. It was delightful. And a little terrifying. I think I might not show that one to my wife for a little while…

You really don’t want to get too much OM in the mix for fruit trees. Best fruit comes from a quick drying sandy loam and fruit trees don’t need rich soil to do their best as far as producing high quality fruit. You look for moderate vigor to assure adequate regrowth to sustain new spur wood and moderate annual shoot growth, but you are not trying to grow corn.

I have to admit to not being tuned into results of soils in the context of full dwarfs as I mostly manage rather vigorous trees on M7 and especially M111 with some 26 thrown in, but I do manage over a l00 various sized orchards, including in climates similar to yours, such as in Canaan CT.

Quick-drying sandy loam does seem to be what we have, Alan, so from what you’re saying, it sounds like our soil may be in better shape than I had been thinking.

I will definitely remember your advice about not trying to grow corn. I was aware that over-watering and over-fertilizing could be counterproductive, but I didn’t realize that adding too much organic matter in itself could be a problem. It’s helpful to be aware of that.

That being said, I do think the mulch seems useful at this particular point in the process, partly to cover the ground where I removed the yews, partly to keep down the weeds and grass, and partly because the soil in our southern-sun, street-side area does seem to have slipped a little too far toward the sandy side. That’s probably the best spot we have for apples, but it does tend to bake a bit in the summer.

If I can ask a couple of follow-up questions… First, looking over your comment again, I’m wondering if the dynamic you’re talking about shifts as trees mature. In other words, would it be a good idea to use a higher-OM mulch as young trees are getting established, and then back off as they start to come into their full fruit-bearing? (Assuming I am so fortunate as to get them to that point.)

Also, I’m wondering if there’s a connection with the selection of rootstocks here. Am I right in understanding that many dwarf rootstocks require more feeding and watering than the more vigorous ones, so that a relatively richer and more water-retentive soil might be beneficial or even necessary for them? If the best fruit comes from a quick-drying sandy loam, as you say, does that mean that the considerations involved in supporting a dwarf root system and the considerations involved in producing fruit are somewhat at odds, or am I over-reading? (If this were the case, it would seem to be an argument for selecting a relatively more [edit] vigorous rootstock, provided that one could keep it to a manageable size.)

You’ve given me a lot to think about.

I didn’t intend to make you overly concerned- it would likely take quite a few years before you would build up so much OM that it would excessively invigorate your trees. I just wanted to help you understand the general dynamics of fruit production so you don’t find out the hard way as I did- I heavily mulched my peach trees for ten consecutive years before I noticed a brix decline. People who grow grapes for wine are well aware of this connection.

Yes the issue switches as trees come into bearing- when they are young you do want them to grow as vigorously as possible to help them survive and bear heavier crops sooner- as long as you haven’t created an environment where you can’t turn town the vigor “spigot”. Also, I really don’t know if dwarf rootstocks can become excessively vegetative because of rich soil- all I know is that it hasn’t been a problem in instances where I manage espaliers in very rich soil. But my experience is too limited with tiny trees to speak with much authority.

Hi Alan,

Just wanted to thank you for the thoughtful and very informative reply - you’ve helped me to get a clearer picture of the balance you’re looking for and how it shifts over time. And also a helpful pointer about not over-correcting for “problems” that may not be there in the first place. Any time somebody crosses something off my list of Things to Learn the Hard Way, it’s a pretty good deal for me. (No doubt the list will stay long enough regardless.)

Thank you again to everyone who offered their advice! Time for me to do a little more research, I think, and hopefully come back with some more specific questions.


I don’t know either, I do know with sweet cherries though the dwarfing rootstocks are so vigorous that you have to head branch tips as the fruit bud to leaf ratio is too high to support, large sweet cherries. You must remove the tips, lower on the branch the ratios are fine. This does not occur with non-dwarfing cherry rootstocks. The opposite seems true with say citation which appears to have no vigor on some peach trees. On apples I have no idea? Never really got into growing them. The local apples are so good, I would rather just buy them.

Hi Drew,

"you have to head branch tips as the fruit bud to leaf ratio is too high to support, large sweet cherries. You must remove the tips, lower on the branch the ratios are fine. "

I do not mean to get off Jamie’s apple topic but do you have literature on this matter that you could share it with me, please?

I’ve not done so and have not seen any suffering of cherry size. My BG on Gisela 5 produces like mad every year.

Then you really better not start growing them. That used to be my theory until I found out there is no match for fruit produced in a small orchard by a loving and attentive caretaker. I had very few peaches and apples this year in my own orchard. I still couldn’t buy commercial stonefruit because I’ve lost the taste for it, although if I’d gone to a local orchard, quality might have been adequate- if the local orchards had any!

I had to get my apples from one of the orchards I manage. Got paid to grow them and got some of the fruit also. Sweet deal!

Sure this is a link to various pruning systems for cherries on Gisela rootstock,
I use the KGB system myself.

Well me either for years now. I produced over 200 peaches and/or nectarines this year. So this year I ate more peaches than any other year in my life. I was in Kalkaska MI visiting my son, which is near Traverse City on the upper west side of the state. The farmer’s market there was loaded with heirloom apples, they were absolutely amazing, I bought 3 bushels of various apples, and they were all excellent. The Honeycrisp apples I never tried before, wow, they were the best! I have no plans to grow apples, I don’t have room,. If I ever move I will though. I will be asking you and others for advise till you get sick of me. I had to choose what to grow, and apples didn’t make the cut. I do want to grow them, I just have no room at all to do so.

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Well if it works, don’t change it! A lot depends on the scion too, some cherries are more vigorous than others. If you grow other trees and have small cherries, you know what to do now. In my situation I head branches anyway as I don’t want the tree any bigger than it is, about 7 feet tall, it will never be taller than 8 feet.
I have had as many as 5 trees, but now only have two left. One is at my cottage, and one is here. Here is White Gold, today pruned to the KGB system, it looks good now, it needs a few heading cuts, but not many. (this is a 3rd leaf tree)

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Thanks, Drew. The guy in the video was clear about how and why. He butchered the tree pretty good. It is good to know. Thanks.