Planning a small apple orchard! Questions about spacing, deer, and sunlight

Hello everyone :wave: I made one post last year about saving the genetics of a very old apple tree on my parents’ farm, and I received so much great advice. I ended up buying apple rootstock, learning to graft, and starting a new hobby. The best part is that I’ve always dreamed of planting an apple orchard, and now that I can graft, it might be doable within my modest students’ budget.

I’ve been clearing and fixing up some old overgrown pastures on my parents’ farm for years, and I’ve recently been given the go-ahead to plant some of my apple rootstocks! I’m in the middle of a semester at college right now, but in the back of my mind I’ve been planning an orchard. It’s hard to not think about it, you know? I’m sure that the people here can relate. :wink:

I’ve reached the point where it’s time to start asking questions, and I thought that maybe I could get some advice here. I’ve been soaking up information on this forum lately (I just don’t have time to comment on anything) and I’ve got to say that the knowledge and community here is really amazing!

So here’s the scoop: Most of the farm is wet lowland. There is a corner at the top of a big north-facing slope, well above the frost pocket farther down, that probably has the best air circulation on the farm. I think it would be the best site, but a row of white pines on the neighbors’ property cast a lot of shade there. After I clear the space of the small trees, there will be about 0.5 of an acre where I could squeeze some apple trees in between the big shade trees. There are four volunteer apple seedlings growing there already, some of which I’ve practiced my grafting on, and they seem to get much less fireblight in this location than the volunteer apples in other locations on the farm. We are hit hard by fireblight every year here (I’m ordering scion wood from the most resistant apple varieties, Liberty, Goldrush, etc.)

My questions: 1) How will apples do with partial shade from the pines? They are both south and uphill of this space. We also have some white pines on our side, but they’re to the east. I want to give the pines about 40 feet of clearance before I start my row, because there’s a fence there anyway. The shade seems to move around a lot throughout the day.

  1. Any advice on spacing? I’m trying to think 20 years into the future. I will be using Budagovsky 118 rootstock, so the trees should eventually get big. Because sunlight might be an issue, I’m thinking of using an old fashioned spacing of 25’ between trees in the row, and 30’ between rows. I could fit three rows in the space that way. Carol Deppe mentions in her book, The Resilient Gardener, that orchard trees spaced farther apart this way are less stressed for water in drought years. I thought that sounded like a nice idea, because ideally the trees will be there for a while, and I wonder if it would be helpful with sunlight needs as well.

  2. We have a ton of deer here. They eat everything. I have been reading about how people prune their young apple trees to encourage them to grow above the deer browse line when they’re mature. I can probably find fence scraps in the barn to protect the trees at first, but I need a long term strategy. If I cut the trees back to whips for several years until they’re tall enough, will it make them too weak? How else could I go about it?

  3. If I use this 30’ x 25’ spacing between trees, can I plant other things between them in the rows? I also have Geneva 11 rootstocks. If I planted one between each Bud 118, would they ultimately be crowded out, or could they possibly grow there for their productive lives? I was thinking that if a bud 118 tree grows to be ~15 feet wide and tall, then at a 25’ spacing, there should be ~10 feet of open space between the mature Bud 118 trees in the rows. I thought that maybe I could plant one of the less long-lived Geneva 11s in each of those spaces, between the Bud 118s, and then maybe honeyberries and gooseberries on either side of each Geneva 11 tree, where they’ll eventually be in the shade. (no currants or black gooseberries because of the white pines). Is that something that could work? I want to make the most of the space while the Bud 118 trees grow up, but I don’t want it to get overcrowded. I also need a place to plant the Geneva 11 rootstocks, haha.

Want to see some pictures? :smile: I made this map so I could work around the areas shaded by mature shade trees. (The green diamonds indicate potential planting locations for apple trees)

The site:

One of the big seedling apples growing there. This one likes to make water sprouts apparently:

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Regarding deer (#3 above): it is not just the fruit you have to protect, but the trees themselves. You may be aware of this, but it is important enough that I’ll bring it up just in case you’re not. You will have to protect the young trees from deer for years. The deer will aggressively eat any new growth every few months, and eat the buds in the winter. They are not neat about it and usually rip young trees up in the process. If the trees are young enough, they will eat the whole tree down to the ground. They also will rub their antlers on the trees during rutting season and damage the bark severely. Also, rabbits will chew on the bark that they can reach. Keep in mind they can reach a foot above your highest snowline. If they go more than half way around the trunk, the tree will most likely not survive. There is info on the forum about building deer cages, and white spiral guards work for rabbits.
It will pay off to do whatever you can to get as much sunlight as possible for the apple trees. A few trees with enough sunlight would be better than crowding too many in. You might consider a row of trees spaced 15’ apart between the horizontal grid lines that have the green triangles. I think you could keep them pruned enough for the 15’ spacing to be ok, maybe even 10’ or 12’. It looks like you could fit 5 trees in with no shade which might be better than the six you have shown since it looks like three of them might be partially shaded. Of all maintenance required on fruit trees, I think pruning is by far the easiest. Spraying is much harder for me, especially because the timing of the applications is so important. Moving my deer cages to spray and dealing with the weeds that grow around the cages is also a pain. For a half dozen trees, I would consider an 8’ high deer fence around all of them. Makes spraying easier. You still will have to deal with weeds growing around the bottom of it. Honeyberries will grow in the shade, but the fruit is much better when they get plenty of sun. Same with gooseberries.

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That does look like deer country. I know you could spend a ton of money building a fence but in poorer countries they don’t do that they build it out of old thorny brush etc they clear. With that said it a brush fence will bring the rabiits in by the dozens. If you have plenty of big wood you could make a rustic fence out of that. If you want to spend the money it gets expensive as you want it. You could go with this type with a strand or two of barb wire on top T posts have really got expensive The cheap way to go is electric fence I’m glad to here your pursuing your dream of having an orchard it’s very rewarding and in a fairly short period of time.

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My friend Ben has been working on apple plantings in two locations in Maine. In one, he built a tall electric fence around the whole apple area, which seems to be effective and about the least money for most deer stopping power. All those trees are on Antonovka, so are at wide spacings, and just starting to produce some apples 9 years later. In between he planted peach trees, which are not long lived and come to bearing much sooner. Last couple summers he has got lots of awesome peaches from those trees. By the time the standard sized apples are getting big, the peach trees will be petering out.

In his other location he has deer shielding around individual young trees, but another good approach he has been pursuing is bark grafting above the deer zone of interest on seedlings that pepper the property. The established root system and trunk height would give your “new” tree a huge headstart in both roots and in getting above deer. Selective tree cutting around some of these have let them get more light.

His blog is at


I have tried those elevated grafts and they work fantastic. Did find the limbs start gravitating down significantly once fruit is produced.

Wow, thank you all so much for all of your advice!

ztom, I know about the deer but it certainly bears repeating! My mother planted a mulberry tree once and when she went back to put a cage around it the next day it had already been eaten down to a nub. I’ll look up the info on building cages, and I’m really going to consider your idea for the different spacing. It’s a very interesting idea! Thank you.

clarkinks, thank you for all of the links for fence supplies! That galvanized fence is actually way more affordable than what I found when I was researching so I might have to think about that. I thought about planting some really tall Nelson blackberries as a fence because blackberries are one of the few things deer seem to respect around here, but you’re right about the rabbits. It would just be shelter for them. Would you believe that I already have electric fence for horses (a heavy duty kind, it’s not messing around!) and the deer smash through it all the time? They don’t even have the courtesy to jump over, haha

HollyGate, thank you for the link to your friend’s blog! What an interesting read. It’s really helpful to hear about someone else’s solution for using the land while the large apple trees grow up. Peaches! What a great idea. I bet that up in Maine you’d have to keep moose out too. Maybe I just need a taller electric fence.

I’m definitely going to try the elevated bark grafts on those poor seedling apples already growing there then. It’s good to know that the limbs can start to hang down, clarkinks. Maybe I should graft them a little higher to compensate. I’m going to need an orchard ladder. :stuck_out_tongue:

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I tried electric fence and gave up after the deer kept running right through the wire.

I apologize if I’m stating something everybody knows, but there are different gauges/strengths of electric fence wire.

Some of the 12.5 gauge wire is pretty strong. I think I could pull my truck with it. It’s strong enough to use as brace wire in corner and H braces. It is more expensive, but not frightfully so. A 4000’ roll is about a hundred bucks. You need to either buy (or make) a spinning jenny for the big rolls. It’s very stiff so you have to use pliers to tie/knot it.


12.5 gauge high tensile wire and a good fence charger makes a perfect and permanent (but expensive!) deer fence with 8 or 10 wires spaced about a foot apart. A less expensive option can be made with t post pointing outward with multiple wires - electric twine is very easy to work with. Another option is two parallel fences spaced about two feet apart, they do not need to be too high. Hang tin foil along the length of the fence and bait it with peanut butter. The more powerful the fence charger - the better. A huge amount of information on deer fence is available on the internet. I had deer run through my 8 foot fence about twice in 5 years, so its hard to exclude 100% of the deer 100% of the time.

Had some more thoughts after working inside my deer fence earlier today. A good first step would be to decide if you want something temporary or something permanent. Then decide on the location for the gate and the location for the corner posts. These are the most important portions of the project. If you want something permanent then start with very solid corners and gate posts. You could fill in with less expensive and shorter line posts (T or fiberglass) to start with and make improvements later as desired. With solid corners, you can stretch the wire very tight and reduce the number of line posts which saves a lot of money. You may want to start with something temporary and inexpensive and see how things work out because a good permanent fence is a big investment in material even if you do all the work.