Fruitful Planning: Creating a New Orchard

— Written By

Two ripe peaches on peach treeHave you ever considered planting an orchard? Winter is a good time to do research and plan for a new orchard. The first step is to ask yourself several questions: What type of fruit trees would do well in our soil and local climate? How do we prepare the land? Where will we sell the fruit? How much capital do we have available to invest? These and many other questions need to be answered before breaking ground on a new orchard.

Crop choice

Apples and peaches are the fruits produced the most in NC. Along with plums and pears, they require a high level of management, mainly for pest and disease control. Nectarines require an even greater effort in order to manage brown rot. Figs, paw paws, and perhaps American and Oriental persimmons need only minimal maintenance once established. Fig trees are the quickest to bear fruit, after 2-3 years, while peaches, nectarines and plums require 3-4 years and pecans, pears, and persimmons require 5-7 years. Apple varieties range from 3-7 years, and paw paws 4-5 years. The market demand is potentially high for apples, peaches and nectarines, moderate for pears and plums, and uncertain for figs, persimmons, and paw paws. More individual marketing effort may be needed for these latter crops to create local demand. The cost of establishment is relatively low ($5000 – $6,000/acre) for peaches, nectarines, plums and figs compared to the other fruit crops mentioned.

Cultivar choice

If you choose a crop other than figs, you need to choose the variety of both rootstock and scion. For peach trees in the Sandhills, the only rootstock variety worth considering is Guardian. It is resistant to root knot nematodes, which are tiny worms, common in sandy soil,  that cause tree decline and early death. The rootstock variety also determines how big the tree will get and which plant diseases, if any, the trees can resist. The scion variety, which gets budded or grafted onto the rootstock before you buy the tree, determines the fruit characteristics. Varieties appropriate for our area are listed on the North Carolina State Extension “Guide for Smaller Orchard Plantings” (North Carolina Production Guide for Smaller Orchard Plantings).  Not all varieties do well here in the Sandhills, so it’s important to choose ones from the list. Otherwise, you may waste your time and money growing trees that die or do not produce much fruit. Usually, more than one variety is needed to ensure pollination. You can grow varieties that ripen at different times to spread out the harvest over a longer period if you plan to sell by direct marketing rather than wholesale. To purchase high-demand varieties, you may need to order six months to a year in advance of the anticipated planting date.

Site selection and soil tests

Most types of fruit trees are most productive in full sun, but paw paws can tolerate some shade. Site fruit trees away from low-lying areas where frost can damage tender flowers in the spring. The top 16-22 inches of soil must be well-draining for fruit or nut trees to succeed. Usually, that is not an issue in our sandy soil, but if the soil is not well-draining, you can create raised beds. Get soil tests done well before planting – ideally, at least a year – in order to have time to correct pH and nutrient deficiencies. Sample the soil for nematodes as well. Your Extension agent can help with proper sampling for orchard establishment and deciphering the resulting soil report. Also, consider planting a cover crop as part of the site preparation.

Making it happen

Before planting, you need to assess the establishment and annual input costs, potential markets and revenues, and the length of time before you can expect a return. This is a critical piece, where the Extension agent can really help.

With careful choice of crop, varieties, and site location, preparing the soil according to test results, and counting the costs, a fruit or nut orchard can supply a lifetime of income from your initial investment of money and effort. Feel free to contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Richmond County office for help with any aspect of planning and growing your orchard; we are eager to assist you! The office phone number is 910-997-8255. If you prefer email, commercial growers can reach me at nrpower@ncsu.edu and residential growers can reach Paige Burns Clark at lpburns@ncsu.edu. Have a fruitful year!