Apple Orchard.
This is the left section of the orchard when the apple trees were about five years old, and we've been harvesting apples for a couple of years already. The trees are purposefully kept about five feet high for easier maintenance and picking. They were planted on a foot-high mound to assist with drainage. On the left are some walking onions and a rhubarb, and that raised bed on the right has Walla Walla onions and some shallots.

Designing and Laying Out the Orchard

Commercial orchards are laid out in a twenty-five by twenty-five foot grid because the machinery needs that room. For the same reason there's a five-foot gap between the ground and tree canopy. We don't need that in a home orchard, it's too much work to tend to trees that size, nor do we want a truckload of fruit all at once when that huge tree bears fruit. Instead, we want a few pounds of fruit every week during a long growing season.

An Orchard in Your Back Yard!

Our first chore is to determine the ideal location and work from there. Fruit trees require sun or at least bright light, good soil, and access to water. If any of these conditions are not met you will have poor results.

If you can provide it, early morning sun is good. Dry leaves resist fungi better. 

But at the same time you will want to make it easy for yourself. If you have to drag a hose or two over to them every time they need water, it won't happen as often as the trees would like. If the trees don't get enough water they will respond by dropping fruit as well as becoming more susceptible to diseases and pests. Lay soaker hoses next to the trees and cover them with mulch. When a screwdriver probe indicates the soil is getting dry and stiff, allow a slow soak to water the roots, then allow the top few inches to dry before doing it again.

In Rows or in Groups

Fortuna OrchardThe Fortuna orchard is in the shape of a right angle hedgerow placed into a southwest corner of a back yard. The trees are eight to ten feet from the fence and five feet apart. Five yards of soil was mounded up to raise the plants above the existing grade because the ground is heavy and quite wet during the rainy season. The mound was made six feet wide, and each leg is about twenty feet long. This mini-orchard occupies only a couple hundred square feet and has around five feet of walking room on either side. Six varieties of apple trees were planted in 2005.
Update, we added to its length and planted two more varieties in 2013 and 2014

The trees were planted next to each other according to their harvest period, and there's a reason for that. If you appreciate a certain variety you can prune its neighbors harder to give your favorite a bit more space. You will receive the fruit you want, don't let the trees make the decisions for you.

In a previous orchard we had planted four fruit trees in each corner of a five-foot by six-foot raised bed. This worked well for a number of years, but after a while it was difficult to get to the center of the planting. This required some heavy pruning and removal of fruit-bearing wood. It would have been better to plant them in a row, or even two trees in one planting hole, about 18 inches apart, and two more in another. Apple orchard planThis row design is a little better and gives us a way to get to all parts of each tree, but if we had to do it over we would have made that corner tree a little more accessible by moving it a few feet down in this diagram, it is difficult to access the part that is inside the corner. That corner tree is our favorite, the Jonagold, and we added an additional one later.

These are not dwarf trees, those can have issues. We planted regular trees that were available at the local garden centers. 

Lay out the design on your paper and include fences and other items close to the proposed location, and access to water. Make sure the area gets enough light, and allow for space to walk around the trees on two sides. Each tree will occupy about six feet by six feet, but you can plant them five or six feet apart and allow the branches to mingle a bit. In short, you can place these trees wherever they will meet the proper conditions of light, food and water. Be creative!

When you've got the place all scoped out and you've decided where your orchard's going to live, it's time to play in the dirt.

NEXT: Preparing the Soil and Planting