Home & Design October 22, 2010

An Orchard With Altitude

Growing fruit trees in the Wood River Valley is not easy as pie, but it can be done.

In 1878, when a settler came to record his land claim with Homer Pound, the first Registrar for Blaine County and father of Ezra, he was given a bag of walnuts along with his land claim form. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 had just been amended to require that each 160-acre section of land support 6,750 trees. That was quite a stiff requirement for this arid country, and Pound was doing his part to help the settlers out by giving them the means to begin their orchards.

As a result of that requirement, at the turn of the century there were numerous orchards, both fruit and nut, spread over the southern part of the Wood River Valley. Many oral histories of the area recount tales of these orchards. An elderly man tells of climbing the fence on his way to school and grabbing an apple to add to his lunch sack, while one woman speaks wistfully of a yellow apple whose flavor has not been equaled in her lifetime.

The types of fruit we can grow here are limited by the climate. Varieties must be able to withstand winter temperatures that drop well below zero, and trees that make it through the winter are assaulted by springtime frosts that often destroy the fragile buds and flowers. Should the trees survive the winter and the flowers survive the spring, there is a very short summer for the fruit to ripen in before it is set upon by the frosts of fall. A daunting proposition for a tree.

Success in growing fruit will depend to a great extent on where in the Valley you live. Bellevue is more hospitable to fruit trees than Ketchum, and Warm Springs is better than the rest of Ketchum. The Bellevue Triangle, though lower in elevation, suffers from a wind that whips across the flats and blows away the protective winter blanket of snow. Microclimates make a difference.

Apples are the most reliable fruit trees for this climate, while pears and plums are possible if you choose the right variety (see sidebar for selections). Sweet cherries will not grow here, but sour or pie cherries do well. Apricots can make it through the winters, but they bloom so early in the spring that they often lose their blossoms to late spring frosts.

Site selection is the most important factor to consider in your decision to plant an orchard. Cold air drains downhill like water and pools in the low spots, so do not plant your trees in a hollow. It is better to place them on a slope, where the cold air will roll past rather than settle on them. In addition, avoid the mouths of side canyons, as the cold empties down these canyons. Take into account any wind dams, existing trees, buildings, or land formations that will block the cold air. Fruit trees need full sun, so check that your wind dams do not block the sun. South-facing slopes are best.

Fruit trees require good soil. The fertile, slightly acidic, sandy loam that they prefer is almost impossible to find in this rocky river valley, so be prepared to replace the existing soil with a mixture of topsoil and compost. For a fee, the Blaine County Extension Office will test your soil. Just bring them a bag of it and they will tell you exactly what it is deficient in and how to amend it, organically or chemically.

It is important that your soil have adequate drainage. To test this, dig a hole about three feet deep and fill it with water. If it does not drain away within several hours, you need to find a site with better drainage.

Your site needs easy access to water for irrigation. In this high desert climate, the rainfall is inadequate to supply even a mature tree’s needs, let alone a recently transplanted sapling. Water frequently the first year to help the trees get established. Then, in the following years, water less frequently and more deeply to encourage deeper root growth.

It is important to buy healthy plants from reputable nurseries. Individual trees grown in extreme climates will be much hardier than those grown in more temperate climates.

Fruit trees come in dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard sizes. Not all varieties are available in all sizes, so your choice may be dictated by availability. Smaller trees are easier to prune and harvest, and if a spring frost threatens your blossoms, you can always throw a couple of bedsheets over them for protection. This is difficult to do with a 35-foot tree. As a bonus, you can fit more of the small ones in, so you can have more varieties.

A word of caution about buying dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, however. Most fruit trees are propagated by grafting. The part of the tree below the ground is grown from seed or by dividing an existing apple tree root, while the part above the ground, which bears the fruit, is grown from a small branch taken from a tree of the type that produces the desired fruit. It is important that both parts of your new tree are hardy enough to withstand this climate, and many varieties of dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstock are not. Do your homework before you buy and you will save yourself years of effort.

The blossoms of fruit trees need to be pollinated in order to produce fruit. Seems obvious, but the trick is that most varieties are not self-pollinating. Therefore it is important to plant at least two varieties of every type of tree you plant. Two apples, two plums, two whatevers. Cherries are an exception to this, as they can be pollinated by the wild chokecherries that fill our Valley. Some varieties are self-pollinating, and not all varieties can pollinate each other. This is another area where it pays to do your homework.

For everything you plant, from a petunia to a plum, it is important to dig a bigger hole than you think you will need. A $5 hole for a $1 plant, my mother always said. Be sure that the hole will accommodate the entire root ball with room to spare, at least eight inches larger than the root ball on all sides.

Mix well-aged manure into the bottom four inches of soil, fifty-fifty, and then an inch or two of straight soil. It is important that the roots not touch the manure, for it may burn the tender new root hairs. By burying the manure below the rootball, you ensure that by the time the roots grow down to it, it will be well decomposed.

Tamp the soil down around the roots as you go and when the hole is completely filled in, mound the soil up in a collar to create a well as wide across as the root ball. This collar will hold the water and allow it to seep into the soil around the tree. Water the new tree well to settle the soil around the roots and get rid of any air pockets. If necessary add more soil to fill in as the soil settles. (As the tree grows, increase the size of the watering well.)

Fill the area within the well with a mulch of organic material, hay, bark, or shavings. This will suppress weeds and grass, hold moisture in the soil, and encourage earthworm activity to loosen and regenerate the soil. In addition, this mulch insulates the soil, keeping the roots cool in the spring and delaying flowering by a few days. The later the flowers, the less chance they have of falling victim to frost.
As your trees grow, you will have to prune them. Pruning serves many purposes, including opening the tree to air and sunlight to encourage fruit development, removing dead and diseased wood, and shaping the tree. In addition, pruning improves fruit quality by limiting the amount of fruit the tree is able to produce. This results in bigger and more tasty fruit.

In our climate it is best to prune in the spring, as fall or winter pruning will result in winter kill of the newly cut branches. The optimum time to prune is just before the leaves come out.

It is also important to thin the fruit on your tree. Too many fruits result in small fruit that is slow to ripen and not as flavorful. After the blossoms have faded and the tiny fruits are clearly visible, go over your tree and remove any doubles. Thin the fruits so they are at least four to six inches apart on the branches. The fruit will be larger, ripen earlier, and be more perfectly beautiful. There will be fewer fruits, yet a greater yield. In addition, this will prevent the tendency for trees to bear heavily one year and then not at all the following year, as they recover.

If you are strong-willed enough, do not to allow your trees to fruit at all while they are young. While it is very difficult to throw away all those promising little apples, your tree will grow faster, be healthier, and bear better in the future if you can make yourself do it. You can always leave one or two just to taste.

Fruit trees need some additional nutrients in the form of fertilizers. Organic is always best. Repeat your soil test every other year, to be sure that your soil stays balanced. Do not fertilize in late summer or early fall, as you will retard winter dormancy and expose your tree to frost damage. A top dressing of aged manure or other organic matter can be applied after leaf drop. The snowmelt will make this available to the tree in very early spring, when it needs it most. Fertilize the entire area under the canopy to the drip line, as the roots will fill that whole space.

There is actually a bit more to harvesting than just pulling the fruit off the tree. Ripe apples will separate easily from the branch with a twisting upward motion. If you have to tug, they are not ready. Most pears ripen off the tree and should be picked when mature, but not ripe. Like apples, they will separate easily from the branch when ready.

Apricots will fall from the tree, so you must watch them closely. They should be picked when all trace of green is gone. Leaving the fruit on the tree longer will increase the sugar content, but you run the risk of a gust of wind dropping it all to the ground. Apricots generally ripen over a two- to three-week period, with the fruit at the top of the tree ripening first, then the middle, and finally the bottom.

Cherries and plums should simply be picked when ripe. The trick with them is to beat the birds. If your trees are small enough you can surround them with bird netting to deter the sharp-eyed creatures.

Growing an orchard more than a mile above sea level is not an easy task. It is challenging, entertaining, and sometimes rewarding. And there is no reward like a cherry pie made with your own home-grown cherries.

In the process of researching and planting her own orchard in the Wood River Valley, Senior HOME editor Elise Lufkin learned there is more to fruit trees than apple pie.




This article appears in the Fall 2001 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.