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Homesteading observations: Fruit, orchard planning and maintenance

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 May Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Little friend enjoying black raspberries

A few months back, Pru and I were asked if we’d lead a NOFA workshop on the topic of homestead fruit. We’re looking forward to hosting a group of curious learners at our homestead in Wendell for an Orchard Planning and Maintenance workshop on June 12. We’ll demonstrate overall orchard planning, building diversity into plantings, breed selection, practical fruit growing techniques, and soil and plant health.

Pru and I have been homesteading together, here in Wendell, for over 30 years. Our land was totally wooded and had almost no topsoil. Much that we’ve done has been with the “more time than money” head set. And much of what we’ve accomplished has been by hard work, trial and error, and our share of mistakes. We often say, in retrospect, that we wish we’d known then what we know today! (And that we wish we had had more cash resources, too…) But given these past limitations we have created a system that works well for us now. 

Both of us had the desire to be on the land as much as possible. We have had part time jobs to bring in the needed cash, but we preferred to be working on the land, as much as possible. Early on, we divided our responsibilities based on our areas of interest. I focused on the garden and Pru on fruit production. This allowed each of us to “be in charge”, to do the needed research, planning and decision making in our area of focus and then to work together on implementation. Today, my writing about fruit is based on an interview with Pru this morning.

One guiding principle is that reliability and productivity are paramount in determining what we grow. We want to grow a desirable product and be sure to maintain our homestead’s productivity. This has come about after many years of trying to grow interesting exotics that turned out to be marginal under our conditions. Over time, we’ve determined what works best for us and are less inclined to try unproven varieties. It's still hard to know, given the erratic weather patterns and climate changes, what might become better suited to changing conditions. 

For homestead sustainability, we try to have a continuous supply of fresh fruit throughout the summer and fall seasons. It’s great to be eating something new every few weeks, plus, we are able to preserve each in turn for winter enjoyment. Our small fruit lineup by ripening date is as follows: rhubarb, strawberries, mulberries, black raspberries, ever-bearing red raspberries, blueberries, sand cherries, bush plums, elderberry, hardy kiwi, fall red raspberries, and grapes. The mulberries, bush plums and sand cherries are grown for poultry food and as distractors for the wild birds. We love the songbirds, of course, but they can be very destructive to our crops. Fortunately they do seem to love mulberries more than our more valuable crops!

Yellow Egg plumsOur larger fruits include peaches, plums, apples (Cortland, Northern Spy, and Baldwin), paw-paw, and Seckel pear. Pru has just planted some new, lower maintenance apples, and increased disease resistance varieties: Jonafree and Liberty.

Fruit maintenance includes fertilizing, mulching, composting, foliar sprays, pruning, grafting, trellising, rodent, deer and porcupine protection, and rotational planting (strawberries). Pru follows the Michael Phillips foliar spraying protocol (including Kaolin clay applications). 

Harvest time, which extends throughout the growing season, is a happy time! We try to choose varieties mostly for flavor, but ease of harvest is also important. We freeze or dehydrate most of our fruit. We also can fruit, and make jams, juices and applesauce too. One advantage to growing for yourself, besides the eating enjoyment, is that we don’t worry about superficial blemishes, eating the perfect ones and preserving the rest.

Well, that’s a little tour of our fruit system. If you’d like to learn in-depth details about this topic, join in a discussion, hear of our failures as well as our successes and see the homestead, live and in person, please come to our Orchard Planning and Maintenance workshop on June 12.




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