Planting an orchard

Peter Brittonin Conservation & Ecology

As the move towards environmental sustainable course management continues apace, many golf courses will have, in recent years, undertaken tree planting, the creation of wildlife areas and wildflower meadows et al. But have you ever considered creating an orchard?

The thought of an orchard may fill you with dread, but I am not talking about those vast commercial types that can be found in Somerset (where the cider comes up from), the Vale of Evesham or Kent - other areas are available - but small pockets of fruit bearing trees in and around your land.

To qualify as 'an orchard' requires a minimum of five trees; there is, obviously, no set maximum.

Orchards are in decline across the UK, with the subsequent loss in native species of fruit falling foul to pristine foreign varieties imported by supermarkets.

Except perhaps in the most rural of greengrocers where produce is collected locally, spots and blemishes on apples are now a thing of the past, as is, generally, any semblance of taste. "Bland is best" appears to be the new trading 'standard'.

An orchard can provide so many benefits in and around a golf course, school playing field, training ground or any area that is simply lying dormant.

The orchard 'habitat' is unusual, in that it is actually an assortment of several habitats all on the same unit of land. Firstly, there is the tree habitat, which provides the blossom and fruit for food. They also offer the cracks and crevices where bats and birds live, and the wood which specialist invertebrates feed on. Mistletoe, fungi and lichens all grow in trees, but the interesting thing about an orchard is the trees are spaced so widely there is enough sunlight to allow a grassland habitat to develop as well. This enables all those grassland specialists to live in an orchard too - wildflowers, insects, small rodents and fungi. Add to this the other habitats usually present in and around an orchard - such as hedgerows, ponds and scrub - and you have a habitat of great complexity which will increase the biodiversity found at your facility. Beehives will also add to the diversity in and around an orchard.

For a golf club, an orchard will provide additional interest and education for members, a possible income stream once established, along with produce for the clubhouse menu. Consider local cider makers, bakers, greengrocers and such like. Whilst requiring careful nurturing in the early stages, and ongoing maintenance once mature, there are plenty of benefits to be had from an orchard.

Similar applies to schools and colleges, where an orchard will also offer additional and considerable educational opportunities from day one of the planting scheme.

Whilst many people will immediately think of apples, an orchard is, in fact, any planted area of fruit and nut trees - varieties of pear, plum, cherry, walnuts and almonds being the most popular.

Planting an orchard is the first step to ensuring the safety of the orchard habitat. Anyone can plant an orchard, or keep fruit trees, it really does not matter how much space you have!

So, with thanks to the Wildlife Trust, here are some pointers to creating your orchard.

Planting a traditional orchard

This is the ideal scenario; planting five or more widely spaced fruit trees on vigorous rootstocks. Five trees as a minimum means the orchard would 'qualify' as an orchard under the current habitat definition. Vigorous rootstocks lead to the largest trees, sometimes 30ft high, meaning lots of fruit (with plenty of access for wildlife) and lots of deadwood and cavities which are good for several animals. Wide spacing allows lots of light into the grassland beneath the trees to allow a high diversity of ground flora.

However, not everyone has the space for this kind of orchard, but this is the wonderful thing about fruit trees - their versatility!

If you are limited on space, try growing dwarf trees in pots on the patio, or train an espalier up a south facing wall. You could even try creating 'step over' apples (a low-growing, horizontally-trained tree that can literally be 'stepped over'). There's always space for some kind of fruit tree.

Site selection

It is worth spending some time planning where you want to plant your orchard, as this could save you trouble later on. Some things worth considering when selection your site include:

Grassland biodiversity

Sometimes, the grassland where you want to plant your trees might be of very high wildlife value. This will be particularly evident in grasslands where a hay cut is regularly taken, or where there are ant hills present (indicating the ground has not been ploughed for a long time). If the grassland has a high diversity of flowers in it, consider planting your orchard on another site. Flower rich meadows are becoming very rare and many important plant species such as orchids are found in them. Your local Wildlife Trust can advise on the value of grasslands at your site, so let them know and they will arrange a survey, along with offering plenty of other useful advice.


Ideally, an orchard should be planted on a south or south-west facing slope. This aspect ensures the trees will get plenty of sunlight throughout the year and that there will be adequate drainage. Other aspects may be considered however if a south or south-west slope is not available. Depending on other factors, such as exposure and shading (see below), more hardy fruit varieties should be chosen to cope with the slightly cooler conditions on these slopes.


Fruit tree blossom is extremely susceptible to wind blow, particularly the earlier blossoming varieties. In exposed places, a windbreak, such as a hedgerow, can help protect the fruit trees from harsh winds, so you could try planting one before your fruit trees go in (or at the same time). Another danger to fruit tree blossom is frost. A late frost can completely destroy all of the blossom in an orchard; again, early blossomers are particularly at risk. To avoid the risk of frost as much as possible, plant later blossoming varieties. If you have your heart set on early varieties, plant these at the top of the slope. Trees at the top of the slope will receive most sunshine for the longest part of the day; therefore, frost will melt quickly from them.


Fruit trees generally hate having wet feet, so the ideal location for them would be on a freely draining soil. This is partly why slopes are good for fruit trees. A good test to find out how well your ground drains is to dig a hole in the ground, around a foot deep, and leave it for a week. If you can see water pooling in the hole after this time, the location is probably too wet for healthy fruit trees and it may be worth considering somewhere else.

If your drainage is okay, but your soil still has a very high clay content, it may be worth digging in some well-rotted manure at each location where you will plant the trees. This will help improve the localised soil structure for the tree while it establishes. Do the same if your soil is extremely sandy.


It is also worth thinking about the types of boundary you have around your orchard site. Fruit trees need a lot of sunlight and will not do well if planted very closely to other tall trees (such as a hedge boundary or neighbouring woodland) because they will be over shaded. Trees grown in shade will have crooked growth (as they reach for sunlight) and may be more susceptible to some diseases (particularly fungal diseases) as the microclimate around them will be cooler and wetter.

Tree selection

As much as it is worth considering your location, it is equally as important to choose your trees wisely. The following hints should help you make the correct decision. Remember to talk to your tree supplier to confirm your choices, they are there to help.


Fruit trees are supplied on different rootstocks. Rootstocks give a predictable growth rate and structure and mean that fruit trees can be planted in most situations if the appropriate rootstock is selected.

Rootstocks vary from extremely dwarfing to extremely vigorous, and so the resulting mature tree will be a predicted height; very small ranging to very large. There are advantages and disadvantages of the uses of different rootstocks. Dwarfing ones are easy to prune and harvest from, but have a poor root system meaning they require staking all of the time. Vigorous rootstocks can lead to large unwieldy trees which are difficult to harvest from and prune, however they will develop strong roots and will be more hardy to adverse weather conditions.

The rootstock chosen will obviously influence how widely the trees need to be planted apart as a reflection of how large the trees will eventually become. The table below gives examples of different rootstocks, however many more are available. It is worth consulting with your supplier.


Which varieties you go for entirely depend on what you want to get out of your orchard - whether it is for cider or for kitchen use, for exmple. The only constricting factor with varieties is whether you need to choose later blossoming ones if your site is very exposed (see above). Whenever possible, plant at least some traditional, local varieties to your area. Traditional varieties are in danger of being lost as more modern ones are chosen in preference. Your local supplier will be able to advise you.


Many fruit trees are 'self-sterile'; that is they require another variety to be present for pollination to occur, so fruit is produced. The other option is 'self-fertile' trees, i.e. those trees which produce fruit with or without any pollination from another tree. Even self-fertile trees benefit from some pollination as this can improve yields.

Fruit trees are categorised into 'pollination groups' based on when they come into flower. Fruit trees can only be pollinated by varieties in the same group as them, or the next one up or down. In other words, group 2 trees can be pollinated by groups 1, 2 and 3 but not 4.

Most self-sterile trees are 'diploid'; that is, they only require one other variety for pollination. Some, however, are trickier and are called 'triploid'. Triploid trees require at least two other varieties in the same pollination group to ensure a crop of fruit.

The pollination requirements of a fruit tree should be on the tree label. If it is not, ask your supplier to tell you.


After making all of your important decisions on where to plant your trees and which ones to plant, there is then the task of actually planting them.

Time of year and tree storage

Fruits trees come in one of two ways: bare rooted or containerised. Bare rooted trees are available in the winter, when the trees are dormant. These trees must be planted in the winter months between November and March, ideally December. They come with their roots wrapped up in plastic or something similar, but cannot be stored like this for any length of time.

To store bare rooted trees it is necessary to 'heel' them in to a trench in the ground. This involves burying the roots with soil.

Containerised trees are available all year round and come in a pot with compost or soil protecting the roots. Because the roots are well protected, they can be stored like this in a sheltered position until ready for planting, which can be at any time of year.

There are disadvantages and advantages to bare rooted or containerised trees. While containerised have the flexibility of being able to be planted at any time of year, they are twice as expensive as bare rooted alternatives. Trees in pots may also be root bound, making it more difficult for them to establish when planted. They also require more watering than bare rooted trees, especially if planted during the spring and summer.

Stakes and guards

All fruit trees will require staking for some amount of time after planting. The type of stake required, and also the guards you use to protect the tree, will depend upon what else you will use the orchard space for. If you intend to graze the orchard, heavy duty stakes and guards will have to be used as most grazing animals (including deer) will destroy an orchard of young fruit trees within minutes if the trees are not protected. If no grazing is expected, a rabbit guard and small stake will be sufficient whilst the tree establishes itself.

Planting the trees

The tree should not have its roots exposed (either from the plastic wrapping or planting pot) until the very last minute before they go into the hole. Tree roots are damaged within seconds of being exposed to the air as they dry out so quickly.

A hole should be dug which is deep enough so that the soil level will be reach the same point on the tree as where it was at in the nursery (or in the pot). You will be able to see the old soil line on the tree itself and should be a few centimetres below the graft line (where the rootstock and variety have been joined).

The stake should be driven into the ground before the tree goes in so that the tree roots may be arranged around the stake, minimising damage to the roots. It should project at least 30cm out of the ground, vertically, and should sit around 15cm away from the tree trunk.

Once the tree has been placed in the hole, the soil should be carefully placed in whilst the tree is kept vertical. You can jiggle the tree slightly whilst the soil is going in to help distribute the soil around the roots.

Finally, the tree should be loosely fixed with a flexible tie to the stake, above the graft line. The tree should be able to sway slightly in the wind as this strengthens the trunk.


Once the trees are planted, there are a few things that need to be done to look after them.


Newly planted fruit trees suffer if they have to compete for water and nutrients from weeds and grasses growing around their roots. It is therefore advisable to remove all vegetation from the base of the tree and suppress further growth for the first few years after planting. This may be done by covering the area with mulch, such as grass clippings, to smother any future growth. Weed suppressing membranes and mats can also be used. Finally, a non-residual herbicide could be used. Of all the options, mulching is preferable.


Trees will need to be well watered straight after planting. A lot of water should be poured on to ensure the water reaches the trees roots. Water may be required during the summer months for a few years after planting, depending on how hot the weather gets.

Formative pruning

For information on formative pruning young trees, see below.

Sources of advice

Some extremely comprehensive free guides on fruit tree planting are available from Natural England

Advice and guidance is available from The Wildlife Trusts

We recommend sourcing trees from local suppliers where possible, ensuring that, to limit the risk of disease, no imported trees are used.

Pruning - formative and maintenance

Formative Pruning

Formative pruning is required by all young fruit trees to ensure they develop a balanced shape. It is important to bear in mind stone fruit trees like plums and cherries do not need as much formative pruning as apples and pears.

The process of formative pruning depends largely on the rootstocks used. For example, in a traditional orchard (with trees on very vigorous rootstocks), trees will be pruned to ensure the first branches emerge from the trunk above grazing height (around 2m above the ground). On dwarfing rootstocks in a garden, the first branches will obviously need to emerge much lower down as the tree itself might not reach 2m in height (for the very dwarf rootstocks).

Generally, formative pruning involves developing a strong central leader, which will form the trunk of the tree. All 'competing' stems and branches should be removed with the leader left untouched until the desired height is achieved. At the same time, new branches lower down the trunk are shortened to 2 or 3 buds in length. As the years progress, the lowest branches are completely removed, retaining only those branches which are at and above the desired height. From now on, the branches are further developed to produce good strong laterals which will result in a tree with a balanced branch structure that will be easy to harvest from in future years.

A very good step by step guide to formative pruning is available for download from Natural England in PDF format. Please note these guidelines refer to vigorous trees, and so the suggested heights of branch formation, etc, should be altered according to the rootstock you have.

Maintenance Pruning

Maintenance pruning 'takes over' from formative pruning once the need to shape the growth of the tree is outweighed by the need to promote fruit production.

The main aims of maintenance pruning are:

• to create a balance of fruit wood and vegetative growth

• to control tree size

• to prevent branch cross overs and rubbing

• to allow light and air into and around the tree

• to stimulate fruit production and the growth of new healthy wood

There are a few rules of thumb when it comes to pruning:

• Always use clean sharp tools (such as secateurs, loppers, pruning saws)

• Remove the three Ds first (dead, diseased and damaged wood). Remember to leave some non-diseased dead wood, when possible, for wildlife

• Only remove a maximum of 25% of branches each year. Over pruning can shock the tree and cause it to produce many 'water shoots' which are non-fruiting stems, characteristically growing very straight vertically.

A brief guide to orchard creation

Ashridge Nurseries, one of the UK's premium suppliers of fruit trees, offers the following advice:

Planting an Orchard - Selecting the site orchard

This is a brief (non-exhaustive) guide to choosing a good position for your fruit orchard. You can find the best fruit trees for sale at the cheapest prices and buy them all but, if you don't plant them in the right place, it will all prove to have been a waste of time.

Put your orchard on a slope

The single biggest enemy of fruit production is frost. Fruit trees flower relatively early and a late frost can wipe out your crop. Cold air is heavy and slides downhill so keep your orchard out of dips, valleys, hollows and sheltered flat ground. Because it is heavy, it displaces warmer air so the warmest spots at night tend to be 100-300 feet above sea level on a slope away from the prevailing wind.

Keep fruit trees out of the wind

Paradoxically, that warm, sunny southwest facing slope will get the prevailing wind (and gales) if it is not sheltered. Pollinating insects hate the wind. A sheltered north-east facing slope is better than a wind blasted south-western one.

Don't plant too high

Slopes are great, but above 300 feet over sea level temperatures drop by 1 degree Fahrenheit for every 300 feet increase in altitude. Up to 600 feet on a sheltered slope is fine and there are successful orchards at 800 feet, but don't go any higher than that.

Remember, if you are planting high that wind shelter is essential, and you may need to plant a windbreak to protect your trees and ensure pollination.

Get the soil right

The soil does not need to be especially rich (although good soil helps). The number one soil requirement is that there is a combination of adequate drainage and sufficient moisture. The worst soil is potter's clay which, although rich, is under water all winter and brick hard all summer. Fruit tree roots need to breathe and, at the same time, they need access to water to help swell their fruit. Good soil texture helps moisture retention and prevents fruit splitting, which is a classic sign of an uneven water supply.