In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties will give you a nice crop of fruit even if you have limited garden space.
Planning a Rocky Mountain Orchard
Growing fruit in the semi-arid to arid climates of the Rocky Mountains and High Plains can be a rewarding experience and also a challenge. It depends on how you approach the situation to turn a challenge into a pleasurable opportunity. Rainfall or the lack thereof, temperature fluctuations (both highs and lows), pest problems, and soils are vastly different from those in more humid regions where most fruits evolved.
With all our sunshine it should be easy to grow and sustain a fruit garden. But here in the west it is important to make wise variety choices, select the right growing site, and modify the soil conditions as needed.
Soil and Exposure
It is essential to plant fruit trees in well-drained soil, which is not common in the typical backyard. If the soil is a heavy clay type, it is best to prepare and amend the soil to a depth of 18 inches with coarse organic compost, well-rotted manure, or sphagnum peat. Be sure to thoroughly mix the organic amendment with the native soil to allow for optimal air and water movement.
Our highly alkaline soils can cause some nutrients to become unavailable to plant roots. It can also encourage the growth of root rot, a fungus that can attack plants. To acidify the soil and provide nutrients, I like to use a chelated iron in a wettable powder form (WP) and a combination of compost and sphagnum peat. This will need to be done annually to ensure nutrient uptake and plant health.
It is not so important to dig a deep planting hole, but rather to dig it extra wide and improve the backfill before the tree is planted into the ground.
Most fruits perform best in full sun. To reduce frost damage in early spring, locate trees away from low spots in the landscape, especially where fences and structures slow the movement of air and allow cold air to settle. As a respected horticulturist once told me, "It's best to locate fruit trees in the upper end of your property." Avoid placing trees too close to buildings where the south and west exposures tend to cause them to bloom too early. This will subject them to frost injury.
Watering can be a major expense in maintaining a home orchard. A five-year-old tree may use 200 to 300 gallons of water per week. To get that without waste, invest in a drip system with several emitters at every tree. Check out specifications of watering systems and select one that is most appropriate for your home orchard and budget.
In my next column I'll talk about varieties that grow best in our region. Stay tuned.
Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!