Washington State is the leading producer of apples, pears, and cherries in the U.S. (Northwest Horticulture Council), and North Central Washington is an ideal place to grow fruit, with sunny dry summers, cold winters, and an abundance of river water for irrigation. You will find information on this page regarding tree fruit orchard establishment, including site selection, planting, and cost estimates of establishing apple, pear, cherry and stone fruit orchards. Information on weed control, pest and disease control, rootstocks, support systems, irrigation, and economics will be found in the other sections of this site.
Establishing a new orchard requires significant research and planning, in order to grow healthy trees with exceptional fruit quality. Orchard site selection and preparation are the first management decisions that affect the productivity of a tree fruit orchard. Whether considering a new site, replanting a former tree fruit site, or updating to current varieties or production systems, there are many important decisions to make.
Regional climate conditions should be reviewed when establishing a fruit tree block. Determine current weather data and historic environmental data by visiting the nearest AgWeatherNet weather station to your location. If available, historic temperature extremes, frost risk, average bloom date, consistency of cropping for neighboring farms, etc. may be instructive. Ideal sites are on gently sloping land with good air drainage, so that cold air can move down slope and not accumulate in a low spot or “frost pocket” causing problems especially during bloom. South facing slopes warm up faster in the spring than north facing slopes. Planting early blooming cultivars at south facing locations would increase their risk for spring frosts. Orchard sites surrounded by unmanaged range land will usually have more pressure from deer and other vertebrate pests. Blocks that are close to residential areas may necessitate buffer rows to reduce the potential for off-target pesticide drift.
Loam or sandy loam soil types have good characteristics for orchards. Soils that are permeable, with a texture allowing water to drain properly, and that have enough water holding capacity so that trees won’t dry out between irrigation sets are ideal. Trees will grow best in soil with a pH around 6.0 to 7.0, slightly acidic. As noted previously for new sites, soil tests can confirm texture, pH, organic matter content, nutrient availability, presence of nematodes, etc. Whether a replant or new site, this information can help determine what amendments should be made and whether preplant fumigation is necessary. See information on soil testing labs in the Tools and Resources section of this site. Find more information on our Soils and Nutrition page. Information on orchard soil fumigation can be found on the Chelan/Douglas Co Extension website and in the Crop Protection Guide.
You should examine soil survey maps to determine general soil types in your area. Preplant soil tests are helpful to determine soil texture, pH, organic matter content, nutrient levels, and the presence of damaging nematodes if those are a concern. Soil test results can establish a starting point for soil amendments you may need to supply before planting. For established orchards, foliar testing is useful to determine nutrient levels in the plant. See the Tools and Resources section of this site for information on laboratories that provide soil and leaf sample analysis. It is also important to know what crops were grown on the land before, or what the land was used for, to determine future pest, disease and other risks. Extension personnel can provide information on local fruit tree disease and pest concerns. Since fruit trees are sensitive to herbicide residues in the soil, it is important to know the previous crop history. It is also important to consider the site characteristics (air and water drainage, water access/availability, elevation, etc.) that might make it more suited for one fruit type, cultivar or market than another.
Replant site considerations
Replant disease is a serious consideration in sites that were previously planted in fruit trees. Prior to planting a new orchard, remove as much of the old root as you can, as replant pathogens (fungi, bacteria, virus, and nematodes) can infect the new trees, causing a gradual decline and lack of vigor. If possible, sample the soil to determine nematode levels before the trees are removed, especially if the previous block showed signs of decline. Good site preparation will benefit both conventional and organic systems. Preparation should include:
- Disk and remove cover crop.
- Perform deep bidirectional ripping to 36”.
- Redisking to smooth the surface for preparation for fumigation
- Soil amendments can be applied for organic sites, or fumigation for conventional production sites.
- Many organic growers use fumigation at the start, and then transition to organic after the first growing season. This practice is allowed under organic rules.
- Use replant disease tolerant root stock, which can provide substantial mitigation of replant disorder.
Fumigation in a replant site should ideally be done in the fall, as it does not work well when soil temperatures are below 42℉. Recent research has also shown success using mustard seed meal treatments as an alternative to fumigation. (Good Fruit Grower article – New replant disease treatment).
Transitional site considerations
If you plan to try a different production system, or new varieties, consider establishing a test block for a few years to see if you are happy with the results before establishing a large planting. See Test Blocks-Great for new cultivars or systems, D. Layne, American/Western Fruit Grower, 2013.
Decide on the feasibility of what you are considering and develop a business plan. Labor costs are high for training and pruning in new orchards. Determine market fruit prices, yields, and costs to grow the variety that you are interested in. Cost and returns are variable depending on the type of fruit, the size of orchard, orchard management practices, and market prices. See information on the cost estimates of establishing Apple, Pear, and Cherry orchards as well as other market information on the WSU Tree Fruit Economics page or visit their links page for presentations on the establishment of benchmarks for tree fruit production costs. You can also visit the WSU and Oregon State University enterprise budget pages for more information. Here is an additional resource for anyone thinking about transitioning into organic production: Organic Transition – A business planner for farmers, ranchers and food entrepreneurs, G. DiGiacoma, R.P. King and D. Nordquist. SARE Handbook. 2015 (Accessed: 1/19/17).
When trees arrive from the nursery, keep them cool and the roots moist. Do not store them with any fruit, as they are ethylene sensitive (will start to grow too early). Trees should be planted as early in the spring as possible, as soon as you can after delivery. Place the new trees under sprinklers for 24 hours prior to planting. Trees can be stored for a week to 10 days under sprinklers if needed; desiccation is the primary cause of early die-off.
When trees are planted, the soil around the new tree should be a few inches higher than the surrounding soil to accommodate settling in. The graft union should be at least 4-6 inches above the soil mound. It is important that the union not touch the soil because this could lead to scion rooting where the rootstock influence on scion vigor can be adversely impacted. Be sure that trees receive sufficient water (without excess) as soon as possible after planting.
For planting tips refer to the following articles:
- Planting apple trees. Jon Clements, UMass and Michael Parker, NCSU. eXtension. 10 Aug, 2011.
- Prevent transplant shock. Good Fruit Grower. 15 April, 2012.
- Planting frenzy. Shannon Dininny and TJ Mulinex, Good Fruit Grower. 19 April, 2016.
Selecting fruit varieties
The driving force behind selecting varieties is high market value and high yields. Fuji and Gala are no longer considered high value varieties because there is so much acreage in production. Desirable variety traits that the WSU breeding program are focusing on include:
- Long shelf life
- Few pack-out problems
- Ability to adapt to multiple sites around the state
The harvest window is another aspect to consider when deciding on fruit varieties. Harvest is the single most demanding labor activity in orchards, so planting varieties that allow a broader harvest window, allows fewer laborers to pick over a longer period of time. Take into account other tree crops already in production. Consider the pests and diseases that may occur in your area, and try to locate disease resistant rootstocks if they are available.
Pears are very slow to come into production, with many Washington pear trees in production being 50-100 years old. New high-density pear plantings are being established, fire-blight resistant varieties are being introduced, and research is underway to find new dwarfing rootstocks for pears.
See the Varieties and Breeding section of this site for varieties that are commonly grown in Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Consult with extension specialists, other growers in your area, and nurserymen to determine which cultivars are most likely to perform well in your location. As noted above, for cultivars that have not been widely grown or tested in your area, establishing a test block would be a good idea.
If you are establishing a new orchard on a replant site, utilizing a rootstock that is resistant (or tolerant) to replant disease is ideal. Purchase certified virus-free trees from reputable commercial nurseries. Where possible, choose trees that are resistant (or tolerant) to relevant pests and diseases and have sufficient cold hardiness for your region. Determine the correct rootstock for your soil type and site, the production system you plan to use, the tree vigor and precocity needed, and the potential to yield large volumes of high quality fruit. Because nursery demand for fruit trees is high and strong in the Pacific Northwest, plan well in advance to ensure that your nursery tree order will be processed and trees will be ready for the time of planting. Visit the Clean Plant Center Northwest webpage for information about testing or acquiring clean materials. Also see Which apple rootstock should you grow with? S. Dininny, Good Fruit Grower, Feb. 2016 and Avoiding rootstock mistakes, T. Auvil, Good Fruit Grower, Feb. 2016.
- Nursery trees: Raised for 1-2 years in a nursery before being planted in the orchard.
- Rootstocks: Planted and budded in place with scion in late summer of 1st growing season.
- Bench-grafted rootstocks: Dug in the winter and grafted with the scion before planting in the spring. (small root system)
- Sleeping eyes: Rootstocks grown in nurseries for 1 year, then budded in the fall, dug in the winter, and planted in the orchard in following spring. (small root system).
Sleeping eyes and bench grafts require more care and experience to ensure successful establishment and growth. For more information see:
- Avoiding rootstock mistakes. T. Auvil. Good Fruit Grower, 2016
- Which apple rootstock should you grow with? S. Dininny. Good Fruit Grower, 2016.
- Steps to establishing a money-making orchard. G. Warner, Good Fruit Grower, 2007.
Some sweet cherry and apple varieties require planting compatible pollinizers. Choose disease resistant pollinizers for trees if possible. Crabapples are commonly used as pollinizers for certain apple varieties. However, ‘Manchurian’ crabapples are a source of postharvest fungal inoculum in apple orchards. A fact sheet on Pruning ‘Manchurian’ crabapples can be found here. More information on pollination can be found on our Pollination page.
Systems & Designs
The first step is to decide whether the new orchard will be managed with conventional or organic practices and note the differences that are required for organic certification. See the Organic Production page on this website for more information.
Depending on the management system you choose, the spacing between rows and between trees in the row can differ considerably. Tree rows are commonly oriented in the North-South compass direction to maximize sunlight absorption. Many current high-density plantings to high-value varieties have really increased the profit potential per unit land area. However, with increased planting densities, increased tree costs, and often the need for establishing trellises, the infrastructure cost to establish a new orchard can be substantial (e.g., $30,000/acre or more). Management practices that can enable first harvest at younger tree ages (e.g., third or even second leaf) are becoming more common. The irrigation system, tree support system, alleyway grass or cover crop, and understory weed strip areas are all design considerations. The canopy must allow light to penetrate the trees for adequate growth and fruit quality. Space and maneuverability logistics for workers, mechanical pruners/hedgers and thinners, mobile platforms, tractors, trailers, bins, trellises, overhead nets, wind machines, etc. should all be considered.
Irrigation should be set up when it is time to plant so the trees will get water right away. It is important to keep new trees that have arrived from the nursery with moist roots, but not too wet. If the roots dry out, they will die. Water trees when first planted so that trees will settle in and there won’t be large air pockets around roots. Don’t overwater after planting, as the roots can rot. If trees sink too low, pull them up right away. Water again as soon as trees show signs of growth. Drip irrigation is a good choice, as it delivers consistent water supply to new trees. Consider the water availability at the site. Find out the legal water rights, water quality, pH, sodium absorption ratio, and electrical conductivity. Determine how much water you will need to grow the type of fruit on the production system that you want. Drip irrigation delivers consistent water to new plantings. See the WSU irrigation scheduler mobile app manual. More information on irrigation can be found on our Irrigation Management page.
Incorporating new technology
A new orchard provides the opportunity to integrate new technological tools into your site. Consider the technology that you would like to use when designing your next orchard. This can include environmental sensors, mechanical harvesters, mobile platforms, mechanical thinners, netting for sunburn, hail, and bird protection, weather stations for mobile sensing, insect traps that monitor catch numbers, etc. See the WSU Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems Fundamental Research page for the latest information on experimental research in this area. Also see: Implementing Robotic Harvest Technology.
Scientists at WSU are conducting trials on rootstocks and different training systems to find the best systems for varieties in our area. You can find information on training systems on the Pruning and Training Systems section of this site. Types of training systems used for specific tree crops are listed below along with reference links for more information.
- Bi-Axis 1
- Slender spindle
- Superspindle/Vertical Axis
- Tatura trellis ( ≈ V system)
- Vertical Axis
1 Horticultural systems and practices to facilitate mechanization in apples and pears, S. Musacchi, WSHA 110th Annual Meeting, Kennewick, WA, 2014
- Vertical Axis 1
- Bi-Axis 2
- Slender Spindle – (Mostly in Europe)
1 Innovation of current orchard systems to produce high quality, S. Musacchi, WSHA 110th Annual Meeting, Kennewick, WA, 2014
2 Horticultural systems and practices to facilitate mechanization in apples and pears, S. Musacchi, WSHA 110th Annual Meeting, Kennewick, WA, 2014
Sweet Cherry Systems
- Kym Green bush (KGB)
- Steep Leader
- Tall Spindle Axe
- Upright Fruiting Offshoots (UFO)
- Vogel Central Leader
- Spanish Bush
- Super Slender Axe (SSA)-(There is interest in this system, not yet commercialized in the PNW yet.)
Cherry Training Systems, L. Long, G. Lang, S. Musacchi and M. Whiting, PNW Extension Publication #667, 2015.
The seven cherry training systems, R. Lehnert, Good Fruit Grower, May, 2015.
High Density SSA plantings: how we can optimize fruit quality, S. Musacchi, pdf presentation, WSHA 110th Annual Meeting, Kennewick, WA, 2014.
New Training Systems for High-density Planting of Sweet Cherry, S. Musacchi, F. Gagliardi and S. Serra, HortScience, 50(1): 59-67, January, 2015.
Evaluating Cherry Training Systems, B. Sparks and D. Eddy, Growing Produce, May, 2012.
- Open center/ open vase
- V systems (perpendicular V, quad V. hex V)
Peach Training Systems Aren’t One-Size-Fits All, C. Herrick, Growing Produce, February, 2015.
Disease and pest management
If the site is a replant site, you are aware of the pest and disease threats that must be managed. New plantings must be monitored closely for any signs of insect or mite pests or diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses. Young tree trunks should be protected from chemical sprays, herbicides, machinery, and even animal feeding. See the Crop Protection section of this site for more information on Insects and Mites, Disease and other management practices or visit the online Crop Protection Guide.
Weeds are a concern with new plantings, as they compete for water and nutrients with the young trees. Organic growers may have more of a challenge with weed control than conventional growers. Conventional growers need to protect young trunks from herbicide damage with tubes, milk cartons or by painting the trunks. See the Weed Management section of this site for information on weed management.
Vertebrate pest control can be a challenge in a new orchard. New trees need tree guards around trunks to protect from rodents. If deer are in the area, deer fences are the best method for excluding deer and preventing deer damage. More information on vertebrate pest management can be found in that section of this site.
Injury from the elements to new trees is a concern in new orchards. Sun damage can occur to the trees and fruit due to little or no shade during the first couple of years. There may not be a lot of protection against wind, and trees can dry out quickly. Young trees are sensitive to water stress. Rain near harvest time is always a concern for cherries because it can cause fruit cracking making the fruit unmarketable.