Orchard Setup

Setting up an orchard can be just a few trees in your yard or planting several acres for commercial production. I will cover the first part of this article for the small home grower, and follow up with some requirements for a larger commercial orchard.

If you already grow fruit trees in your yard, you should have no problem growing mayhaw trees. The only exception would be pear trees. They sometimes have a problem with fire blight that can carry over to mayhaw trees. If you are planting some around your yard, you should try and give them as much sun as possible. If shade might be a problem, try to make it in the later afternoon. Morning sun works best on all fruit trees. Mayhaw trees can grow in most soils. A pH of 6 to 6.5 works best. They do not have to be planted in a low area or wet spot. Tree spacing may vary, but I do not recommend any closer than 20 feet apart. After you plant the young trees, keep them staked straight for at least the first 3 years. Remove all lower growth and sprouts that may appear. It is best to keep the grass removed from around the trees for at least the first three years.. Later as the trees develop a stronger, deeper root system, they can tolerate the grass as long as it is kept mowed. Spraying the trees will be necessary to control insects and diseases. If you already spray fruit trees in your yard, spraying mayhaw trees will be similar. Your local agriculture agent can help you with this. Spraying schedules vary with the variety of mayhaw trees, current weather conditions, and what stage of growth your trees are in. The insect that can give you the most problem is the plum curculio. This weevil feeds on the green fruit and cuts a crescent shaped cut where it lays a single egg. Once this egg is inside the fruit, control is almost impossible. This larva feeds on the inside of the fruit, and they can infest an entire tree. Spraying when most blooms are gone and following up about 2 weeks later can get good control. When in your orchard, look for berries that seem to be ripening ahead of the main crop. This could be an indicator of berries that are infected with the curculios.

There are other insects that are more of a problem in a home orchard than trees grown in an open field. We grew mayhaw trees around our home putting them in different situations to monitor the trees progress. The insects that gave us more problems in the yard than in the field, were the Tent Caterpillars and Wooly Apple Aphid. This was because these insects are in the native trees surrounding the property. They just naturally migrate to the fruit trees. This makes control a little harder. Squirrels can be a problem also. They feed on the developing mayhaws.

Watering your trees will be necessary at some point in time. Even a small home orchard needs some type of water source. It is a fairly simple task to set up an irrigation system with drip emitters. Some growers run the main lines on top of the ground, others bury the lines. I prefer to bury the main line and branch off of it with small tubing and a drip emitter. Having water available can be the difference in having a good crop or hardly any crop at all. Water is very critical when the trees are young.  If they get off to a slow start, they may never recover. As the trees get older they can tolerate dry conditions better, but may still be stressed out. The majority of all water that a tree uses is evaporated through its leaves, [Transpiration]. This has a cooling affect and a very small amount is used for photosynthesis. The trees own self-preservation comes first. When it is stressed for water the first thing that will happen is photosynthesis will slow or completely stop. [This may affect next year’s crop] The next thing that will happen is it will begin to shed its leaves. The next phase will be a die back of the most extreme branches. At this point it is still possible to salvage the tree but it has been set back years. Older mayhaw trees seldom reach this last phase, but newly planted trees are more susceptible to drought conditions. So when you look out at your orchard is it just surviving or is it thriving?

Fertilize newly planted mayhaw trees very lightly. What we do is use time-release fertilizer tablets that are rated to feed the tree for the first two years. When we plant the tree, we put 3 tablets around the tree after 2/3 of the soil has been put back in around the root ball. We water these new trees with root stimulator.  When you fertilize your trees with granular fertilizer, broadcast it around the tree at the drip line. The drip line is where the outer portions of the scaffold limbs reach. You can use a balanced fertilizer or fine tune this to fit your orchards needs. The old rule for this is 1 pound per inch of trunk diameter. I split this into two applications, mid March and at the end of April. The reason for this is part of the fertilizer will be available during fruit development and the rest will be available to the tree when the summer growth starts.

As a special note; the best time to transplant a mayhaw tree is in November. Do not use any commercial fertilizer. Only use root stimulator. You should remove part of the top to balance out the loss in the root structure during the transplant phase. This is removing a portion of its limb structure. This is called thinning cuts. Thinning cuts are cutting a branch back to where it starts. Do not use heading cuts. Heading cuts means cutting a branch at some point other than where it starts. What heading cuts do is to promote a possible flush of new growth the next spring. On a transplanted tree this flush of growth can stress out the tree with its reduced root structure. What you want to do is start new root growth first and then as the tree begins to recover, start to fertilize it lightly. Foliar feeding works well also. We have done this on very large mayhaw trees, and they where back up into full production in 3 years.

Setting up Larger Mayhaw Orchards

Setting up a larger orchard needs to be planned out. Make sure that your area that you live in will not be a problem in growing mayhaw trees. Lots of cedar trees in your area can be a major problem creating apple cedar rust spores. Spraying a fungicide will help with control. Fire blight from nearby pear trees or other mayhaw trees might present a problem. If deer is a problem in your area, fencing might be required. If the land you plan to put in an orchard is very low, it will cause harvesting, and orchard management problems. Research the mayhaw varieties that have been working the best, especially in your area. They all have their good points and bad points.  Decide how large you want your orchard to be. Now this might sound like an obvious decision but it is very important to understand the level of management that is required as orchard size goes up. There is a point where you can operate a small orchard with your existing yard maintenance equipment. This might be up to a couple of acres. A riding lawnmower and a small 12 volt sprayer would be the bulk of your equipment. As the acreage goes up, so does the equipment requirements. Now you are up to a tractor, and at least a sprayer running off of a tractor pto. What this jump means is that you will have to grow more mayhaw trees just to offset your increased overhead. As the orchard becomes larger so does the equipment needed for maintaining it. If you already have some of this equipment on hand then this makes it more economical to increase the size of your orchard. The same equipment needed to do 10 acres can just as easily do 20 acres.

Tree spacing should be between 20 and 30 feet. This is what ever you prefer. I started out at 30x30 spacing, but after growing them for a number of years I realized that this spacing could come down to at least 25x25. If you plan on eventually doing mechanical harvesting you will need this spacing for equipment maneuvering.

Some people lay out their field with the trees running in straight rows lined up with each other. I prefer to use staggered rows. This puts the trees at maximum distance from each other and allows for better sunlight penetration. One mistake that I often see is orchards that are set up without enough turning radius for equipment at the end of the rows. Tractors with large mowers attached should have 35 to 45 feet for turning into the next row. What this means is if you have a fence or other obstacle at the end of your field, start your rows to give your equipment enough room to turn. Remember your trees will eventually expand to take up some of this space.

Some orchards are set up on raised beds. I personally do not do this because it interferes with our special orchard mowers. There are two ways to make raised beds, one is just on the tree itself and the other is to make a long continuous raised bed. The problem with a long continuous bed is that it tends to block off the natural drainage of the field. Another problem with raised beds is the soil tends to erode off of it exposing the roots. When this happens they usually start to form root suckers that have to be continually trimmed off. When we first plant new mayhaw trees we make a small bed with a concave center for watering purposes. Later we totally do away with it. Mayhaw trees grow just fine on flat ground.

Train and trim your trees to a single trunk. Keep them staked straight for the first few years. Remove any dead branches as they appear. Keep lower growth removed. As the tree grows taller, gradually remove lower scaffold limbs until they reach at least 3 to 4 foot from the ground. This will make harvesting and tree maintenance easier. After we started mechanical harvesting we found out a 4 foot scaffold height worked best for us. Training scaffold limbs to at least 45 degree angles will increase production considerably.  The tree trained to a modified central leader system worked best for us in our orchard. 

Sunscald on young mayhaw trees can be a problem. We had some problems with this when we first started planting mayhaw trees. Sunscald happens more often on the lower trunks of the trees, but can also be in the upper limb structure that is exposed to direct sunlight in the middle of the day. Once the wood tissue has been damaged by sunscald wood borers will often enter this area. They can do extreme damage to the tree. We started experimenting with painting the tree trunks with flat white interior latex paint. We thinned it down with water. This is 2 parts paint to 1 part water. This worked very well. We even had good results on new trees just planted right out of the nursery. Only trees up to about 3 years old need sunscald protection. By 4 years old the bark has become thick enough to resist sunscald. There are also commercially available trunk protectors. These also help prevent animal and mechanical damage to the trunks.

Use an herbicide to keep the grass and weeds under control in your orchard. On large orchards it is a common practice to spray the ground with a continuous pattern all the way down the row. In a small orchard, you can spray to about 4-foot diameter. Depending on tree size, this would increase.

Other spraying maintenance would be:

1. Spraying for lichen or tuft moss.

2. Spraying an oil dormant spray for scale, mites, aphids, ect.

3. Spraying a fungicide for cedar rust, ect.

4. Spraying for fire blight control.

5. Spraying for general insect control [including fire ants.]

I did not get into what chemicals to spray or when. There is too much variability with spray schedules, and chemicals. Your spray schedule would have to be worked out to where you live, and the cycle your trees are in. I can tell you now, the day you spray on will change from year to year. Your local agricultural agent would be more qualified to suggest what chemicals to use.

Your trees will start to produce berries maybe the next year, but good crops will not be produced until about 4 to 5 years in the field. It will be hard to judge the production of the trees until they settle down in their growth patterns. On the large orchard we planted we saw a great deal of variability on production rates on the same variety of mayhaw tree. [This was due to its current location, soil classification and tree structure.] In the early years this totally misleads us. We have trees out producing the others 3 to 1, and others doing nothing at all. This is all on the same variety of trees. Part of this was due to the tree structure. We found out if we could control limb angles we could greatly increase production rates. So we started doing intense pruning and training on all our trees. Production soared, but there were still others that did almost nothing. What we noticed was that the trees that had poor production were some of the best looking trees. These trees had two things in common. 1. They were all in an area were the ground had a higher moister content because of a slight depression. 2. They were in an area that had old burn pile locations and the top soil was the deepest. This made an extremely fertile area. What this meant is the trees had it to good. They did not need to make fruit they were growing to well. Actually fruit trees produce fruit best when they are slightly stressed. Once this was figured out the only thing to do was wait. We could have root pruned these trees to slow them down but we decided not to. Just keep these trees pruned and maintained, their day will come. Do not fertilize. When a fruit tree happens to be in this certain situation it will eventually come into balance with its environmental condition. What happens is the tree will reach a size when it will need more than the soil it is in can supply. When this happens the slight stress factor kicks in. These trees will be some of your best producers for many years. Mine have done this. To see them would just blow you away! Jerry Iverson has a large photo of one such tree with my wife standing by this tree on his wall. To me that is a complement.

Markets are still being developed for mayhaws, and mayhaw products, and this looks like a continuing trend for some time.

Harvesters are still being refined and new ideas for different types of tree shakers are still being introduced. We still have a ways to go, but I think we are headed in the right direction. There are a lot of good people working on this.