By: John T. Buck
all QDMA members are dedicated to the principles of Quality Deer
Management, without Quality Woodland Management, your efforts
will not achieve their full potential. Recently, my father and I
embarked on a major project to improve the habitat for all
wildlife on our property in Pike County, Pennsylvania.
After convincing my father that we had a problem regarding the
mature forest and absence of understory browse due to deer
overpopulation, I devised a plan to address this problem. I
wanted to increase food supplies by removing several hundred
trees that had no fruit or nut bearing capabilities and replace
them with trees that did. In many parts of our property, thick
pine stands were preventing sunlight from reaching the ground
and growth of desirable wildlife forage. Many white, red, and
chestnut oaks had not produced adequate supplies of mast in
years due to competition from maples and pines. We decided to
remove these trees by creating four new fields and planting
apple trees in their place. We recognized that such a project
would be very time and labor intensive, but we were up to the
We used two articles in Quality Whitetails by Kent Kammermeyer
(Apples for Deer, Volume 7, Issue 3, and Crabapples For Deer,
Volume 8, Issue 1) as the basis for our plan. The actual plan
consisted of five parts: 1) finding sites and determining out
soil requirements 2) purchasing trees 3) soil preparation and
planting 4) pruning and training 5) fertilization and
In January 2001, we put our plan in motion. We began by cutting
and clearing the majority of undesirable trees from the field
areas. Our largest field, named the ?Wood-Road Stand,? was
approximately 1/2 acre.
Ample sunlight is key for maximizing fruit production. While
some fruit plants can survive in partial shade, most require
direct sunlight to fuel the energy-intensive fruit production
process. Rapid drying of the tree canopy reduces the need for
fungicides and is important in preventing disease. Early morning
sunshine is particularly important for drying dew on the leaves.
After tracking the movements of the sun during the previous
summer months, we were able to remove trees selectively,
ensuring at least five hours of direct sunlight for the
To build a good orchard, you need a good foundation. The ideal
site is rolling or elevated so cold air can drain during spring
frosts. Figure 1 (facing page) shows the typical site
arrangements. Site A is a warm location that receives more sun.
This site is not affected by late spring frosts, because cold
air drains to lower lying areas. Site B also misses late spring
frosts, but the top may be too cold in winter because of
exposure. Site C is similar to site A, but colder, warming up
late in the spring. Site D is the most susceptible to spring
frosts because cold air drains into it from elevated areas. Site
E can still be frosty but the woods act as a windbreak. Site F
is not desirable because of the dense woods at the base of the
hill. Woods can trap cold air and prevent it from draining to
lower lying areas. Site G is similar to Site B.
Slope exposure should be considered for its effects when the
fruit trees come out of dormancy. A south-facing slope warms up
faster in spring than a north-facing slope. East-facing slopes
are intermediate. In mid-Atlantic areas, such as Pennsylvania, a
west-facing slope tends to be windier. Wind can cause spraying
problems during the growing season. Selecting a site for an
orchard involves below ground considerations as well, primarily
soil depth and texture. An old recommendation for a desirable
orchard soil is that it be deep and well drained.
Although soil pH and fertility are very important, soil drainage
is often more important. Soil pH and fertility can generally be
corrected through applications of lime and fertilizer. Avoiding
poorly drained soils is important because they have low oxygen
levels, which can greatly reduce growth or even kill the trees.
Before selecting an orchard site, consult a county soil map.
These maps are available at most Natural Resource Conservation
Services offices in Pennsylvania and other states.
The best soil is a well-drained loam a minimum of 3- to 4-feet
deep. Good drainage, however, should take preference over depth.
In Figure 1, soils at site B are most likely to be the
shallowest because of erosion, while those at site D tend to be
the richest. Soil fertility should be medium to low. Overly
fertile soil can lead to excessive tree growth at the expense of
fruit production. It is easier to add fertilizer to increase
tree vigor than to try to reduce vigor. Fruit trees grow well in
soils with a pH of 6.0-6.5. Higher or lower levels can cause
If you are replacing an existing orchard or establishing a new
one, take a soil sample after removing as many trees and roots
as possible. Soil test kits are available from most county
extension offices. There is a fee, from $6 to $10 per kit, which
includes soil analysis and fertilizer/lime recommendations. Be
sure to specify the tree species you intend to grow, since
nutritional and pH requirements vary according to fruit type.
Our Penn State University report showed nitrogen, phosphate,
potassium (also called potash), magnesium, and calcium levels,
as well as soil pH. Suggested fertilizer application rates were
provided along with the levels. Our report had three sections.
First, the pH adjustment showed the amount of calcitic limestone
needed to raise the soil pH to the desired level. Second, the
magnesium and calcium section showed the amount of epsom salts
(magnesium sulfate) and gypsum needed. Finally, the plant
nutrients need section indicated the amount of other fertilizer
When purchasing fruit trees, the old adage ?you get what you pay
for? comes to mind. This is especially true with apple trees.
Bargain plants may not be healthy or not adapted to your area.
Buy only recommended varieties from a reliable source. A young
tree with a good root system is more desirable than an older one
with a poor root system. Older trees frequently lack sufficient
buds on the lower portion of the trunk to develop a good
framework. If older trees are purchased, cut them back to force
out buds lower on the main trunk. Do not purchase trees that
appear stunted, poorly grown, diseased, or insect injured.
Two factors that greatly influence tree size are the rootstock
and variety used. Other factors include general care, soil type,
and time and severity of pruning. Apple tree size is greatly
influenced by rootstocks and generally divided into three
categories ? standard, semi-dwarf, and dwarf trees.
Standard trees are propagated on seedling rootstock and produce
large trees up to 30 feet in height. Semi-dwarf trees are
propagated on one of the clonal rootstocks and produce trees
about three-fourths the size of standard trees if grown under
similar circumstances. The most common semi-dwarf rootstocks
used for apples are EMLA 7 (5-15 feet tall), EMLA 106 (5-18 feet
tall), and EMLA 111 (7-20 feet tall). Trees on EMLA 7 produce
the smallest trees, while the trees on EMLA 106 produce the
earliest bearing trees. The EMLA 106 and 111 rootstocks produce
the larger semi-dwarf trees.
After discussing the varieties suited for my area with my local
biologist, I selected those that best met my objectives. For the
four areas with good drainage, poor soil fertility, and proper
preparation, Freedom, Liberty, Sweet-16, Anoka, Harelson, Hislip,
and Indian-Summer on an EMLA 7 rootstock proved the best choice.
The EMLA 7 rootstock is the most widely-planted, freestanding
semi-dwarf to date. The trees are well-anchored, hardy, and
produce well in a dry season. After discussing what types of
trees to plant with Tom Callahan from Adams County Nursery, we
decided to also plant Hyslop and Indian Summer crabapple trees.
I chose this nursery because of their reputation and quality
products, which is very important when choosing a nursery.
When the fruit trees arrive from the nursery, open the bundles
immediately and inspect them for damage. A good rule of thumb is
to soak the roots in water for 1/2 to 1 hour before planting.
It?s very important to keep the roots moist when planting. We
used a 16-gallon clothes bin filled with water for this purpose.
Never expose the roots to full sun or drying winds, it will
ultimately stunt the growth of the tree.
It is important to dig a hole two feet wider than the spread of
the tree roots and deep enough to prevent crowding. The tree
should be planted at the same depth it was in the nursery.
Always keep the graft union a few inches above the soil line.
Keep the root pruning to a minimum, by keeping the roots 12-18
inches long. Cut away any dying or mutilated roots.
Work the soil in and around the roots. When the hole is half
full, firm the soil with your feet before filling the rest of
the hole. It is important to add lime at this point, preferably
10-15 ounces mixed with topsoil and the soil removed from the
hole. Then place 25 pounds of lime around each hole, in a
circular pattern, approximately three feet out from the tree to
help raise the pH level (amounts of lime required will vary by
location, check your own soil test recommendation). Do not place
any fertilizer in the planting hole or fertilize the soil
immediately after planting ? it can kill the tree. Fertilize
only after the soil has been settled by a soaking rain (see
specific recommendations later in this article). After planting,
apply enough water to thoroughly soak the soil around the roots.
This will improve soil contact with the roots and help eliminate
any air pockets. Remember, approximately 1/4 of the root system
was removed when the tree was dug. To compensate, remove the top
1/4 of the tree to reestablish the previous ?shoot-to-root?
ratio. As a general rule of thumb, cut the whip back to about
27-30 inches from the ground after planting.
In branched trees, remove poorly spaced and narrow-angled
branches. Leave branches that are wide angled and arranged
spirally about 6-9 inches apart up the leader. Branches left on
the tree should be reduced by up to one-half of their length,
and the leader should be cut about 12-15 inches above the top
limb. Cut the leaders on non-branched whips to three quarters of
their original length.
Just below where the whip was cut off, three to four very strong
shoots will develop and grow almost in an upright direction. To
form a ?central leader? tree, leave the uppermost of these
shoots growing straight up and develop four or five scaffolds,
which will grow out almost horizontally. When these shoots are
three to five inches long, a clothespin will be put to good use.
Very gently, bend down the limbs developing below the leader,
and on the trunk of the young tree, clip a clothespin just above
each limb. These shoots will continue to grow and turn up, which
is exactly what you want them to do. After eight weeks, remove
the clothespins and check for other developing shoots that may
fill a void. If there are any, clothespin them as well.
Completely remove any unwanted strong shoots. When viewed from
above, it should resemble a ?starfish? pattern. Occasionally, a
tree does not grow as well as it should during the first year.
In this case, prune the tree back to a whip and start over
again. Fruiting will be delayed by a year, but it will be a much
more manageable tree. It is also very important to protect your
investment with wire cages. We used 4-foot tall field fencing
cut to 16-foot lengths, secured with sturdy wooden posts and
electrical ties. This method will allow your trees to reach
maturity without resident deer eating the leaves or rutting
bucks stripping the bark with their antlers.
During the second growing season, develop a second layer of
scaffolds 24-36 inches above the scaffolds you established the
year before. Be sure to clothespin the second level to develop
wide crotch angles. Limb spreaders can aid in bringing about
earlier fruit production, improved tree shape, strong crotch
angles, and improved fruit color. Spreaders can be either short
pieces of wood with sharpened metal nails driven into each end
or sharpened metal rods.
Always spread the tree before pruning, which consists of
entirely removing undesirable upright limbs and reducing the
length of new shoot growth by one quarter. Limbs should not be
spread below a 60-degree angle from the main trunk. Limbs spread
wider than 60 degrees tend to produce vigorous suckers along the
top of the branch and result in reduced terminal growth. The
spreaders should remain in place for 1-2 years until the branch
Continue to head back the new terminal growth by one-quarter
each year and remove any upright limbs. Any broken or diseased
limbs also should be removed. Always maintain the central leader
as the highest point of the tree. The ends of the primary and
secondary scaffolds should be kept below the top of the tree.
Prune the tree every year in late winter (February or March).
Apple trees are generally fertilized with nitrogen each year.
Phosphorus and potassium are needed in relatively large amounts
until the tree reaches maturity. Keep in mind that your soil
fertility may differ greatly from mine and your soil test will
indicate this. However, for most soils, the following applies.
One month after planting, broadcast one cup of 10-10-10 over a
2-foot circle if the tree has made six inches of growth. Keep
the fertilizer six inches away from the trunk and broadcast it
over the recommended areas.
One month later, broadcast another cup of 10-10-10 around the
tree. In early spring of the following year, broadcast 2 cups of
10-10-10 over a 3-foot area. Again, avoid contact with the trunk
of the tree and repeat this process in June. In succeeding
years, use the following guidelines for the different trees.
For the semi-dwarf trees we planted, we will broadcast 4 cups of
10-10-10 fertilizer over a 4-foot circle around each tree in
their third and fourth growing seasons. Trees in their fifth and
sixth growing seasons should receive 6 cups of 10-10-10 over a
5-foot circle. Trees six years old and older should receive only
nitrogen at a rate of two cups of ammonium nitrate per tree
broadcasted over a 5-foot circle.
During the dry, summer months, it is very important to have an
irrigation system in place to ensure your trees get the water
they need. Whether the grower will have sprinklers in place or
water each tree manually, lack of water can destroy the orchard.
As you can see by the photographs, our project was well planned.
After doing plenty of research, we learned how to prepare the
soil, plant the trees, and how to properly maintain them.
Without discussing our plans with trained professionals, our
project would have taken much longer and resulted in wasted
effort and money.
In years to come, we look forward to our trees producing vast
amounts of high-quality mast and fruit for the deer and other
wildlife on our property. This will help attract and hold both
bucks and does, enabling us to do our part as game managers to
balance the herd through selective harvest. We anticipate this
challenge and will continue to share our beliefs that, through
hard work, determination, and proper knowledge of QDM, projects
like this can be accomplished by anyone with vision and