10 Steps for Growing High Quality Fruit Plots

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Video planting apple trees for deer

The following was written by Eli Cook, a master apple grower in Virginia. His bio at the end of the article.

A wise man once said, “the best time to plant a fruit tree is 10 years ago, the second best time is today”.

We live in a “now society” — nobody wants to wait for anything. Because of this, fruit plots do not receive near the attention they should. However, there is something about planting a tree, watching it grow and bear fruit that creates an unmatched level of achievement and satisfaction — not to mention the most dynamic food plot you have ever seen!

Why should we plant apple trees? Apples are like an addictive candy to deer; so enticing, I’ve seen mature bucks feeding on apples in midday during the October lull. In late September and early October the Midwest is a landscape dominated by drying corn and yellowing beans.

Imagine sweet juicy apples falling during the early season and lying about in a one-acre clover plot. Now, you have the recipe for harvesting your best bucks before they start looking for love in all the wrong places and possibly getting harvested on a neighbor’s property.

Commercial apple orchards can easily produce 1,000 bushels per acre of fruit; that’s 42,000 pounds of potential deer feed on 1 acre of groundnearly six times as much tonnage per acre as corn.

Fruit plot growers will most likely never achieve these types of yields, but a goal of 2-4 bushels per tree or around 400 bushels per acre is highly realistic.

In areas such as West Virginia and Virginia, owners of small 50 acre non-fenced commercial orchards routinely shoot 100 plus deer annually on crop damage permits, yet the next season they shoot 100 more, and so on.

I’m not condoning this behavior as we fence all our commercial orchards but it accurately portrays the fact that orchards don’t just bring deer from your neighbor’s property they bring them from miles and miles away!

Do you want to start holding your deer better; drawing more deer from neighboring properties and bringing deer in from miles away? Here’s how…

1Site Selection: Spring frost during bloom is your biggest enemy, so avoid planting your orchard in low-lying areas. Cold air flows like water and it naturally collects in bottoms.

The best way to find the warmest area of your farm is to drive around on a still, calm, frosty morning in early spring and watch the thermometer in your truck. Typically the warmest area will be on your ridge tops. Also, look for areas that the frost is either light or nonexistent. Ideally it’s in an area that will have enough surrounding cover to make your fruit plot attractive to deer during daylight hours.

2Variety Selection: Disease resistance and vigor are the two highest priorities in a fruit plot.

After extensive research I have chosen Liberty as the #1 best fruit plot variety. Liberty is resistant to apple scab, cedar rust, fire blight and mildew.

#2 is Enterprise, a late maturing apple that is vigorous, resistant to fire blight, scab and rust.

#3 is Initial, this is an early maturing apple that would be good for states with early bow seasons, such as Kentucky or Missouri. It is resistant to scab and rust.

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#4 is Galarina, this variety is vigorous and tolerant to scab and mildew. Others to consider are Hardy Cumberland and Wolf River.

Note: it is best to plant two or three varieties to ensure proper pollination and extend your season (Initial and Gallarina are available at Adams County Nursery).

3Rootstock and Nurseries: The rootstock is the foundation of your tree, so make sure you get the right one. Bud 118 rootstock is strong, disease resistant and the best for fruit plots; 111 is second choice, and Emla 7 or Geneva 30 are last choice.

Stay away from anything else as it will lack vigor and may have disease issues, particularly 106. Two nurseries I would consider are Adams County Nursery (717) 677-8105 and Stark Brothers (800) 435-8735.

Unfortunately in this day and age, most trees need to be ordered a year ahead of time. Try and order a tree 5/8 inch or larger on bud 118 rootstock. Believe me, it will be worth the wait to get the right combination. Note: nurseries have large price breaks, so consider pooling orders together with friends and family to get the best prices. (Example: 1 tree is $29.00, but 100+ trees run $8.75 each)

4Site and soil preparation: After you have chosen your site, it’s best to take a soil sample and adjust soil pH to 6.5 by applying lime. Next, mow your site and spray with roundup to remove competition from grass and weeds.

Planting a fall cover crop of Big N Beasty or daikon radishes prior to the spring of planting would be a great idea; brassicas are a natural way of eliminating nematodes, and daikon radishes break up the soil and pull up nutrients. Plowing or sub-soiling the entire area of your orchard site as deep as possible will result in the best root growth, but not totally necessary if you do not have the equipment.

5Planting Time: Large plantings might require a tree planter or tree auger, but small plantings can be done with strong arms and a good back.

Space your trees 12 feet apart in row and 22 feet between your rows. Dig your holes one foot deep and 30 inches around. Make sure if you use an auger the sides of your hole are loosened up with a digging bar. If not they can “slick” and inhibit root growth. Place the tree in the hole; spread the roots and put the soil back, making sure the bud union is at ground level.

If available, water your trees after planting. I recommend planting as early in the spring as possible, late March is ideal. Avoid working ground that is too wet as it will turn very hard and hurt your root growth.

6Fertilizing: Wait 2-3 weeks after planting or a few good rains, then apply 1/2 lb. of 19-19-19 about 18 inches from the base of the tree and spread in a circular motion.

On year two, you can apply 1 lb. of 19-19-19 in mid-March and another 1 lb. of urea (40-0-0) in late May.

In year 3 and beyond, you can spread 1 lb. of urea (40-0-0) in late March, then 1 lb. of urea in late May. My fertilizing program is more aggressive than anything you will read anywhere but if you want to grow a tree and get it into production this is my recommendation.

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We have been growing trees 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide in five years producing 4-5 bushels per tree.

7Protecting Your Trees from weed, mice, groundhogs and wind: Weeds and grass will quickly suck the life from your orchard. I suggest using a 20-year weed barrier such as Dewitt Weed Barrier from Gemplers. Cut a piece 3 feet wide & 4 feet long, or the size of your tree cage, cut 1 splice to get it around the tree. Cover the edges with dirt; maybe put a small rock or two on top to keep from blowing. This will eliminate weed maintenance around your trees. (Watch for voles under the barrier. If it becomes a problem you may have to bait in the fall.)

Option 2 would be to Roundup in April and October, applied at labeled rates. Roundup directed away from the trunk will not hurt apple trees.

Groundhogs and rabbits – paint trunks 3 ft. up with white latex paint mixed with a heavy dose of hot pepper flake. This may need to be done annually under heavy pressure.

Wind – Put a 5 ft T-post with every tree; in the later years when you remove cages this will also deter rubbing.

8Tree Cages: Caging seems to be the easiest option for keeping deer out while you’re growing your tree. Purchase welded wire, 14 gauge fencing that is 4 ft. tall. Cut in 12 ft. 6-inch lengths (4 to a 50 ft. roll). Use wire scraps to attach the cage together. Put two 4 ft. stakes in the ground and slide the cage over. Leave cage up 1 ft. or so to get a taller fence of 5 feet.

9Pest & Disease: Because we have chosen highly disease resistant varieties, we will focus on pests. Potato leaf hopper & Aphids are nearly invisible pests that will shut trees down and inhibit growth. Look for a product at Lowes or Home Depot with the active ingredient Imidacloprid. Apply as directed every 3 weeks, starting as soon as you see green tissue in the spring, around April 1 and ending in late July.

You only need to do this for the first 4 or 5 years; by then the trees should be large enough to fight off these pests. If you fail to control pests you will only have minimal annual growth. Note: do not use products containing carlbryll (common name sevin) as this can abort all the fruit on your tree if used at the wrong time.

10Pruning & Training: Last but not least, there are literally 100-page books on pruning so it’s hard to fit it into a paragraph.

So I will refer you to another article that will be helpful called: Pruning Fruit Trees: Central Leader. I will, however, give you a few pointers.

You will be pruning and training your tree to a central leader. Pruning should be done during the dormant period, usually February or March. You will feel like you’re cutting your tree to pieces, but you’re actually invigorating it. If you get scared and do not prune your trees it will greatly reduce the growth of your orchard. In a fruit plot, cut all limbs lower than 4 feet flush with the trunk.

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This puts your first scaffold of branches grown at a 45-degree angle above a deer’s browse line. Anything below that, deer will browse all the buds off once you remove your cages. Above 4 ft. you can leave up to 4 evenly spaced limbs around the tree, if there are no branches above 4 feet that’s ok — they will grow.

Note: any branches that are half the diameter of the main tree, remove completely. You want a strong center and weaker side branches. All strong upright wood other than the center must go. Prune each remaining branch by 1/3 & the top of the tree about 1 ft. above your branches.

Also try to get your branches to a 45-degree angle by spreading, tying or weighting with clothespins. Upright vertical branches will not produce fruit and may negatively interfere with the balance of the tree. Spreading the limbs in later years may require small V cut boards. Continue annual pruning, as this keeps the tree invigorated. I also recommend looking up Stark Bros pruning videos online; it seems to be a pretty good video and shows some fundamentals of pruning.

For more tips on pruning, check out the two-part series on midwestwhitetail.com (Part 1: Improving Apple Orchards and Part 2: How to Prune and Maintain Young Fruit Trees). Remember pruning is like weather forecasting – nobody’s right or wrong and you’re certainly not going to lose your job if you make a mistake. So just have fun with it!

Fruit plots and aApple tree plots will undoubtedly present the most challenging “Food Plot” you have ever done, but quite possibly the most attractive and rewarding. Growing a fruit tree is like raising a child — it may be difficult at times but the reward and joy is so great we forget about all the struggles along the way. Hopefully by following these steps your efforts will show as your trees come to fruition, providing satisfaction that will last a lifetime, and hopefully stellar hunting along the way.

Good Luck and God Bless, -M. Eli Cook Spring Valley Farm and Orchard

Eli Cook is owner of Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Augusta, West Virginia. Eli, his wife Misty, and their three children, along with their 60 full- and part-time employees, grow 250 acres of diversified fruits and 125 acres of diversified vegetables.

Eli uses sustainable growing practices and integrated pest and disease management. Eli and Misty direct-market their products through large retail farmer’s markets in Washington, DC. Eli provides a living for his family through farming but his passion is whitetail deer hunting and land management.

At the conclusion of harvest season Eli spends nearly 85 days each fall in a deer stand or blind on his farms in West Virginia or his 800 acre leased farm in North Central Missouri. Eli has several Pope & Young bucks to his credit and two gross Boone and Crockett bucks.

Eli and Misty share a strong faith in Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior, a love for the outdoors and a respect for nature. Family, Faith, Farming and of course big whitetails is what we live for.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>