Where do I start with my homestead? What do I put in place first? Good questions. Quick answer… It depends. You may be starting your homestead from scratch, or perhaps you bought a piece of property that already had some improvements made to it. Obviously, any improvements on your land is a head start for you, but sometimes it may be better to start from scratch. One example would be an established garden spot on a north-facing slope when a south-facing slope (that would catch more direct sunlight) would be better. Maybe they planted ornamental trees that have grown to such a size now, as to be a hindrance to plants, trees, berries and bushes that would be food (and perhaps income) producers. So starting on virgin property could be a plus. Of course, if the previous landowner put “hard” items in place like a pond or a well, then believe me, that guy saved you a pile of cash.
So, if you are starting fresh, let’s look at what should be done first.
My advice (and that is why I’m here) is to start with fruit trees. Why fruit trees? First of all they take about 2-4 years to start producing. You shouldn’t concentrate on a garden that will produce this year and neglect something that will take several years to get a yield from. Start the ball rolling first on your fruit and nut trees, then plant your garden. Fruit trees should be planted in winter anyway, when you have very little to do in the garden. Don’t forget nut trees. Most of them will take even longer to produce. Now, as far as what type of fruits to concentrate on, I would say plant what you eat. It is hard to beat a fresh apple, peach, nectarine or pear. Go to your state Agricultural University website. For me it was Texas A&M (sorry UT fans). The information they have there is invaluable. Find out from them what trees, and what variety of tree does best in your neck of the woods. What grows well in E. TX may not do worth a durn in MD. After you see what will grow in your area, I suggest you buy the biggest trees you can find. By that, I mean that you should look for a trees in a 5 or 6 gallon container. I know… they cost more, but you are saving yourself 2 – 3 years of growing time over a bare root tree. How much is 2 years worth to you… 10-20 bucks? That’s about the difference you will pay between a 5 gallon tree and a twig. WELL worth it. Then… plant them “right”. The old saying around here is “dig a 20 dollar hole for a 10 dollar tree” (that may lose something in translation). In other words have compost, peat moss, and good topsoil ready to mix and put in the hole with the root ball. One of the best places I’ve seen to learn how to plant a tree is at DirtDoctor.com. He has several pages on planting and maintaining fruit and nut trees. Most trees are grafted, and basically you want to keep the graft (the little knot on the trunk that is just above the soil line) about 3″ above the soil when you plant. The graft needs to be above ground so suckers don’t grow from the root-stock. One way to remember how to do this is “Plant it high, it won’t die… plant it low, it won’t grow”. This is something to remember when you plant just about anything…but… not tomatoes…. plant tomatoes deep. They, along with a few other plants, will root on any part of the stem that touches the ground. Planting tomatoes deep will result in a much better root system… But… I digress… Back to fruit trees.
Plant your trees at the correct depth, with the graft well out of the soil. Water it in well. This will seal the soil around the roots so you won’t have any air-gaps. The root don’t need to be exposed to air. I highly recommend installing a drip irrigation system. Not only will it insure that your trees are watered on a timely basis, but it saves you a lot of time standing around with a water hose. If you plant your trees in winter, the initial watering will be enough for a few days, so you don’t have to have a drip system installed immediately, but you should surely consider it. It is not very expensive, and it takes the guess work and manual labor out of keeping them watered well. You also want to make sure to plant them in a well drained area. Around here we have a lot of clay. Clay holds water like a bowl. If the roots stay soggy, it can cause “root rot”… probably a lot like athletes foot in us. I usually plant on a slope of some sort, but around here everything is on a gradual slope one direction or the other.
Now, what type of trees? Well, what do you like to eat? Plant something that you and the rest of the family will enjoy freshly picked. I will say that some trees can be a bigger pain in the pa-tootie than others. Peaches and plums for example will need to be sprayed every 10 days to 2 weeks with an insecticide and fungicide. A combination spray makes that a little easier as it contains both the insecticide and fungicide together and you kill 2 birds with one stone. Other trees, on the other hand, are much less care intensive. I have had 3 pear trees for 25+ years and have done very little to them. They produce abundantly just about every year, without expensive (and unhealthy) sprays.
I have found that apples are just about as carefree as the pears. Apples don’t do extremely well in E TX, but they may do great if you are in a cooler climate. I planted several apple trees 2 years ago, and got a few apples the following year. Not huge fruit, and not a huge crop… but the trees were still small, and I was very proud of what they (and I) accomplished. So I guess they can do pretty well in TX. And, they were very tasty. It’s a pretty cool feeling to walk around your place, see some ripe fruit hanging on a tree, and say “I don’t mind if I do”… Sweet rewards.
If you live where the summers are brutal, then for the first year or two, you might want to put up a little shade for them. Hundred degree heat can burn a young tree.
Here is a video I did on protecting young trees from the summer heat. This was in 2011. We had 82 days of 100+ degree heat. It was awful !
Fruit trees DO need to be pruned. First, they need to be pruned before you plant them. That is a GREAT reason to buy from a nursery and not a big box store. Ask the nursery guy (or girl) to prune them for you before you leave. Then they will need to be pruned as the years go by to stimulate fruit production. There are a lot of YouTube videos on this and a lot of places to go and read about how to prune fruit trees. Your state AG Extension Service will have a ton of info and lots of pictures showing you to how to do that. I won’t go into it now. You need some trees to stick in the ground first, right?
So, decide what trees you want to plant (researched well as to your location and climate). Try to buy them from a reputable nursery in your area, not a big-box store. And, buy them in the largest pots you can find (and afford). You won’t be sorry.
You may even lose a few, but it should be a small percentage, and will usually be to circumstances beyond your control like the weather, or perhaps gophers, voles, deer or some other critter. I haven’t had any deer problems, but you can build a cage (small fence) around them to protect them from deer till they are tall enough to be out of reach.
So get crackin’. Plant some trees that will give you years, and perhaps decades of enjoyment… and put food on your table. With the price of food going up daily, this one thing could be one of the biggest money saving things you do… Not to mention the level of self sufficiency it will bring to you and your family.
Lady Bug in the crotch of a fruit tree