Orchard Microclimate Conditions: How To Use Microclimates In Orchards


By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Experienced orchardists know that although USDA hardiness zone maps are beneficial, they should never be considered the last word. Microclimates in orchards can make a substantial difference and can determine what trees you can grow and where trees will grow best.

Take a look at the following for basic information on growing fruit trees in microclimates.

Orchard Microclimate Conditions

A microclimateis an area where the climate is different than the surrounding area. Orchardmicroclimate conditions may encompass a pocket of a few square feet or theentire orchard may be different than nearby properties. For instance, regionsknown for early frosts may have spots, or microclimates, where plantsmiraculously seem to survive longer then the same types of plants in the samegeneral region or growing zone.

Microclimates are determined by many factors includingelevation, rainfall, wind exposure, sun exposure, average temperatures,temperature extremes, buildings, soil types, topography, slopes, groundcovers,and large bodies of water.

For instance, a spot that is slightly higher than most ofthe orchard may be exposed to more sunlight and the soil may be substantiallywarmer. A lower area, on the other hand, may have more problems with frostbecause cold air is heavier than warm air. You can usually spot low areasbecause frost settles in and stays longer.

Orchards and Microclimate Gardening

Take a close look at your property. You can’t control theweather, but you can place trees strategically to take advantage ofmicroclimates. Here are a few situations to be aware of when consideringmicroclimates in orchards:

  • If your area receives harsh winds, avoid planting trees on hilltops where they will receive the brunt of the gales. Instead, look for more protected locations.
  • If spring frost is common, a spot about halfway down a gentle slope will allow cold air to flow safely down the slope, away from the trees.
  • South-facing slopes tend to warm up faster in spring than slopes that face north. Hardy trees like apples, sour cherries, pears, quince, and plums do well on a south-facing slope and they will appreciate the extra warmth and sunlight.
  • Avoid planting early blooming, frost sensitive trees such as apricots, sweet cherries, and peaches on south-facing slopes because frost may kill early blossoms. A north-facing slope is safer for trees that flower early. However, keep in mind that a north-facing slope doesn’t see a lot of sun until late spring or summer.
  • Trees facing westward may be at risk for wilting in summer and sunscald in winter.

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Read more about General Fruit Care


Catharine Howard Gardens

Fruit trees are magnificent and lovely even without the eating. Garden designers hunt around for architectural plants and most fruit trees have this this quality in spadefuls. A few winters ago, I was tasked to renovate a small old orchard and my tree surgeon, who is a trained artist, pruned the old trees. Out with dead wood and years of neglect to reveal trunks and branches of sculptural beauty.

Take a look at the picture of the old pear tree being admired by a friend. As trees, pears tend to be big, upright and rather military. I’m fairly certain that in its early years, this specimen must have had its branches wired down.

Planting up a new orchard is up there on my list of unlikely things to aspire to along with running the marathon du Sable or training up a racehorse. If you already own one (orchard, that is) and have meadow-long grass under the trees with free-ranging chickens, I am envious. But for those starting from scratch there are several secrets to success. Rootstock, pollination groups and your own particular soil and microclimate. Lets demystify these terms.

Rootstocks are chosen from sturdy disease-free parent wood and then the particular cultivar of pear, apple, cherry and the rest are grafted on to this plant material. Look into buying apple trees and you will get a series of numbers that sound like they have been lifted from a road atlas. Most vigorous is MM111 and by scale descending to the most dwarfing, the M27. Use of rootstocks took off in the last century and it is all about controlling the vigour of your tree. This adds up twice over as the new grower can have more trees per acreage and harvest the fruit without clambering up ladders.

Pollination is the next on the list to grapple with. A few fruit trees are self-fertile but in the main they will need to have the company of other members of the family near at hand (for instance a crab-apple). Weirdly, two trees of the same type won’t cross-fertilise. Blossom times need to be checked for compatibility so that the bees move the pollen around and fertilise each plant to set fruit. Fruit tree nurseries will list the different pollination groups.

Soil and microclimate – It’s enough to say that type of soil will influence your choice of tree and the size of rootstock as well. For this reason, it is a very good idea to source your fruit trees locally – the nursery grower will know the climate and what does well.

Then there is the eating – I planted a series of pears two years back and made sure to choose a harvesting succession of fruit. You may have an apple store but a beady friend of mine comes up with wizened apples from her storage in the deep mid winter. They are curious specimens that look as if they have been through the natura morta lens of Sam Taylor Wood.

Don’t overlook the alternative to an orchard which is the wonder of growing restricted forms of fruit. Years ago a travel through the plain of Lombardy showed 2 dimensional fruit trees marching across the landscape like an army of mercenaries. En masse they bewilder but used judiciously, here is a way to divide up your garden and create a living wall.

In our garden we have put in heavy posts and strong wire kept tensioned by straining bolts at intervals along to support apples and pears grown as cordons. These are perfect for a small place as the oblique trunks are spaced 60-80 cms apart. The trees are kept neat, small and productive by restrictive pruning in high summer. It makes an attractive living fence and clematis can be planted to co-habit with the fruit.

Espaliering is a way to make a fence – say, round a vegetable garden. You can have as many tiers of fruit as you want. At Cranborne Manor they use espaliered apples at the back of the perennial borders. Or perhaps you might have greater ambitions: what about a pear tunnel? The metal supports can be made by your blacksmith. I have seen this done both at Cranborne and at Batemans, Kipling’ s garden in Sussex. Or you could take flight into the invention of crinolene shaped trees as seen at West Dean gardens in the image at the top of this post.

The last mention is of fruit trees in pots. Lemons in Italy north of Rome are taken indoors and then trolleyed out into the garden in May. The effect is wonderful and I have long been harbouring the urge to grow apricots like this. Two drawbacks, it is better to have an orangery for the overwintering and a team of burly gardeners to do the moving.

This first appeared as an article in Essential Suffolk, January 2015


Edible Landscaping - Planning a Small Home Orchard

Dwarf apple trees are small enough to fit in any landscape.

With rising food and gas prices, more and more gardeners are looking for ways to reduce household costs and grow more of their own food. Once you start along this path, sooner or later the idea of growing fruit trees pops into your head. And why not? Fruit trees are prolific, bearing for years. With dwarf varieties you don't have to own acres of land to grow them. Also, with new disease resistant varieties, controlling pests is a little easier. But don't make the mistake of thinking that fruit trees are carefree. They are not a “plant it and forget about it” type of crop. However, with a little attention they can grow and fruit for years, providing food for you, your neighbors, and wildlife.

Before you start digging holes and ordering fruit trees from around the country, you'll need to spend some time planning. Here are some the considerations you should keep in mind when planning your home orchard.

Fruit trees offer beautiful flowers in spring as well as tasty fruits in summer.

Site selection before you even start drooling over the photos in the fruit mail order catalogs, take an honest look at your property. Fruit trees need at least 8 hours of direct sun a day to grow and fruit their best. Make sure tall trees, other buildings, or your house don't block the sun, especially as it dips lower on the horizon come August. Note where power lines are overhead. Don't grow large fruit trees under power lines where you'll have to prune them to prevent them from growing into the lines.

In northern areas, plant hardy fruit trees such as apples, American plums, and sour cherries on a south-facing slope to receive extra heat. Avoid planting early blooming, more cold sensitive fruits, such as peaches and apricots, in a south-facing area because they may bloom too early and the blossoms will get killed by frost. A north-facing slope is better for these fruits and for all fruits growing in hot summer areas. In either case, select a sloping location where the cold air will drain into the low lands and a late spring frost won't harm your blossoms.

Your home orchard doesn't have to be planted all together. You can plant some apples in the backyard, a few pears on the side yard, perhaps a cherry in the front lawn, and some figs in a container. I even have Italian relatives who plant dwarf fruit trees in their vegetable and flower garden. A well-drained, fertile soil is ideal, but fruit trees can be grown in less than ideal soils as long as the soil is well-drained and you add compost and fertilizer annually.

If you don't have room for fruit trees in the yard, plant fruits such as figs in containers.

Tree Selection What to grow will depend on where you live and how much space you have. Determine the hardiness zone for your area and select fruit trees that will grow well there. The hardiness zone isn't a hard and fast rule. If you can create microclimates in your yard by planting near buildings or fences that protect the trees from the winter's cold, often you can grow a tree that may be marginally hardy in your area. On the other hand, if your trees are in an exposed spot, even a variety that's hardy in your area may suffer winter injury. If you live in a warm winter area you'll need to know the chill hours that variety requires to fruit. Some areas are too warm in the winter to grow all types of fruits.

Another consideration is the size of the tree. Most fruit trees come in varieties that are dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard. Dwarf trees stay about 8- to 10-feet tall and are perfect for small yards. There are even dwarf fruit trees, such as columnar apples, figs, and pomegranates, that fit well in containers, allowing you to move them as needed. Semi-dwarf trees grow about 10- to 15-feet tall and are more productive than dwarfs. Standard-sized trees grow 20 feet or more and are most productive. Sketch out how much room you have in your yard to determine which type of fruit tree you should purchase. The ultimate height of the tree is a good indication as to how far apart they should be planted.

Full-sized trees produce the most fruit, but take up the most amount of space.

The dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are either grafted or “genetic” dwarfs. Grafted trees have a hardy rootstock with the desired variety grafted onto it. Genetic dwarfs have been bred to grow in a dwarf form (usually less than 8 feet tall) on their own rootstock. Genetic dwarfs are now more widely available and produce better quality fruit than earlier versions.

Variety Selection Another consideration is the variety of fruit tree you're growing. Not only is it important to grow varieties that taste great and are productive, but you also have to know a little about pollination. Most fruit trees grow best with at least two different varieties planted. The varieties should bloom roughly at the same time in spring and have pollen that's compatible. Check fruit tree catalogs for the varieties that can pollinate each other. Some fruits, such as apricots and peaches, and some special varieties, such as 'Northstar' sour cherry, and 'Improved Meyer' lemon, are self-fertile, so you only need one tree to get fruit. Look for self-fertile fruits and varieties if you have limited space.

To reduce the maintenance time and costs, select varieties that are disease resistant, such as 'Jonafree' and 'Liberty' apples . These two varieties are resistant to apple scab disease. This will help you reduce the need for spraying to produce a good crop.

Microclimates can allow you to grow fruits, such as citrus, in regions where they normally may not thrive.

Planting Buy trees locally already potted in a container or order them bareroot from a mail-order catalog. Mail-order catalogs will offer a greater selection of trees. Ideally, select from companies in your geographic area. They will be more familiar with varieties that grow well in your region. Order trees for a spring or fall planting depending on where you live. Spring planting in best in the North, while fall planting is fine for warm winter areas (USDA zone 7 and warmer). Plant your trees as soon as possible after purchase or arrival. It's best to dig the holes and amend the soil before they arrive so you're ready for the trees. If you are planting container plants, you should wait until you have the plants to measure the rootball so you don’t dig the hole too deep.

Most commercial tree grower prune the trees for you before shipping, so you won't have to prune until next winter. On dwarf trees you may start getting fruits in a few years. Standard sized trees take longer to start bearing.

If you plant your fruit trees following these steps and keep them well watered, you’ll be on your way to having delicious, home-grown fruits to enjoy.

Check out the Food Garden Guide for the specifics on growing individual fruits. Look up the websites of fruit trees nurseries in your area in our Edible Resource Guide. Enjoy the fruits!

Charlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.

How to Plant Fruit Trees

Last Updated: March 29, 2019 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Andrew Carberry, MPH. Andrew Carberry has been working in food systems since 2008. He has a Masters in Public Health Nutrition and Public Health Planning and Administration from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

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Fruit trees are surprisingly easy to grow in a backyard setting, and they yield years' worth of beautiful spring blooms and plentiful fruit. Apple, peach, plum and pear trees all grow well in a variety of climates. When making your selection, confirm with the nursery that your chosen fruit tree is compatible with the environment that you have selected as its home. See Step 1 and beyond to learn how to plant fruit trees so that they thrive for years to come.


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