Establishing a Home Orchard - February 4, 2015
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

The Verde Valley has an excellent climate for growing deciduous fruit crops. These include peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, apples, and pears. In many cases, the trees may be productive for 40 plus years (20 to 25 years for peaches and nectarines). In northern Arizona, deciding a site for a backyard orchard often comes down to locating an area on your property with enough soil to dig a planting hole. Often, where soil is level and free of rocks, the site is in a valley bottom or streamside terrace making it colder and more prone to spring frosts. Evaluating your property before planting and selecting the best orchard site will increase the potential for fruit production.

Fruit trees need eight hours per day or more of full sunlight. South and west facing slopes have higher intensities of solar radiation, especially during winter when the sun passes over at its lowest angle on the southern horizon. East and north facing slopes have less solar radiation overall but capture adequate amounts during the growing season (except on the steepest slopes). East and north slopes are more desirable for varieties and species that can break dormancy early (peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums) and losses due to late spring freezes are a concern. For deciduous fruit crops, a north-facing slope is ideal. A building can offer similar effects to a slope (i.e., the north side of the house or barn is similar to a north slope).

In addition, slopes affect cold air drainage. Cold air drains downslope and collects in bottoms and areas where it can be trapped. Houses, sheds, solid fences, and other barriers will trap cold air or slow its movement potentially leading to freeze damage. Many people are not aware the Town of Jerome is the “banana belt” of the Verde Valley. This is due to its location well above the valley bottom and slopes and canyons that will allow cold air to move downslope.

The ideal orchard soil is a loam or silt loam with excellent drainage and water holding capacity. Clay soils have poor drainage and are prone to root disease. Sandy soils need more frequent irrigation and nutrients are easily leached away. If a caliche layer (calcified hardpan) is present, then it must be penetrated to allow adequate drainage. To test drainage on your site, dig a 1 foot deep test hole and fill it with water. After it drains, fill it again and if it drains within 4 hours, you have desirable drainage. If it takes over 4 hours to drain, use a digging bar or jackhammer to fracture the caliche layer to improve drainage and retest as described above.

Space must also be considered when planning an orchard. For home orchards, I recommend semi-dwarf rootstocks be used. The following are recommendations for semi-dwarf tree spacing: apples - 18 ft; pears, peaches, and nectarines - 12 ft; and apricot and plum - 16 ft. Aggressive pruning can increase planting density, but if you have the space, it's best to let the trees use it. Some people plant several trees of the same species in one large hole. While some people like this idea, I am not an advocate. In these situations, one tree often dominates, outgrowing the others, but has an undesirable growth form due to the competition in its earlier years.

An adequate amount of irrigation water is also crucial to home orchard success. By planning ahead, you can create the ideal situation. You should plan for the mature size of the tree when designing irrigation basins or drip systems. Established fruit trees draw water and nutrients from two to three feet deep. One or two drip emitters placed at the trunk will not suffice for a mature fruit tree. Ideally, fruit trees need irrigation at least two feet beyond the drip line of the crown. Drip and micro-sprinklers are an excellent way to water fruit trees if they are well placed and properly scheduled. Flood irrigation is also a desirable irrigation method.

Purchase your trees from a reputable grower (I recommend planting bare root trees). Fencing may also be necessary to mitigate wildlife damage (deer, elk, beaver, rabbits, etc.). Siting your backyard orchard in the best possible location will ensure the best possible start. Below are links to additional information.

Follow the Backyard Gardener on Twitter – use the link on the BYG website. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener help line in the Camp Verde office at 928-554-8999 Ext. 3 or e-mail us at and be sure to include your name, address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or provide feedback at the Backyard Gardener web site:

Additional Resources

Fruit Trees: Planting and Care of Young Trees
University of California Cooperative Agriculture and Natural Resources

Establishing Fruit Trees in the Home Orchard
New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service

Planting the Home Orchard
Texas Agri-Life Extension

How to Plant A Fruit Tree, Dave Wilson Nursery Educational Video, (Naming of companies or products is neither meant to imply endorsement by the author nor criticism of similar companies or products not mentioned). Note: the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension does not recommend amending planting backfill.

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: January 29, 2015
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