The most important management decision is selecting where to plant an orchard. Choosing well makes all orchard practices easier. Aboveground concerns include macro-climate and micro-climate issues (low temperatures, air drainage for frost prevention, excessive slope [>20%]), as well as proximity to markets. Belowground concerns include impeded drainage (water saturation and/or compacted subsoil) and low water-holding capacity. Ideal soil texture for apple trees is sandy loam, loam, or silt loam, although apples will grow in a wide range of soil types.
Soil Testing and Nutrition
The first step in planting an orchard, once the site has been selected, is to test the soil. Possibly the most meaningful value of a soil test to fruit producers is the pH and lime test index. In addition, soil test results are helpful in determining fertilizer needs. Apples will grow across a wide range of soil pH, but the range of 6.0 to 7.0 will make leaf-nutrient management easier.
A complete soil analysis is of special importance when planning the development of any new fruit planting site. It is much easier and more desirable to adjust the soil pH and nutrient status before planting. Ideally, the initial soil samples and corrective actions should be done for a planting site a year or two before planting. This allows time for the needed soil amendments to produce their most desirable effects.
A soil test provides an estimate of the amounts of certain elements within a soil sample. With fruit trees, because of the depth and breadth of the root system, it is difficult to obtain a soil sample that is representative of the area where the root system absorbs its nutrients. For this reason, foliar testing is useful once the tree begins bearing fruit because it provides a better estimate of the nutrient status of the tree. A poor correlation frequently exists between a soil test and a leaf analysis for a given nutrient.
Contact your local extension office, or your state extension service for information on soil testing services. You may also find a private service for soil testing. It is desirable to return to the same organization for repeat analyses in future years as this allows more comparative results and a better picture of how nutrition levels are shifting and what nutrients are actually needed.
Additional information on orchard site selection, tree planting, and nutrition:
- Penn State Orchard Management Guide
- Penn State Plant Nutrition Guide
- Planning and Establishing Commercial Apple Orchards in Wisconsin
- Nutrient Management of Apple Orchards
Dr. Diane Doud Miller, Ohio State University