When I first started talking about growing fruit trees at 8,600 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, people looked at me in a rather peculiar way. Having such a short growing season made gardening a challenge, let alone the idea of growing fruit. The standard growing environment for fruit trees calls for at least 150 frost-free days and a minimum of USDA hardiness zone 5. Well, that is not the environment I live in. I have seen snow in June and frost destroying my garden in September, with temperatures down to -30 °F during the winter and a USDA hardiness zone closer to 3.

And yet, three years ago I planted my first fruit trees; eleven to be precise. I researched and talked to people in the field, I felt brave and enthusiastic, despite the knowldge that it would only take one of those nasty spring freezes to kill any fruiting butts, potentially the whole tree.

Cold-hardy Varieties

I knew that part of my success relied on the variety I chose. Hardiness and early maturity were two key aspects I was looking for in my trees. I listed the varieties you find in my orchard; withholding the harsh winter winds and snowy days that we have. As of last year, these warriors of high altitude have been offering their delicious fruit and I am so excited to see what this year will bring!

Bali Cherry: A sour cherry, excellent for pies and jam, self-pollinating and extremely hardy. This cherry can tolerate temperature to -40 °F and still bear fruit.

Nova Pear: Large fruit, round, melting and very juicy. The fruit can be used either green or ripe and is hardy to -50 °F.

Hudar Pear: Known for its extreme hardiness, almost to -50 °F. The fruit is yellow, sweet and juicy. Good for fresh eating or canning.

Mount Royal Plum: A beautiful hardy European plum bearing fruits that are large, deep blue, and well-suited for eating raw, preserves and jam. This plum withstands Zone 3b-4a winters.

Sweet Sixteen Apple: One of the best apple varieties for cold climates. High quality flavor, primarily sweet but with some acidity and complexity. Sweet Sixteen is a reliable cropper in zone 4 and even zone 3.

This year I am adding two varieties of apricot trees. I will report back in a few years.

Location

Where to plant your fruit trees is an important consideration when starting your orchard. Ideally you want good drainage (fruit trees do not like standing in water for too long), good soil, plenty of sunshine (fruiting trees require a minimum of 6-8 hours of sun per day during the growing season), and good air flow. You want your trees to be wind protected and try to avoid low-lying sites. A slope is the best location, if you have one. That said, on my homestead there is no escape from the winds and living at high altitude in the mountains, even though my topsoil is pretty good, the deeper layers are granite. Harsh conditions, and yet I am trying to make it work.

I dug large holes before planting my trees. The tree holes need to be large enough to accommodate the root system, but really you want the holes to be bigger; a 3-foot-diameter is a good measurement. I then doused the holes with water and filled them with a mix of the existing soil and good quality compost, hoping the roots would find their way between those many layers of rocks present underneath the surface. Next, I created a berm around the drip zone of my trees to keep water close to the tree. Mulching and composting are an important part of my orchard, helping my trees to grow in this “unfriendly” environment.

To protect your trees against critters such as moles and gophers, plant daffodils around the drip zone.

Rootstock

Any fruit tree sold in nurseries is not grown from seed but has been grafted. Grafting is a technique that joins two parts of the tree into one; the rootstock and the scion. The lower plant part used in grafting is called the rootstock, a healthy root system and some portion of the stem. The upper part of the tree is called the scion, a young shoot or bud from a plant with beneficial characteristics like great flavor, color or disease resistance.

The rootstock plays a key role in tree size, mineral uptake, fruit quality and production, and response to adverse environmental conditions. It is important to know what rootstock was used to grow your fruit tree on. With harsh winters and high winds it wouldn’t be smart to choose a dwarf root stock, the root system would neither be strong nor deep enough to provide for a solid anchor.

grafting

Winter Protection

It is crucial to protect young trees against freezing temperatures, high winds, and bright sunlight causing dangerous daylight/night time temperature fluctuation. These stressors can cause cracking in the bark which leads to weakening of the whole tree. You can avoid this by wrapping the trees in tree wrap or burlap.

tree wrap

Plant Allies

Fruit trees love certain herbs and benefit from living close to those. I not only grow these herbs in my orchard to benefit the trees but also because they are an important part of my food and herbal kitchen.

Comfrey is probably the most well-know medicinal herb when it comes to orchards. Comfrey has a deep-reaching root system and pulls potassium, calcium and other minerals to the surface and makes them available to your trees.  I love comfrey, my chickens love comfrey, my compost loves comfrey, the bees love comfrey, and my fruit trees love comfrey. BUT, be aware, once planted you cannot get rid of this great herb, it spreads like crazy.

Red clover is a nitrogen fixer and a great addition to the comfrey. I use red clover in many of my herbal tinctures.

Stinging nettle is not for everyone, it does sting when you touch it. I love this amazing herb. It is great in the orchard since it has a host-specific aphid that builds up early in spring, encouraging populations of predators to build up before other aphid species show up on young fruit. I harvest my stinging nettle on a regular basis and either eat it like spinach, make nettle soup or tea from it.

Dandelion is known to draw potassium. I eat dandelion, both the leaves and the flower, make dandelion wine, and use the root for herbal tinctures.

Chicory accumulates zinc which is great for the trees. I have been using the root for many years in my kitchen.

You can slowly add all of these beneficial plants to your orchard, let your wisdom guide you and walk your orchard every year to get a feel for what the trees need.

This is the first part in a series about High-altitude orchards. I will continue to write about topics such as pruning, natural pest control, grafting, and storing your harvest.

Further Reading: Michael Phillips: The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower.

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