The perfect orchard site has three good things going for it:
- Higher elevation relative to the surrounding area
- Excellent water drainage
- Nutrient “rich soil” with proper mineral content level
The first two things are relatively easy to see with the naked eye.
The “rich soil” thing, however, is practically invisible to the eye. It is something you really need to test for before you plant a crop like fruit trees, which will hopefully be there for 20 years or more.
Most commercial growers rely on commercial soil labs to test their soil. They are affiliated with certain chemical and fertilizer companies that they are affiliated with. But it may not be possible for the backyard orchardist to discover the information they need alone, so they use these labs to conduct testing.
Fortunately, almost every state has a land-grant university with a Cooperative Extension Service, an outreach arm of the university. Cooperative extension agents work with growers and, to a lesser extent, gardeners and other consumers. They provide useful advice, including information about soil testing and general growing tips.
Another option is to contact your local garden center. Many offer basic soil tests that will help you identify potential problems. This kind of test can be just as useful as a complete test, which might tell you much more than you actually need to know.
There are also home testing kits that can be very useful, and they often will provide guidance on how to correct common problems.
Fixing problems before you plant
The most common problem with soil is an imbalance in its pH (the ratio of acidic and alkaline factors). The “perfect” pH is 7.0, indicating neither an acidic nor alkaline soil condition. However, most plants can do well in soils that are a point above or below 7.0. You might start to see some deficiency or toxicity problems with some minor elements in your plants at extreme variances.
Determining the pH of your soil is one of the best reasons to do a soil test before you plant. If your soil is too acidic you can use lime to reduce acidity. Since different forms of lime work at different rates (and almost all forms should be well worked into the soil to perform their job) it’s important to follow the directions. It’s also best to use lime prior to planting a permanent crop. Similarly, if high alkalinity is your problem, corrections should be done before the planting.
Increasing the organic level of sandy soils is another important thing you should try to do before planting. Sandy soils usually have low organic levels, which affect water-holding capacity, the presence of beneficial biological life and the capacity of soil to maintain proper nutrient levels. So if you can add humus to poor sandy soils, your orchard will almost always perform better and help to establish an optimal organic level.
In addition to pH level, a basic soil test will identify the approximate levels of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are the three most essential elements for plant growth. Better soil tests will test for minor nutrients that are also important for plant growth. If the testing show results that are too low (deficient) or too high (toxic), your soil will have a dramatic effect on the plant growth. Usually, many of these minor elements are in abundance, but their availability or toxicity may be more related to the pH level of the soil. So if you haven’t tested your soil before planting, don’t despair, these minor problems can be corrected, even with the trees in the ground.
Do you have everything you need for planting this Spring?
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Feel free to ask Grandpa any question’s that you may have, he is happy to help out.