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Cooperative Extension Bulletin E359

Think Twice, Plant Once: Does a Tree Fruit Orchard Make Sense for Your Farm?

An introductory guide and curated list of references and resources
  • Megan Muehlbauer, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Hunterdon County
  • Hemant Gohil, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Gloucester County
  • Nicholas Polanin, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Somerset County

New Jersey has optimal growing conditions for a number of different types of tree fruit including peaches, apples, cherries, and plums. However, whether you have an existing farm and are looking to diversify, or you’re looking to purchase land and are considering tree fruit as your crop of choice, tree fruit management is not for everyone. There are challenges unique to perennial crop management that go well beyond planting and harvesting. This is a long-term commitment and investment rarely encountered in annual crops. With hundreds of varieties of pome (apple) and stone (i.e. peaches, cherries, and plums) fruit available and an increasing number of rootstocks, pests, diseases, weed control options, and training practices, it can be downright daunting for new growers to even know where to begin in establishing tree fruit orchards. This factsheet provides an overview on necessary considerations prior to the establishment and/or expansion of a tree fruit orchard in New Jersey. This includes topics such as farm business plan development, commitment of time and resources, selection and preparation of an optimal orchard site, choosing varieties and rootstocks, trellising and pruning systems, and finally the establishment of irrigation systems. Information and resources will also be outlined for tree fruit pest management, including weed, insect, and disease control.

Does a Tree Orchard Fit Your Farm’s Business Plan?

With over 8,500 acres of tree fruit in New Jersey (2017 USDA Census of Agriculture), alongside numerous farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and accessibility to city markets, there are ample opportunities to grow and market high quality tree fruit. So why don’t more growers have tree fruit orchards?

One of the most crucial first tasks for any grower planning to launch a business venture in agriculture, especially one that seeks to establish an orchard, is to develop and regularly update a business plan. Fortunately, there are a number of helpful resources available to guide farmers in establishing business plans. The templates listed below provide guidance in outlining a proposed farm operation, as well as help growers to consider their strengths and weaknesses before establishing or expanding their farm operations. These documents also serve to assist in leveraging money from both government and private lenders.

In addition to a business plan, aspiring tree fruit growers should also develop a detailed farm budget. There are a number of significant costs associated with establishing an orchard that need proper planning. Upfront investments or establishment costs may include land purchase, rental and taxes, equipment, controlled temperature storage, plant material, and trellising. Additional major yearly expenses include fertilizer, pesticides, tools, fuel, and labor. But before all of that, growers must consider where and how the produce they grow and harvest will be marketed, what prices they anticipate charging, and yearly predicted yields. There may be several options available to tree fruit crops, not normally found for annual crops.

These resources listed below provide guidance on developing detailed budgets tailored to tree fruit orchards:

No one should expect to handle all of these considerations alone. You will need the knowledge and experience only found within a team of experts: accountants, financial planners, business lawyers, fiscal resource loan or grant managers, etc. Successful farm business plans, especially those that seek to expand operations into new crops or specialized areas such as tree fruit orchards depend on a team – this is not a weekend Do-It-Yourself project.

What Site on My Farm Is Good for an Orchard?

Proper site selection is critical in the establishment and profitability of tree fruit, especially given that the land chosen will become a long-term (20+) year investment. When first choosing an orchard plot, growers should be mindful of how close the proposed orchard is to residential areas, and where normal farm operations in tree fruit production could cause issues with neighbors. In addition, the land should be gently sloping with good air drainage to ensure air doesn’t stay stagnant and cause “frost pockets” at bloom. Avoid areas with historically extreme temperatures or early frosts. Historic weather data can be obtained through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Along with site selection, growers should strongly consider deer fencing. With the ever-growing deer population in New Jersey, the investment of establishing a tree fruit orchard can be quickly lost to a night of buck rubs and deer grazing. Both Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension, and Cornell University Cooperative Extension, have developed detailed publications outlining how to calculate deer fencing expenses.

Soil Fertility

After selecting the growing site, the next step in establishing a successful orchard is soil testing. New Jersey has a diversity of soil types, and sometimes different types within single orchard planting. A soil profile should reveal a well-drained soil with good water holding capacity. Detailed information on soil profiles for selected areas of interest can be obtained through the National Web Soil Survey.

Zoom in Figure 1.

This figure is an example of the soil test results received for a Honeycrisp apple orchard in New Jersey.

Additional information on soil profiles, can be obtained at a local Soil Conservation office.

Soil testing should be performed at least two years prior to planting to allow plenty of time to properly amend the soil. Once the plants are in the ground, soil amelioration is difficult. Physical and chemical soil analyses should include soil texture and organic matter content, and a full soil fertility test (that includes pH, alkalinity, and salinity). Early chemical or fertility analysis is critical, because it can take months to adjust the pH of the soil to the optimal range, or to grow and incorporate field crops that may enhance its organic matter content. Instructions on proper soil sampling methods, and information on how to obtain soil testing kits, can be found on the website of the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory.

All farm soil tests performed through the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory are returned back to growers with recommendations from their local county Agricultural Agent. Additionally, there are extensive publications outlining how to interpret soil fertility results and implement amendment practices, based upon these results. Several of these publications include:

Once the orchard has been established, leaf tissue analysis should be performed yearly along with soil fertility analysis. If varieties planning to be grown are susceptible to the nutrient disorder bitter pit, fruit tissue assays may also be beneficial to in develop supplemental foliar nutrient spray routines.

Guidelines on how to interpret leaf tissue analysis for tree fruit can be found in FS627, Leaf Analysis for Fruit Trees.

Does My Orchard Need Irrigation?

Even though average precipitation in New Jersey is enough to meet tree growth needs, supplemental irrigation is often required during the fruit development stage. In high density orchards, irrigation is critical from the early stage of tree growth and development to achieve full production in 3–4 years. Nearly all orchards in New Jersey are irrigated to ensure trees receive adequate water throughout the growing season. However, prior to orchard establishment or purchasing an irrigation system, it is important for growers to estimate their overall water needs based on tree spacing, number of emitters per tree, emitter flow, total discharge rate for the block, and the pump capacity. Knowing the physical properties of the orchard soil profile can help in determining the maximum soil water holding capacity and most appropriate irrigation system.

Currently, most orchards in New Jersey utilize drip irrigation, the details of this system are outlined in the Penn State University Extension factsheet listed below. Once installed, growers must decide when to irrigate. There are a number of ways to determine when to irrigate, including conventional wisdom/intuition, weather based evapotranspiration i.e. NEWA (Network for Environment and Weather Applications) through Cornell University, canopy temperature, and soil moisture (e.g. measured using tensiometers). Further descriptions of drip irrigation and methods of irrigation can be found at Drip Irrigation for Tree Fruit Orchards in Pennsylvania.

Details on the timing and duration of irrigating a high density orchard are outlined in the following article: How to get water right in the orchard.

Note that if a grower's proposed water need reaches a certain threshold, they must apply for necessary Agricultural Water Use Permits through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Information on these thresholds and permitting can be found on the NJ DEP website.

What Should I Choose to Plant in My Orchard?

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing which fruit to plant. The first, and perhaps most important consideration when deciding what tree fruit to plant is what is the market/where will you sell the fruit. The decision of how to market the fruit should be closely interwoven with the farm business plan (i.e. will you sell directly to the consumer, wholesale, or pick-your-own orchard). The other driving factor in tree fruit/variety selection should be whether the future orchard will be maintained using conventional or organic practices. Organic orchards should only be planted with cultivars that have resistance to disease.

All tree fruit crops have very similar pros and cons—they all require pruning, all are susceptible to diseases, and nearly all of them are susceptible to early spring frosts. Thus, other factors to consider when choosing plant material are maturity times, shelf-life, and yield.

The subsequent links outline recommended variety lists for each of the major tree fruits for New Jersey growers. It is important to note that each of the lists also outlines whether cross-pollination is needed, and if so, which trees would be adequate.

Finding a source for clean planting material is important to avoid accidentally introducing devastating diseases such as viruses. There is no cure for virus diseases, which can only be managed by replanting, which in turn can be cost prohibitive. Orchard crops are perennial and can be productive for up to 20–30 years depending on care and economic return. Sourcing virus-tested scion and rootstock can ensure that plants are free of such pathogens. Always order trees from nurseries that sell certified clean planting material. Please note that there is a difference between a certified nursery and a nursery that sells certified planting material. Information on ordering certified disease-free plant material and recommendations on nurseries which comply with these rules can be found at the following link: National Clean Plant Network – Fruit Trees.

Do Rootstocks Really Matter?

Figure 2.

This image represents a high density (dwarfing rootstock) Honeycrisp apple orchard at the Rutgers University Snyder Research and Extension Farm (Pittstown, NJ). Photo Credit: Megan Muehlbauer.

It is critical for growers to make informed decisions about their rootstocks. Rootstocks confer dwarfing characteristics (important when growing these trees in trellised systems), disease resistance, and high yields. Further information on specific rootstocks, compatibility with scion wood, and availability can be found online at the following publications from several universities involved in the NC-140 Regional Rootstock Research project:

Currently there are a number of apple rootstock choices, however the choices are far more limited for stone fruit.

A list of suppliers of tree fruit plant material can be found through the Rutgers NJAES factsheet FS685, Nurseries and Nursery Dealers with Fruit Trees for New Jersey.

How Should I Design My Orchard?

Orchards are typically planted in rows running north to south, which maximizes sunlight absorption, fruit set, and enhances fruit development. Rows should be spaced apart based upon the width of the farm equipment (i.e. tractors, mowers, and sprayers) required to drive down the rows.

In terms of within-row tree spacing, fruit trees can be spaced at a number of different densities. This decision is made based upon rootstock choice, soil fertility, and desired management methods. In general, more vigorous rootstocks/fertile soils tend to produce larger trees, which require wider in-row spacing, while more dwarfing rootstocks/less fertile soils tolerate tighter spacing. Research on apples, rootstocks and trellising systems in NJ has been extensive.

Growers often seed turf between rows to minimize weed pressure and erosion. Turf should be chosen based on expected traffic. Recommend turf for the aisles in an orchard is tall fescue, Festuca arundinacea, in the southern portion of NJ, and either tall fescue or hard fescue, Festuca brevipila, in the northern areas, as both are fairly resistant to tractor traffic. The KY31 tall fescue is very commonly planted with great success. There are many newer cultivars that are slightly less vigorous while still remaining quite healthy under water stress and traffic. If the soil is deep, holds moisture well, and traffic is less frequent, the hard fescue may be a reasonable choice because it requires less mowing and creates a finer turf.

Detailed information on orchard designs and growing systems of each of the major fruit crops grown in New Jersey are listed below.


The factsheets below provide details on tree spacing, orchard layout, and production systems for apple orchards.


The following Good Fruit Grower article outlines several peach orchard growing systems and the pruning techniques necessary to maintain them.


The bulletin below details many aspects of plum production in the North Eastern United States, including planting and pruning recommendations.


The Good Fruit Grower article below provides a succinct outline of the most productive cherry growing systems.

How Should I Manage Disease, Pest, Weed, and Environmental Injuries?

Some of the most complex and economically important decisions a grower has to make each growing season involve pest management. This includes cultural practices, varieties, integrated pest management (IPM), herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides to combat weeds, disease, and insect issues. In addition to these, most fruit growers must utilize plant growth regulators at some point in the growing season to aid in crop thinning, branching, and harvest management. This information is all outlined in detail and updated yearly in Tree Fruit Production Guides published by major land grant universities.

These guides also provide information on rodent management and environmental injury management (i.e. sunscald and southwest facing injuries). They are all invaluable tools for growers looking to establish and/or maintain tree fruit production on their farms.

In addition, it is important to note that growers should remain diligent in double-checking all pesticide labels to be sure everything is labeled for use on the given tree fruit in New Jersey.

Some pesticide guidelines and recommendations for fruit crops in the Northeastern United States can be found in the following publications:

Replanting Old Orchards

If the orchard you are planning will replace a current orchard, there are a number of additional considerations to take into account. Replanting an orchard with another orchard can lead to tree decline due to pests and diseases in the soil. Prior to replanting, care should be taken to prepare the site. This includes eliminating all old root systems, disking the field multiple times, testing for nematodes, and possibly fumigating the field. In addition, growers should strongly consider replanting orchards with the newest, most disease resistant rootstocks. Detailed information on precautions to take when replanting orchards can be found at the Penn State University Extension link and Good Fruit Grower newsletter below.

Keep Learning about Your Tree Fruit Orchard

Every year brings about a unique set of disease and insect pressures. Obtaining current information on pest, disease, and fertility information is important to sustaining a successful orchard. This information can be found through the following websites. A number of these websites provide updates on the latest information on horticultural growing practices, varieties, and regional meetings for the northeastern tree fruit industry. Extension agents and specialists are also good sources of information and often able to direct specific inquiries to the appropriate source.

October 2019