Apples growing on a fruit wall

If you were to stroll through the streets and laneways of the Parisian suburb of Montreuil in the 1870s, you would find yourself lost in a maze of 300 hectares of fruiting peach walls. The walls themselves were 2.5-3m tall and more than half a meter wide, covered in limestone plaster, and beset with thriving, espaliered peach trees that produced 17 million fruits per year.

150 years on, the fruit wall concept is reappearing with a brand-new twist on orchards around the world — this time sans brick and limestone but with a similar view to abundant production. If you’re looking for fruit orchard design ideas, a “wall-inspired” fruit orchard layout could be just what you need for easy-pick, low-maintenance fruit.

How the Fruit Wall Concept Began

In Northwest Europe, fruit orchard layout in urban areas was a matter of survival as well as profitability. Before railroads could transport Mediterranean produce from the sunny south to the frosty north, city dwellers needed to find a way to grow fruits and vegetables outside of their native climate.

Drawing on the principle of thermal mass, urban homeowners constructed tall, dense walls facing towards the south that could reflect the sun by day and release the residual heat at night. This created a microclimate that was 14-22°F warmer than the surrounding climate and prevented crop damage from strong winds and frost.

To keep the apple and peach trees (as well as grapevines) firmly rooted within the available space, growers would train the branches along the walls and prune the trees aggressively at first. This technique is commonly referred to as espalier and allows for very compact, productive orchards.

Adapting the Fruit Wall for an Open Orchard Layout

Apple fruit orchard layout.

While these fruit orchard design ideas were adapted to a specific set of geographical and historical circumstances, the fruit wall layout offers intriguing benefits to fruit growers in California today.

Originally, the idea of the wall was to create a warmer microclimate for fruit. However, as California already enjoys the ideal Mediterranean climate for crop-growing, the walls themselves are rarely needed.

Instead, the fruit walls that orchardists are adopting consist purely of the plants themselves — apple, peach, or sweet cherry trees spaced a mere three feet apart and bred to create a single leader. Similar to the espalier idea, these fruit “columns” are pruned right up close to the spindle to encourage prolific budding and fruiting very close to the tree. The result is an orchard that’s easy to machine-prune, easy to spray, simple to harvest, and easy for bees to pollinate thanks to full year-round access to sunlight.

How to Create a Fruit Wall Orchard

If you’d like to trial a fruit wall layout on your orchard or farm, keep in mind that this technique is currently being used for apples, peaches, and sweet cherry and that other kinds of fruit trees would be purely experimental.

Spindle System

In a spindle-based fruit wall, growers purchase single-leader fruit spindles that have already been “dwarfed” to prevent over-vigorous growth. Generally, these trees are planted on a trellis and/or training wire — spaced three feet apart with wide-enough rows to allow for machine pruning later on.

For the first few years, the trees will need to be pruned by hand — once at 3-4 leaf or bud break, and then again at 6-8 leaf (approximately one month after bloom). This encourages the trees to focus on inward rather than outward growth and set a larger number of flowers.

Once the shape of the spindles in the fruit wall is established, the trees can be “hedged” with a mechanical hedge trimmer at 6-8 leaf or one month after bloom. If the hand-pruning has been performed correctly during the first few years of growth, no additional hand-pruning should be necessary from the time that the orchard is roughly five years old.

Multileader System

Italian researcher Alberto Dorigoni has been working on a way to make fruit walls less expensive to establish. A few years ago, he suggested to members of the International Fruit Tree Association at a talk in Boston that a multileader system could produce the same high yields as a super spindle or tall spindle system with fewer trees and a lower up-front investment.

Rather than plant an entire orchard of one-leader spindles, Dorigoni recommends taking regular rootstock and training the tree so that two lateral branches are promoted into vertical leaders. For patented Bibaum trees, it’s also possible to develop a four-axis fruit wall tree, as the trunk will often split into two when the tree is intentionally spread.

Applying Fruit Orchard Design Ideas Strategically

Before installing fruit walls as part of your fruit orchard layout, there are several steps that you need to take to ensure the highest possible yields and avoid common tree-training problems:

  • Assess Your Site’s Potential

However innovative and cutting-edge an idea might be, the site where you want to place your orchard will dictate what you can realistically grow. Before selecting a variety of apples (or sweet cherry or peach), find out which varieties grow well in your climate and microclimate, which cultivars and rootstock are available in your area, any amendments your soil might need to grow a healthy, abundant crop.

  • Develop Healthy Orchard Ecosystems

The second step is to prepare a “nest” for your brand-new orchard. Drawing on practical ideas from Permaculture, think about the resources that your fruit walls are going to need (water, manure, pollination, pest control) and work these into your fruit orchard design ideas. For example, planting flowering hedgerows and wildflower meadows close to your orchard could boost your numbers of wild pollinators when coupled with preventative pest control measures (rather than frequent spraying). Intercropping with different fruit trees could also boost pollination effectiveness and provide a longer harvesting season.

  • Visit A Site with Successful Fruit Walls

Written pruning guides can give you a basic idea when explaining fruit orchard layout options. However, the best course of action is always to go in person and see how it’s done. If you are able to find an orchardist who grows fruit walls successfully, he or she will be able to explain exactly where to prune each fruit tree to achieve the shape you’d like to achieve.

  • Cut Costs with Efficient Irrigation

Finally, establishing a new planting of trees requires meticulous watering for the first few years. As an expert in custom, crop-specific irrigation, Fruit Growers Supply can design, install, and maintain a complete irrigation system that meets the exact needs of your fruit walls.

Ready to give fruit walls a try? Call Fruit Growers Supply today to explore the fruit orchard design ideas that could work at your site.

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