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[First question here on gardening and landscaping SE, please excuse my English and terminology. I would like to ask a 'few' questions (sorry for long post) but I'm mostly looking for some directions/guidance.]

I would like to revive and maintain (or completely re-purpose) an abandoned orchard on my in-laws property. Property is located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, hilly terrain (around 270 meters above sea level), temperate climate, area is around 3.500 m2. It is surrounded by mostly deciduous forest (acacia, hornbeam, oak...). There is a small house and an apple orchard (about 400 trees). There are also a few older trees (plum, cherry, pear, quince and few grape wines) but they seem to be in bad shape... When there is some fruit on those trees, it starts to fall off before they are ripe (I guess because of insufficient watering) or, even worse, wasps and hornets eat and damage most of it..

All of this may not sound too bad on paper but there are a lot of issues and problems I'd like to solve.

Main problem is that (all of property) but mostly the orchard is in a sorry state (I think it was planted some 10 years ago) - trees are laying in different directions/angles (regardless of supporting structure - wire and columns), some of them seem to be sick, there wasn't a single apple in years...

Second problem is soil and weed. It is mostly clay and during rainy periods and after winter it keeps water on top. Because of that and the fact there were layers upon layers of fallen leaves (which no one raked in years) the grass is being replaced by all sorts of weed and most of it is moss. There is a lot of moss on some (most) parts, some parts of what used to be a lawn now looks bald, and some parts of the lawn has huge cracks in the soil. Recently there seems to be some sort of ant infestation, a lot of new anthills appeared all over the property.

Also, along the wire fence there are unwanted blackberry shrubs and small acacia trees. Acacia seems to be the bigger problem because it seems to be spreading all over the place.

Last problem (which might be important for any future plans) is there is no running water. There is an underground basin (8 m3) for collecting rain, so it is hard to properly water plants and use it in the household.

...

My general plan is to completely tidy up this place. I'd like to:

  • deal with the orchard (maybe completely remove it and plant few new seedlings so I can properly maintain them)
  • remove all stumps which prevent mowing
  • deal with terrain (maybe hire someone to plow it, get some more dirt and level it)
  • fix the lawn (remove weed and moss) and reseed grass
  • collect all leaves and use it as a mulch (along fence to fight blackberries shrubs) or partly use it as a compost
  • build one or two smaller raised beds to grow some vegetables
  • build tanks for collecting more rain for watering

So, after this long introduction here is my question:

This year I did just grass mowing, collecting leaves, made a compost pile.. and I started to realize I need some plans.

I don't know much about gardening, landscaping or growing plants but I have good will to learn and work (alone unfortunately and with limited time and budget). I also have most important tools (self-propelled lawnmower, grass trimmer, chainsaw, leaf blower, hedge trimmer, tiller and all sorts of hand tools..) (Please note I'd prefer not to use any pesticides unless I get really desperate).

Since the winter is coming, I guess there isn't much I can do until spring but I'd like to make plans as to how, when and in what order to deal with those tasks and plans?

Any help, suggestions and ideas are more than welcome.

Edit: Added few images for illustration purposes.

Aerial view/layout Part of orchard in February Wide angle shot in June

  • This is a wide ranging question touching on many aspects of horticulture. I am not sure it is suitable for the question answer style here. @Stormy care to try answering this? – kevinsky Nov 12 '17 at 22:10
  • I know this question is broad and I'm aware I'll have to educate myself on specific subjects. But I'd really like to get help in a way what should be my priorities because this year I've started to a bit of everything and didn't finish anything. For example, should I stop wasting my time on small stuff like leaves and do something more important? – False Identity Nov 12 '17 at 22:23
  • Welcome! We're so glad you joined us. Never worry about posting here because of improper English. This looks quite good, and if you need help, we're happy to edit. I can't even pronounce the area where you live! – Sue Nov 12 '17 at 23:31
  • I've made some minor grammatical edits to your question, but just wanted to say, there's very little wrong with your English (and I am English!) – Bamboo Nov 13 '17 at 0:04
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In dealing with an overgrown or neglected orchard, assuming that "orchard" fits what you want to do, major pruning is almost always needed. Ripping it all out is likely to be a step backward unless orchard is not what you want to continue with.

That may, of itself, help with fruit survival (if due to overtaxing the trees from excessive set) but there are a number of other possible issues, such as dealing with terrible soil and quite possibly a lack of adequate pollinators (bees and relations.) Providing habitat for alternate pollinators (things other than honeybees) is often a good investment (can be as simple as holes in an untreated block of wood, or bundles of reeds.) Establishing an actual honeybee hive or allowing a beekeeper to place one there is also a good idea.

In most cases, if the rootstocks are not utterly unsuitable, even a tree that's in terrible shape ("laying different directions and angles") is better topworked (graft onto the roots that you have, train the graft where you want it, cut off what you don't want) rather than dug up and replaced. If you are just digging it up and not replacing, that's different. So "what you want to do" comes back into the process.

3500 square meters appears to be 0.35 hectare (logically enough) or about 0.865 acres in old-fashoned units. 400 trees (and a house, etc.) on that amount of land indicates a "high density" planting and those typically require irrigation and fertilization, which appears to be a problem for your specific site. So, you might want remove roughly every other tree or even two out of every three if you can't solve those issues and wish to continue as an orchard, but at a more reasonable density. Alternatively, you might want to prune each tree down to a single stem (rod) with very short branches - a "single cordon" typically at a 45 degree angle along the support wires. If THAT is what your "laying at angles" trees look like, just prune back to it - it's better than straight up. You still might want to remove half of them.

You can do a fair amount of the pruning now, if you want to. The grapevines should be HEAVILY/DRASTICALLY pruned a bit more into the dead of winter.

Improving the soil would ideally involve some drainage (pipes or ditches) and a lot of organic material (grown there and turned under, or hauled in if available locally as in animal manures, spoiled hay, etc.) - this may be difficult or require finding someone with equipment you can hire to help with spreading and tillage - or you may find that you would be better off getting some small equipment. However, hiring a neighbor with larger equipment may be easier and faster and does not require storing and maintaining the equipment yourself. That depends on what resources you have, locally.

[Edit after pictures]


The 400 apple trees are concentrated on a small portion of the overall land, thus making them fairly high density, indeed. What I can see of them in the pictures looks like you could reasonably prune back to cordons. If you wanted to remove 1/2 to 2/3 of them (as well as pruning the ones you leave to cordons) that might help, and you want to start with any obviously diseased trees, then remove healthy trees to get more space between healthy trees you'd be leaving.

But you might give it a year and just remove any dead/diseased trees (or parts of trees), and prune them all to cordons (that can be tied into the support fence), and see what, if anything, you get.

You might be able to trade or sell some of the heathy young trees to others, but if you don't know what the rootstock and fruiting graft are, that might not be very attractive from the recipient's view. I suppose there's also the distinct possibility that what you have is 400 10 year old rootstocks without any fruiting graft top-worked onto them. You'd want to look for evidence of the old graft near the base of the trees (I can't see anything obvious zooming in on the pictures.) I would guess they are at least one of the dwarfing rootstocks, or nobody would have bothered with the fence, I think. If you don't have any documentation of what's planted, the only (practical) way to figure it out is to get them to fruit, if they will.

If they are 10-year-old rootstocks, you can topwork them with a fruiting variety.

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It's hard to give detailed advice without actually seeing what you've got there. It sounds like a relatively large area, with around 400 trees. I think you should start by simply thinking about it - what do you want to achieve long term? Are you trying to create a garden, with ornamental plants in it, or do you primarily want to grow food plants like vegetables and fruit. Maybe you want both - an area with lawn and ornamental plants, and other areas with vegetables and fruit. It's hard to be systematic and organised if you're not sure what your ultimate target is, so deciding what you want in the long term, then working out how to do it is best.

Regarding the soil, your description strongly suggests the soil is heavy clay and poor draining - cracks often appear in heavy clay soil after periods of low or no rainfall. The presence of moss in quantity also indicates poor drainage.

if the area is very large,and you really have to do all this alone, then probably the way to start is to think about it in sections. Decide on an area to tackle, where you think you might want to create your raised beds for vegetables for instance, or where you want to create a lawn. Clear the area of anything you don't want - weeds, trees and so on. Then dig to see what the soil's like, how bad it is, what's beneath it - it may have a rock layer underneath a spade's depth or more down, which would certainly cause major drainage issues. You might need to put drainage in for the worst areas, and it certainly sounds like the soil will need amending with plenty of organic material. Work out how you can get a water supply to that area, with a possibility to extend it further or run it through to other areas later.

Presumably you've already worked out the aspect, that is, which way various parts face, and how much sun those areas receive during the course of a year. If you haven't then observe that and note it, especially during winter, when the sun is so much lower in the sky and many areas which are in full sun during summer are actually shady for the rest of the year. Decide which bits are most exposed to cold winds, where the frost pockets and coldest areas might be. Get to know the land while you're working out what you want it to be eventually.

You've got a whole winter to get through - spend that time observing, making notes, deciding what you want to achieve. Then start tackling an area at a time next spring, or when the weather permits.

If you're not really sure what you want to achieve, and you really don't know much about gardening/growing things, look at images of gardens, either on line or in books, look at the plants in the photos, research how to grow particular vegetables you know you want to grow, do as much research as you can to get ideas over winter. I believe winters in Bosnia involve a lot of snowfall and cold - but Herzogovina not so much snow, but it seems like you'll have plenty of time during winter to do this researching and planning because you won't be able to work the land until winter passes.

I'd just add that building a compost pile was a brilliant early move - if you can, create one or two more, and if you don't know already, find out how to compost efficiently. What those piles produce will be very useful to amend your heavy clay soil.

UPDATE: If you want a family friendly and productive garden, think about what the children will want, from a safety point of view and any activities they'll do out there, what you want - where's the best place for some paving, for a lawn, for you to grow vegetables somewhere that gets sunlight and you can easily get water to, do you need paths, does your wife want to hang laundry to dry outdoors, does anyone want to sunbathe, where will you eat outdoors, all the practical and possibly fun things families might do outside in the garden.

You might want to tackle the woody based unwanted plants like blackberry and acacia now - clearing those completely by getting all the roots out will give you more time for all the other work you'll be doing next year. If you can't get all the roots out, use some SBK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Vitax-SBK-1L-Brushwood-Killer/dp/B000TAW2Z2 if you can get it where you are - you drill into the root to make a pit or well, apply the SBK to the pit you've made, without spilling it anywhere else, cover and leave to do its work over winter. I know you don't really want to use chemicals, but using a brushwood killer in this way is the least harmful method of employing any chemicals in the garden, and will only destroy the root you've applied it to; given the amount of work you have to do, you may need to treat cut down trees with it later if you can't get the stumps and roots removed - they will just grow again if you don't, so if you decide to buy some SBK, buy a large size.

  • My first goal is to prevent this place from further deterioration and while I'm trying to do this, I'd like to correct this failed attempt of having an orchard into something more manageable regarding man power and time. In the end I'd like to make this place nice area for rest and recreation for my family, and try some fruit and vegetables growing because I find working with dirt and plants very relaxing... I'd really like if you could give me some pointers regarding priorities. For example, should I deal with weed first? – False Identity Nov 13 '17 at 0:01
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    No, other than possibly trying to strip out the acacia and blackberry. Weeds and unwanted small growth such as moss can be dealt with as you tackle each area. You might want to consider composting all the fallen leaves you can find by bagging them up into black binliners, stuff them full with leaves, poke a few holes in the bottom, ensure the leaves are wet or damp, tie the bag tops shut and stack them somewhere out of the way for a year, maybe two unless your summers are hot. They will compost down, shrinking as they do, into wonderful black stuff, great for your soil.Weeds are always withus – Bamboo Nov 13 '17 at 0:08
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    For woody based weeds like blackberry and acacia, you may not be able to get all the root out - if you can't, you'll need a brushwood killer, something like SBK, (google it) to treat the woody roots with - that is worth doing now, both attempting to dig them out and treating with brushwood killer if you can't. Smaller, annual weeds will just keep coming I'm afraid, but aren't quite such a problem. And you're right - working with the earth and plants is good for the soul.... – Bamboo Nov 13 '17 at 0:13
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    @False Identity Acacias can be solved without any chemicals. Once a week, remove all branches with leaves (if possible, remove some portions of roots too). Repeat that throughout the year. All roots will die of starvation! In following years, some Acacias may grow from seed, but that is minor. – VividD Nov 13 '17 at 0:31
  • @FalseIdentity - see updated answer – Bamboo Nov 13 '17 at 0:52
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Apart from the good advice given by other users, I want to mention a few small things that help a lot in the long run, some of them doable now, before winter.

• On trees affected by disease use copper sulphate after the leaves fall - it is efficient and cheap.

• Remove fallen leaves, fallen fruits and fruits still attached to branches because they carry pathogens that will start a new lifecycle in spring.

• Use a pitchfork to loosen up soil on areas where water usually stagnates - this improves drainage and stores water below the ground, so the plants nearby will need less irrigation next year. This can be done before soil starts to freeze. Be prepared to break a tooth of the pitchfork in the process.

• Ants have found an area where soil can be easily excavated, so add cover plants in barren areas: clover, creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor) or some other crop. I don't know when it's best to sow them.

• Work the soil when it doesn't stick to the metal parts of your tools, otherwise it means the soil is too wet and it will be easily compacted when putting pressure or weight on it. It's better to prepare now the soil for raised beds because frost and defrost will make it easier to work with in spring.

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