Restoration of Heirloom Orchards

 In conservation, food-forests, grow-food, Health, Orchard Planting

A How-To Guide to Restore the Health and Regenerate the Productivity of Old Fruit & Nut Trees

I’ve had the blessing of being involved in a few Heirloom Orchard Restoration projects in the last few years. We’ve been successful in bringing old neglected trees that produce abysmal yields of small scabby apples, back into a state of health and vitality that results in yields per tree of 100-200+ lbs of large, sweet fruits. Here is our system and what we’ve learned working with the trees. I’d encourage you to try this program on your orchard – the trees will thank you.

5 Keys to Successful Regeneration of Heirloom Orchards

1. A motivated owner or steward of the land

2. A Conscious Pruning Services Contractor

3. Take a Soil Test and Add Calcium to increase fruit size, quality, & storage life

4. Feed the Trees with Quality Compost to restore life in the soil

5. Mulch to protect soil life, and maintain moisture in the soil

“Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism.”

— Sir David Attenborough

1. A motivated owner or steward of the land

The first key is a property owner or steward that realizes the value of Heritage fruit trees. These trees have a rich history and are a genetic seed bank for rare and unique varieties of fruit. The old trees are grafted onto seedling or standard-size root stock making them more resilient and drought-proof compared with dwarf varieties. They do not need to be watered and can live to be 100-120+ Years old. Properties with productive orchards are worth more money at the time of sale. A healthy full-size fruit tree can produce 50lb – 200 lbs of fruit per year. At $3/lb for apples, each tree can provide $150 – $600 worth of value annually. However, The value of fresh-picked, in-season fruit, in the hands of your family is priceless.

Picking and juicing fresh fruit, processing into sauces, pies, or making cider is an enjoyable activity. If you have an abundance, fruit can easily be sold to local cideries. This can contribute to farm income to reduce property tax on properties within Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land. Restoring an Heirloom orchard can be a valuable investment to ensure nutrient-dense, healthy local food is available for future generations.

2. A Conscious Pruning Services Contractor

The first major activity to restore the old trees is to remove the dead, dying, and diseased wood. Pruning Apple trees is an annual activity that occurs in the winter months when the trees are dormant. When kept up with, pruning takes about an hour. When the trees are over 20ft tall, or haven’t been pruned in years, expect pruning to take 5 Hours to a full day of work. At an arborist rate of $50/hr, the budget for pruning a neglected Heirloom tree is $250 per tree. Restoration of old neglected trees can take a few years to bring them back into full production, as it takes a few years to re-shape the tree and encourage fruit spurs for maximum yield. An excellent pruning contractor is an asset worth adding to your property management team.

3. Take a Soil Test and Add Calcium to increase fruit size, quality, & storage life

Here in the pacific northwest, we run soil tests on old orchards to know what key nutrients are needed. We encourage you to consider hiring someone to take a soil test to identify key missing nutrients and to set a starting point and benchmark for progress in your restoration project. We use MBlabs Western Soil Sample. We see that the mineral Calcium is low or very low, in all soils we’ve lab tested on Salt Spring Island. The majority of Canadians are deficient in calcium, so increasing the nutrient density of this mineral in our foods is key. Fruit that has adequate levels of calcium is also sweeter, has crisper flesh which increases quality, and the fruit lasts longer in storage.

Local Garden author, Linda Gilkeson PHD, recommends an application rate of 1lb per 10 square feet. Assuming an old apple tree has a canopy or drip line that extends 25ft wide, The area of the tree is about 500 sq ft. Therefore, we apply a total of 50 lbs of lime to that tree, annually until a soil test indicates otherwise. The application of Calcium is best in the form of Agricultural Lime (Ag Lime) also called lawn & Garden lime. Do not use hydrated lime or quick lime. If the soil test indicates low magnesium, we add some Dolomite Lime. If the soil test is low in sulfur, we add Gypsum. Calcium can easily and affordably be added to our soils.

4. Feed the Trees with Quality Compost to restore life in the soil

The soil biology, also called the soil food web, cycles nutrients and feeds the tree. The Fungi mine calcium and phosphorus and provide it with water to the roots of the tree. The soil food web provides plant-soluble nutrients. Read “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels, or “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake for an enlightening view into this hidden world.

To summarize a complex topic: Growing trees in living soil with a healthy soil food web creates more healthy and resilient trees. These trees produce food that is higher in natural sugars and tastes better. The fruit is more immune to pests and disease pressure. Food growing in living soil is higher in nutrient density and provides essential trace minerals. Trees with a thriving soil food web do not need any inputs of chemicals or artificial fertilizers. Restoring life in the soil is easy. Add a couple of five-gallon buckets of excellent quality compost spread lightly around the tree each year, and mulch after. We recommend using composted cow manure, a fish-based compost such as Earthbank, or Johnson Su bioreactor compost.

5. Mulch to protect soil life, and maintain moisture in the soil

I believe other than pruning, Mulch is the most important thing we could do to restore old trees. We use three hay bales, and 1 Yard of mulch per full-size tree annually. The mulch is added after the compost and lime is applied. The hay bales are shaken around the tree. The hay is then wet thoroughly with pond water. If we don’t have access to pond water, we use an application of liquid fish hydrolysate (Fish water) and one thorough watering to soak the hay. Then we apply 1 Yard of woodchips, which is about 8 full wheelbarrows. This seals the moisture and soil biology in the soil, preventing the tree roots from drying out. I like to get hay bales on site in the fall when they are cheaper and available locally and set three bales under each tree. We apply the lime and compost in the fall and spread the hay so it gets soaked over the winter. Then we spread the woodchips anytime before early summer the next year. I believe a mix of alder, maple, or chips from deciduous trees is optimal. However, any mix of woodchip, sawdust, or shavings can be used. Chips that contain cedar must be composted for a full year prior to application.

This mulching activity be done anytime in the fall, spring, or early summer. The cost of the hay bales is about $10 each ($30/ tree), and the mulch is about $80/ Yard. For larger orchards, order in bulk in the fall to reduce the cost of materials and delivery.

What is the Investment to Restore an Heirloom Orchard?

We estimate that you will need around 5 Hours of pruning services, 50lb of limestone, Two five-gallon buckets of excellent compost, 3 hay bales, and 1 yard of wood chips per tree. Including delivery and labour the investment for the first year’s major Restoration Project is $452 per tree.

For annual maintenance moving forward, budget for 1 hour of pruning, 50lb of limestone, Compost, and 3 bales of Hay Mulch, per tree. Annual Maintenance is estimated at $145 per tree.

What does it cost to Restore an Orchard?

Q: What about ongoing maintenance and pruning costs?

What’s the Estimated Yield & Return On Investment?

Per Tree

A well-taken care of tree yields 100-250 lbs per year. (Estimate)
Our goal is to have your trees live to 100-120+ years old,
And to provide your family with $300-$600 of fresh organic in-season fruit.

Investment & Yield over 20 Years
Given an investment of $452 in the first year, and $145 annually,
the Investment over 20 Years is $3207 per tree.

The yield is 2375 lbs of fruit, over 20 years,
generating a market value of $7125. (Estimate).

122% ROI over 20 Year Period. (Estimate)

For a 10-tree orchard, the first-year investment is $4520, with an annual investment of $1450.
This generates an estimated yield of 23,750 lbs of fruit at a market value of $71,250.

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

– Warren Buffett

Here are the numbers for your review, comment, and further discussion.

Want to hire us for Consulting or Orchard Restoration projects?

If you want to regenerate and restore an heirloom orchard in the pacific northwest, we can help. Contact us online, or email us at to book an estimate.

Nigel Kay
I grow food, plant trees, maintain orchards, and design ecosystems that help families become healthier and happier.
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