Ten things to keep in mind when starting a small orchard in Iowa

I met with a young man this afternoon who wants to plant 100 apple trees on his acreage.  I invited him to our property  this afternoon to go over some basics.

I knew I could pass onto him in 30 minutes what has taken me years of trial and error to learn. These tips are not necessarily in order of priority AND not necessarily what another orchardist would tell you..these are just things that I  would suggest. 😉 DM

The following are my notes:

#1 priority keeping the deer away from the trees…(for at least the first ten  years).     In hind-site, I would have installed an 8 ft metal deer fence around the whole area, even before planting the trees.  You are welcome to put individual fences around each tree, and if you had 20 or less, that may be the route to go.  In my case, I had 75 trees to protect.  The first year we planted 50 trees, and in 2 nights, the deer came in and completely stripped  all of the new growth on 80% of our trees.  It was sickening.

#2  You will need to plan for regular watering the first 3 to 5 years until trees are  established (consider drip irrigation if practical)  (we did and it was…drip irrigation).  Farmtek is a good place to purchase that system

#3 Need to decide what size tree you want to end up with (dwarf, semi dwarf, full size)  This will determine which root-stock you  order.  I chose semi dwarf because the trees do not have to be staked long-term. Rootstock we went with was called EMLA7

#4 You will need to decide which varieties  of apple trees you plant. (Also called Cultivars.) I would suggest a mixture, various maturity dates, as well as for eating, cooking, dual purpose… and disease resistance.  That way you are not picking 100 trees at the same time, rather spread out over a 3 month period.

#5  While there are dozens of potential diseases and insects to protect against,  Scab and Apple Cedar Rust are the most common  diseases I’ve run into.   Apple Coddling moth, and Japanese beetles are the  two insects I fight the most.  I wish I would have ordered more varieties that have a built-in resistance to scab (there are a handful that are genetically resistant)

#6  Pruning…The first 3 to 5 years  are the most important in terms of pruning…because you are laying the foundation for the shape of the tree.  I used the “Central Leader” model of pruning.. there are others out there. This is the one I’m most familiar with.

#7 The biggest enemy to my trees   were #1 the deer, followed closely by rabbits….which love the soft tasty bark of young trees.

#8  Do a soil test before planting trees to determine the proper PH . Your local county extension office is a great resource to talk to.

#9   Mulching around trees (especially the first 5 years) is important…so your tree does not  have to compete with grass…  I would lay down a weed barrier and use washed  river rock for mulch…vs. wood chips which attract mice/ voles, which also love the sweet tasty bark of your young trees.

#10  You may need to get your private applicator spraying license  if you don’t already have it,  to have access to certain restricted chemicals.    I order all of my chemicals from Crop Production Services out of Galesville WI.   Phone: 608-539-2090. They have been great if I have questions as far as which chemical to spray, etc.   I have chosen not to spray any more than absolutely necessarily.  Yes, I do end up some spots, but they are not drenched  in toxic chemicals.  You will have to make that call.

Here are some random pictures:


2010-liberty2 gingergold-2010crop-001 2010-honeycrisp-007

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Thoughts while pruning


buds on

the apple tree

 starting to swell. The

honk of geese,  the raucous





Aslan is  afoot.


Notes on this poem.  I was out early this week pruning.  I have between 90 and  100 semi dwarf apple trees  each season that require my attention.  The second morning I was out, I was struck by how quickly the dormant  buds were starting to  swell.  I would never have  noticed that sort of thing when I was younger.  I wasn’t out there 5 minutes, before I heard the sound of  geese.  There were 4 of them.  I tried to get my camera out  to record them as they passed overhead, but they were moving too fast.   This poem is an attempt to capture some of the joy and energy I encounter out in the orchard.

                                                                            DM   Orchardist /Poet


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Two years ago, my aunt Rosie gave me a cardboard  box of 35 mm slides she’d inherited from her aunt Annie from Germany. there were probably two to three hundred slides.    Most of the slides were taken before I was  born.  I am in that season of life where I am trying to  downsize,  so wasn’t  sure I even wanted that box.

We didn’t own a slide projector, and  my neck quickly got stiff holding those old slide up to the kitchen light.

I soon realized I had a small gold mine of family photos….

Here is the very first slide I looked at:


That’s me on the left. Aunt Annie and my brother Steve on the right…The year…about 1961. This would have been taken at my grandparents farm.



My grandpa unloading hay


Grandpa’s farm dogs Butch and Feedie waiting  in the truck to go to town.


And on a related note….

Last night, a book of poems on our book shelf caught my eye. I wasn’t quite ready to hit the sack, and was definitely not in the mood to watch a movie, so thumbing through a book of poetry sounded more in keeping with my mood.  The poet’s name was Leonard L. Tews.   He’d stayed in our B and B several years ago, and sent us his book of poetry  after his time with us.

His poem Threshing Picture put me in mind of this photo of my grandfather  from the box:


Grandpa is 2nd from the left


Threshing Picture

There they stand

like stones of stonehedge

with musty

nineteenth century notions.

They smell of dusty sweat

and horses:

they itch of thistles

and rustic ambitions.


I can tell by shadows

under the horses

that they have stopped

for dinner just

at noon.

The hot threshing machine –

its noise of wheels and belts

is quiet


There stands my father’s father,

with my build,

sturdy in work pants

and cavalry suspenders

long-sleeved shirt

and underwear buttoned

to the neck,

in mid-western summers….


I’ll stop here.  Mostly wanted to share these snapshots with those  of you that subscribe to this blog.

Life is moving at a quieter pace currently and I’m OK with that.




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Sunset Christmas Day 2016


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Lost Boy

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted him yesterday afternoon in the center median.  No place for a kitten, not to mention, the temperatures were in the low 20’s and expected to drop overnight.

I told my wife, “That is someone’s kitten.  It has a collar.  I am going to turn around and see if I can catch it.”

I took the next exit/ did a 180, and headed back.  He was still there as I pulled onto the shoulder.  Traffic was not heavy but in the back of my mind, I knew if he wouldn’t come to me, and tried to run away,  I was just going to have to leave him….not that I wanted to, but chasing a kitten  with 75 mph vehicles flying by, less than 10 feet away, would not be smart….

I hated the thought of seeing a grey patch of fur the next day, on the side of the road,  knowing if I’d taken just a couple of minutes out of my day, it might mean the difference between life and death for this little kitten.

As i approached, it backed away.    I stopped, patted the ground and called “kitty, kitty….”  It came right up and wanting to snuggle.  First stop  after I got back to the car was  the vet clinic, to see if anyone had reported a missing kitten.


They also informed me, they were not set up to take strays.

The vet did scan the kitten to see if it had an identification chip.


Next stop was our newly opened animal shelter.

In talking to the receptionist, she told me no one had reported a missing kitten (yet), and there would be a fee if we were to leave him.

Things are a little tight right now, so that was also not an option.

Came home and posted a picture and notice on our local Facebook page.

Now we wait.

This is the most affectionate kitten I have ever met.  The vet was “pretty sure” it was a neutered male..so  until we know differently.  this kitten is a he. 😉

If he isn’t claimed, we’ve already decided to name him Toodles…. after one of the lost boys who used to hang out with Peter Pan.


Toodles the Kitten (if he stays)

“I am a lost boy from Neverland
Usually hanging out with Peter Pan
And when we’re bored we play in the woods
Always on the run from Captain Hook
“Run, run, lost boy,” they say to me,
“Away from all of reality.””

From the song Lost Boys by Ruth B



Another thing that struck me as I re-listened  to this song, was I (DM) have sometimes been called Peter Pan by Mrs DM….think we may need to start calling our place Never-land. 😉

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misty march morning

Stand of timber just west of my parents by my buddy Jim’s


Wood heat.

I grew up with it.

My parents still heat their  farmhouse with wood,  and dad is 84.

I love wood heat.

I love everything that goes along with heating with wood,  the smell of wood chips and chainsaw oil.  Working up a good sweat. The satisfaction of a nicely stacked pile of wood. The sense of security, knowing you have enough wood laid up, for the whole winter…come what may…. and the smell of a hickory fire on a cold fall morning….

I just got back in the house this morning after a brisk one mile walk to the corner…it’s up hill the last 1/2 of the route….  I found myself thinking about that timber just west of my buddy Jim’s and the day he and I cut wood.   We had just a few weeks until the bulldozers  showed up to push all the trees into a pile then burn them.

Oak,  hickory, live trees, dead trees, 20 acres of  mature timber.

Land prices had sky rocketed and suddenly this “worthless” timber, was now worth $500 an acre per year…for corn ground that is.

As Jim and I walked the ground that Saturday morning, trying to decide which trees would be the easiest to get to, I came across a downed bee tree.    Wild honeybees were going in and out of the cracks of this massive old oak.  Jim and I decided to leave well enough along.  There were enough other trees to cut up, we didn’t need to be stirring up a bee hive….literally  😉

Well, that was  three years ago.    Since then, the bottom dropped out of the corn market.  Land is no longer worth $500 an acre to rent….

and that beautiful stand of timber,

it is no longer,  except in my memory.

Makes me wonder if those wild honey bees survived.

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My One Weakness


Farm fresh eggs are my one weakness.

(Ever see Larkrise to Candleford?… remember Doras Lane?)

Like I was just saying..farm fresh eggs are my one weakness…

What’s the point of living on a hundred year old farmstead if you don’t have chickens, right?

Nothing quite as romantic to me as pulling into the driveway and seeing the girls foraging under the apple trees.

Problem is,  they have recently gotten lazy and instead of returning to the nest to lay their eggs, they have started laying them in the most random places, so  when I do find an egg outside the nesting area  I have no idea how old it is.

We quickly went from getting 3 and 4 eggs a day to 1  or two….maybe.

I know I could refire up the “chicken tractor” but that too has it’s own set of issues.

Another problem I started having  with the girls is one of them  has  acquired a taste for farm fresh eggs.  Went to gather eggs, a few weeks ago and all I found were  a few broken pieces of shell and egg yoke.


Since they are not supervised 24/7, I have no way to figure out which of them is doing it.

I have never had much success in breaking the egg eating habit in chickens  once it got started.

About the only thing that works is to  find, then eat the culprit.

Come to think about it, oven baked chicken like my grandma used to make ranks right up there as my one weakness.

When I was younger (12 yrs old )  I would get to stay over night with Grandpa and Grandma every Wednesday night.  We’d moved to the farm by then, and I was still taking piano lessons in town.  Since I’d miss the bus to get home,  Grandpa and Grandma would invite me to spend the night with them. Every week she would fix my favorite meals…Oven fried chicken was at the top of the list..then after supper Louise a widow lady who lived across the street would come over and the four  us would play  pinochle.

To this day, whenever I make grandma’s chicken or home made rye bread I think of her.  Of all the people in the world whom I have ever known, she is one of the few people I know who love me for who I am.

Grandma’s Oven Baked Chicken Recipe:

Dip individual pieces of chicken (either skin on or skin off) in egg wash..

Then coat them with crushed Ritz crackers/ or any crackers for that matter.

Side note:  I will usually grab whatever kind we have on hand, put the whole roll into a gallon plastic bag/ run the rolling pin over it until they are good and pulverized.   I will also add a little bit of seasoning salt to the cracker crumbs in the bag…

Brown the chicken in  frying pan….normally use Olive oil but have also been known to brown in butter or vegetable oil.  (Just a minute or two on each side…not wanting to actually cook the chicken/ just give them a nice looking crust)

Place the browned chicken pieces into a Pyrex bowl with lid or whatever container you like to bake in….Oven is set @ 350..for about 45 minutes.

Bake until tender.

I usually tell anyone who asks, that the chicken didn’t turn out.

That way there are  leftovers.

Wife finally figured me out a few years ago…

it took a while. she is such a kind trusting person 🙂

Now she knows if it really tastes like “you know what”, she better have a taste.



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