Autumn rolls on here at Threefold Farm. Many of the leaves are off the trees but we've yet to have a serious frost. Che fruits and Asian persimmons are still ripening along with, oddly enough, the primocane blackberries (Prime-Ark 45). Normally I think the blackberries would be finishing up right now, but they got a rather late start and are young plants. The fall colors of many of the fruit trees would make them a great addition to many a back yard. Add to that the delicious fruit and it's a great combination. Among the most beautiful are the persimmons (red/orange), blueberries (purple/red), pawpaws (yellow), and pomegranate (yellow). Check out ours below!
Since about mid-March I've been working at McLeaf's Orchard down in Adams County, PA, just north of Gettysburg. It's a beautiful part of the state with rolling green hills covered in fruit trees. I've enjoyed coming through the spring up into summer and on into fall seeing the crops come in and out of season. It's been a great summer for growing with regular rains and not-so-hot temperatures. I thought I'd share a little of what I've learned while realizing that there's quite a bit I need to learn.
Consider your market
McLeaf's Orchard sells a good portion of their fruits and vegetables through a number of markets in the Washington, DC area. Corey McLeaf has been doing markets for over 5 years and has a pretty good handle on what's worked and what hasn't. It's interesting to hear him talk about the habits of their customer and what goes into planning what will go to market each week. He keeps a log book of what is taken to market each week and what sold. Based on that, his knowledge of that particular market and what's coming into season allows him to plan for each subsequent week.
I have learned that diversity in what you sell is important at market: you need to offer a compelling alternative to the varieties of fruits and vegetables commonly seen at the grocery store. In addition to the grocery store staples, McCleaf’s grows a good number of heirloom tomatoes as well as a number of different leafy greens. In recent years they’ve branched out into small fruits to supplement the normal apples and stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines). Hardy kiwi (kiwiberries), raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries now find a place on their display tables and help draw customers. They’ve found that if, for instance, it's blueberry season and you don't have blueberries, people won't come to your booth and sales of your other produce (as good as it may be) will suffer. Even in the common crops, diversity is important. McCleaf’s grows some 30+ kinds of apples, including a pink-fleshed Pink Pearl and English-favorite Cox Orange Pippin. When it's Honey Crisp or Fuji apple season, folks might pick up an extra apple or three of an interesting but lesser-known variety.
Know your crop
I have learned that most fruit trees grow a little better if I know something about the conditions in which they thrive. Before I plant a fruit tree, I try to do a bit of research to determine if it grows well in our climate and whether I’m willing to do any maintenance required to get fruit off the tree. For instance, apples and stone fruit trees will grow in our south-central PA climate. However here in the northeast (and in many other parts of the country), it's difficult for these trees to produce marketable fruit without spraying them a good amount.
So I ask myself these questions: What kind of soil does this tree like? What kind of nutrition does the tree require? Will I need to supplement irrigation or is the natural yearly rainfall sufficient? Will spraying be required to produce marketable (or at least edible) fruit? Will it hold up to our winters? How about our summers? How much direct sunlight does the tree require and how much does my yard receive?
Manage your land
So much goes into planning the layout of a garden and orchard and I feel as though I'm just starting to get a grasp on the different concerns. Differing soil types, prevailing wind direction, windbreaks, slope and drainage (for both water and air), accessibility (from vehicles or people), aesthetics, proper plant spacing, pest considerations, beneficial and pollinator habitat, and irrigation design, to name a few, all play an important role in determining the layout of an orchard. At Threefold Farm we hope to create a space where all of these factors (and probably more) play a role in the design.
Bring in the beneficials and pollinators
Pests and diseases seem to be an ever-present threat in an orchard. My experience at a commercial orchard has me thinking a lot about the role of beneficial insects and pollinators in a garden, be it large or small. At Threefold Farm we'd like to avoid, if possible, the use of synthetic fungicides and pesticides wherever possible. We'd like to think that the best way to address these issues are through the design of a space which takes into consideration ways to naturally reduce pest pressure as well as take into consideration attracting beneficial insects and having a significant population of pollinating insects. Since pests and diseases are such a big concern, look for this to be a big part of the planning we do in the design of our future orchard.
Grow the soil
We've found that paying a little bit of attention to the soil pays off greatly. Great soil grows healthy, productive plants. As we plan our orchard, special attention will be given to growing the soil that will support healthy, productive plants. What might that look like? Perhaps a larger-scale compost production area, the introduction of nitrogen-fixing plants into the orchard plan, nitrogen fixers on the orchard floor, and the use of cover cropping to build up the soil prior to planting.
In my more sane moments I take a forest-level view of what we’re trying to accomplish and think, “Gosh, we’ve really gotten in over our heads, haven’t we?”. Getting into a field we weren’t educated in, planning and planting long-lived perennial crops, and developing a plan to care for it all: crazy. Then I think about the God we serve and the ways in which he constantly equips us to do what he’s called us to, and I breathe a bit.
I know it’ll entail a lot of work and continual learning, but that’s the fun part, right? In my prior field of software engineering the best developers constantly learn from others, tinker, and try new things in order to get better at building great software. Why should farming be any different? We’re excited to have the opportunity to constantly learn and grow and make a million mistakes along the way (okay, maybe not so excited about that last part).
To sum it up
It’s been quite a ride working for a commercial fruit orchard. I’ve learned probably way more than I now realize and it’s been a great experience. Look for one more update before my internship ends at the end of the growing season! In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from McCleaf's!
If you're coming to us today through George Weigel's Gardening Q&A article on figs, welcome! We're a young family starting up a u-pick orchard and fruit tree nursery in Mechanicsburg, PA. Learn a little more about our family and the purpose of our farm. To keep up with us you can join our email distribution list by using the Subscribe section on this page or Contact Us with questions. Check us out on Facebook as well!
Are you interested in growing your own figs? We sell figs trees (along with other fruit trees) starting each May until we sell out. Check out our list of varieties, then Contact Us if you'd like to be notified as soon as trees are available next Spring! Check out our article (a how-to of sorts) on how to grow fig trees in our climate.
Do you have a fig tree in your yard that's been part of your family for as long as you can remember? Did you inherit a fig tree and don't know what variety it is? We collect and propagate varieties local to south central PA and would love to learn about your tree and get some cuttings! Please Contact Us and let us know about your tree.
This is our first in a series of articles on growing low-maintenance fruits in your garden. Intimidated by fruit trees? Don't be! There are low-maintenance fruits available for almost any-sized yard and garden.
What is low-maintenance?
Very few fruiting plants will thrive on no care at all. Most all will grow a little better if you give them some attention. We strive to grow plants here that require little care. What is “low-maintenance” for us? We’ve listed out some of the most desirable qualities below. For a plant to be low-maintenance it needs to satisfy the majority of these qualities in addition to being tasty to eat.
Little to no spraying
We’d prefer not to have to spray our fruit at all. It’s extra work and we’d like to avoid handling the chemicals that are often involved. If a fruit requires spray in order to produce edible (not perfect) fruit, then we’ll look for spray options from natural sources or those approved for organic production.
Well-suited to the growing climate
If a tree can’t survive our harsh winters and sometimes hot summers or needs more than our annual rainfall total it’s probably not a good pick. We have our orchard on drip irrigation to get it established and supplement during dry spells.
Besides some light pruning or training and a topdress of mulch and/or compost, low-maintenance fruits should do little to add to the yearly garden chore list. Most all fruits will benefit from or require some pruning and training for the best production.
'Cuz they're delicious! Okay, so you may only be familiar with figs in the Newton form or dried. Don't get me wrong, those are quite good, but there's nothing quite like a fresh fig right off your tree.
Figs are one of the easiest care fruits that we grow here at Threefold Farm. They have very few fruit pests and diseases, are self-fruitful, very drought-resistant once established, fruit early in their life (sometimes the very first year!), are long-lived, deer (and other pests) rarely bother them, and they're very easy to propagate from cuttings or layering.
There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of figs to choose from (we grow over 50 types here) with flavors ranging from berry to melon to honey and everything in between.
While we eat the majority of our figs fresh, there are a number of uses for them:
Fresh - Right off the tree is the best. Unlike some other fruits, figs don't ripen off the tree and must be used within a few days of being picked. This is why you'll see a little clamshell of 6 figs in the grocery store for crazy prices. We eat ours the day we pick them. If they're picked a little early you can often get away with leaving them on the counter to mature just a little overnight.
Dried - Figs can be sundried or dried using a food dehydrator. We're looking forward to a decent harvest this year and are hoping to dry a few.
Preserves - Fig preserves are a southern favorite. Since a mature tree can easily produce hundreds of figs, preserves provide a way to enjoy them all year.
Fig/Nut Cakes - Another way to preserve figs is to form them into a fig/nut cake. Check out this to see how one is made.
Types and Classifications
Most fig trees you'll for sale see fall into this category. These are varieties that do not require pollination in order to set fruit. Since the pollinating insect, the fig wasp, will only survive in certain parts of the country, most varieties that are grown will produce figs without any pollination (parthenocarpy).
A few varieties of figs fall into the San Pedro family. Those in this family will set a breba crop without pollination but the main crop requires pollination. We grow a San Pedro fig called Desert King that sets a very tasty breba crop but would require pollination for the main crop.
Smyrna figs require pollination by caprifigs in order to set fruit. Since we do not have fig wasps here or caprifigs, we don't grow these varieties.
Figs are typically classified by color: light and dark. Dark figs are those that mature to a darker brown, violet, or almost black color on the outside. Light figs mature and turn a variety of colors including green, yellow, and tan-ish. Really, there's a pretty wide spectrum of external colors and some may not fit neatly into light and dark classifications.
The internal color of figs can vary widely as well and does not necessarily depend on or match outside color. All shades of red, honey, amber, and yellow can be found. Dark figs tend to have darker interiors but there are a number of figs that mature to green on the outside and have a dark red interior.
Mature figs range in size from about quarter-sized to over a quarter pound. They can be round or elongated with a short neck or no neck at all, depending on the variety and crop. Smaller figs tend to pack a lot of flavor into a small package but some larger varieties have good flavor as well.
Fruiting - Breba and Main Crops
Figs are unique in that they'll set fruit on both new and old wood.
Figs formed from fruiting buds formed on the previous season's growth are called breba figs. Some varieties are known for setting a good tasting breba crop while we're told that in other cases it's best just to discard them. The breba crop tends to be lighter in number than the main crop, but the figs themselves tend to be larger in size. Some varieties don’t set a breba crop at all.
Figs formed on new growth are considered the main crop. A fig has the potential to form at every leaf axil (the point where the leaf meets the stem) alongside a vegetative bud. Occasionally two figs will form at a leaf axil.
In south-central Pennsylvania, figs begin to ripen in early to mid August and continue to fruit all of the way up until frost. Like many other fruits, different varieties of figs take differing amounts of time to mature. Early-maturing varieties are best for the shorter and cooler growing seasons of the northeast, but it's good to have a few varieties that mature later if you're looking to extend your harvest season.
Figs require full sun in order to produce a good crop. The plants love the heat and tend to grow the fastest when the temps are in the 80s and low 90s with warm nights. Pick the sunniest, warmest spot in your yard when planting a new fig tree.
Once established, figs require very little water. However in their first year, all plants appreciate regular watering to aid in establishment and growth. Since we've setup drip irrigation, we water our figs regularly and they seem to enjoy the extra water during our warmer months.
Subtropical figs in ground in the northeast, are you kidding? It can be done! Nearly all of our fig trees survived the harsh 2014 winter with -5F temps and several weeks where the temps never hit the freezing mark. Some of these trees have even come back and will produce a crop later this summer! Zone 6 is probably just about the northernmost limit for growing figs in-ground.
For the first year following spring planting, we fertilized our in-ground figs and top-dressed them with granular limestone. Figs enjoy soil that is nearly neutral in pH. If you have a limestone-based soil, that's perfect. Otherwise, top-dressing with limestone can help bring the pH back to near-neutral levels. If you live in a region where the soil is fairly acidic then you may be better off with potted culture.
We also heavily mulch our figs. This aids in tempering the soil temperature swings, conserves soil moisture, and helps protect the trunks of the tree from harsh winter temperatures. We don't mind if the mulch is against the trunks of the tree since figs will readily root into it, just don't get the mulch too high!
Speaking of trunks, figs in the northeast, and even in the warmer south, are typically trained more into a bush-form than the natural tree-form. This is done so that if one trunk would happen to die, there are others to potentially replace it.
If you're growing in ground in the northeast, you'll likely want to consider protecting any in-ground figs. Figs are a subtropical plant that is fairly hardy but borderline for our zone 6b/7a climate. Winter protection is certainly recommended in the northeast and can be the difference between a dead tree and a live one if we experience a harsh winter. In our climate, protection is put in around Thanksgiving and removed at the end of March. In general you want to apply any protection before the nighttime temps dip into the low 20s and teens, and remove the protection when the nighttime temps are staying above the mid 20s.
There are (at least) three ways of winter-protecting your in-ground fig tree: heavy mulch, wrapping, and burying
Heavy Mulch - Around Thanksgiving we drive our garden cart or take a wheelbarrow and deliver mulch to each of our 80 in-ground trees. We pile mulch around the main trunks anywhere from 6" to 1' deep. That's it. We started doing this since we have so many trees to protect and want a method that's fast and effective. The only issue we've seen with this method, and only this past harsh winter, was girdling of a few trees by mice. This damage could occur with other methods as well. In the spring, all we do is pull the mulch away from the trunks where we can use it to mulch the remainder of the plant or other plants in the orchard.
Wrapping - Old-timers would take whatever material happened to be available (and that wouldn't lead to rot), tie up the trunks and stems into a bundle, and wrap the entire tree like a Christmas present for the winter. This method tends to work really well and preserves even the uppermost limbs and stems. The reason we don't pursue this here is simply due to time. It takes a long time to go through the process and you have the additional hassle of storing the wrapping materials until they're used again. There are a number of good articles and videos online detailing the wrapping process so we won’t go into it here.
Burying - Areas in zone 6a and lower would likely benefit from burying their trees for the winter. Why bury the tree? In areas with extremely cold winters, the top (branches) of the tree will never survive the cold, no matter how much you wrap or mulch it. Figs that die back to the ground (with just a few exceptions) have a very hard time fruiting the same year that they die back. Burying becomes the only option whereby the top of the tree can survive to go on to fruit the following summer. I won’t go into the practice here but a simple search will reveal some best practices for doing so.
Many growers in our part of the country elect to grow their figs exclusively in pots. This is a really good option and is certainly worth considering if your winters are too harsh or you don’t want the hassles of winter protection of in-ground trees. If you can get a few things right, growing a potted fig tree can be almost as carefree as in-ground growing. We’ve found the keys to success boil down to three things: good growing media, regular and consistent watering, and adequate maintenance.
Good Growing Media
For all of our figs, we use our own potting mix as it’s much more economical than the big-box store potting mixes. If you’d prefer to use a pre-made mix, get something that drains well, has good nutrient content (figs can be heavy feeders) and will hold up over a couple seasons. The problem with most big-box potting mixes is that they are meant to hold up for a year, max. Any longer and they break down and tend to not drain as well.
In terms of a container for the growing media, we’ve used a variety of containers. We’ve recently switched to using Root Pouches almost exclusively because they pack down really well and are much more economical when purchasing 15 or 25 gallon pots. Your mature fig tree will easily grow to take up a 15 or 25 gallon pot but can be kept at that size by a combination of tree and root pruning. Ceramic pots are an option too and can help provide better aeration, but be warned that they’ll dry out more quickly (meaning more waterings) than a plastic pot. If you do grow your tree in a decorative ceramic pot, be sure that it it’s shaped to allow you to extract the tree from the pot every 2-3 years for freshening up the soil and some root pruning.
Regular and Consistent Watering
Potted trees need more regular watering because they’re a closed environment (meaning the roots can’t seek out water) and they tend to be a warmer growing environment than in-ground growing. This extra heat can be good for the figs if they’re given sufficient water. All of our trees are on a drip irrigation system and are watered 3-4x a day for several minutes (7-10 mins) per watering. Our figs respond to this with excellent, vigorous growth. If you’re watering by hand, be advised that during the hottest parts of the summer you may need to water as much as twice a day. In general, a single good soaking, where water begins to seep out the drainage holes of your pots, is better than several sprinklings of water, where the water never really penetrates more than the top 1-2” of the soil.
If you’re growing figs in a pot, you’ll want to make sure you properly store, prune and repot your tree.
Storage is necessary during the winter when temperatures outside will threaten your tree. We like to take our figs into storage when nighttime temps drop into the low 20s. That’s typically sometime in November here, but it could be earlier. An unheated garage works well for storage, provided the temps in the garage don’t drop much below freezing (slightly above would be best). Figs don’t need light during dormancy so don’t be concerned if the garage doesn’t have any windows. Check the soil in the pot every month or so during the winter and give it a some water if the soil begins to feel dry. Trees don’t use much water during dormancy but still use some, plus the lower humidity of the winter may work to dry out the pot (moreso in a ceramic or otherwise porous pot).
We are fortunate enough here to have access to a cold cellar during the winter in which to place our potted trees. The cold cellar stays above freezing and maintains a high level of humidity so the trees really don’t need to be watered during their winter siesta.
Regardless of where they’re overwintered, we take our trees out of storage when the nighttime low temps in the spring stay in the mid to upper 20s. The trees will begin the process of waking up and should be placed in the sun. If a really cold night is forecast, simply pull your tree back into the garage or protected area for the evening, especially if it’s started to push out little leaves.
Finally, figs will need to be pruned and repotted every so often. Pruning isn’t difficult and with figs is done to shape the tree and promote light and heat getting in to the fruit to help to ripen it. Since figs grow vigorously under good conditions it becomes necessary to pot it up or repot it every so often. If you have a small tree, you may find that it becomes root-bound in its pot just halfway through the growing season. Potting up simply involves pulling the tree out of its current pot, teasing out some of the roots, and sticking it in a new, larger pot with more soil. Around here, we pot up from 4x4x9 treepots to 3 gallons then 15 gallon pots on up to a final pot size of 25 gallons. The transition from treepot to 3 gallon pot is usually over the course of the first growing season. By the beginning of the second growing season the tree has outgrown its pot and is ready for a 15 gallon pot. A tree can likely remain in a 15 gallon pot for a 2-3 years before moving up to 25 gallons unless the growth is just tremendous. If your growth is not as vigorous on the top of the tree then you may pot up slower.
Once the tree has reached its final pot size, repotting it every 2-3 years becomes necessary to freshen up the soil and cut away any matted or circling roots. Repotting and up-potting are typically best done when the tree is dormant in early Spring so it has some time to recover prior to pushing out leaves. When cutting away roots I always try to cut back the top (branches) of the tree in proportion to the top to keep the root and shoot growth in balance, so it’s a good idea to do your pruning along with repotting (and heck, use those cuttings to start more trees!). Fill the remaining space in the container with fresh new media and compost any old stuff that was cut away.
Figs are ready to eat when they’re droopy, soft, squishy (that’s a technical term), and pull off the tree with little resistance.
An immature fig will hang upright until it begins to ripen. Over the course of a few days to a week it’ll begin to change color (except in the case of “white” figs), get larger, droop, and soften. In general, if you’ve picked a fig and the place where its stem attached to the tree bleeds latex sap, then you’ve picked it a little too early. Leaving it on the tree a little longer will increase its flavor and sweetness dramatically.
Increasing production - pinching
In the northeast our summers are fairly short and not necessarily all that warm. Due to this, figs can be late to start to form on the new growth and therefore ripen too late to get a harvest. One strategy to coerce figs into forming earlier is a technique called pinching.
Pinching is accomplished by pinching off (with your fingers or pruning shears) the growing tip of a fig branch. This will cause the tree to form buds to branch out from lower leaves as well as (often) to form fruit earlier than it otherwise would have. Since figs typically take a certain number of days to ripen, the earlier the figs start to form, the earlier they’ll ripen. Pinching of the terminal bud is typically done later in the first flush of growth, after the 5th leaf is formed on a branch. From our limited experience it seems to work especially well on potted figs that suffer little to no winter dieback (due to storage). We’ve had success on our in-ground figs as well, but those that have died back to the ground seem more interested in putting on vegetative growth than setting figs.
Speeding up ripening - oiling
So it’s mid to late September and you still don’t have ripe figs. There are plenty sitting there on the branches, seemingly doing nothing. And to top it off, you’re about to have an Indian summer week. These are the perfect conditions for an old technique called oiling.
Oiling involves putting a little coating of oil (we’ve used olive oil) around the eye of the fig (that’s the little hole opposite the stem). Using a cotton ball soaked in olive oil, we’ve tried this technique before when the temperatures are forecast to be in the high 70s and 80s and dry during mid to late September. Within a few days you should see a color change in the fig and see it begin to start to ripen.
This can only be done on figs that are fairly close to maturity (not really little ones that’ve just started forming). I’ve heard it said that figs ripened this way aren’t as tasty as those ripened without oiling, but I’ve certainly still enjoyed them.
Pests and Diseases
Fig trees in general are relatively pest and disease-free. I’ve seen a little summer tip damage due to Japanese Beetles, but nothing to be concerned about. Deer and other critters don’t seem to bother the trees due to their latex sap. The worst damage I’ve seen from deer is from their horns, and that was a pretty isolated incident.
In the deep south of the United States fig rust is a problem, but I typically haven’t seen it here unless it’s hitched a ride on a tree purchased from a southern source. Our winters here are enough to kill any overwintering rust spores.
Like most trees, figs prefer to be planted in a nice loamy soil with a near neutral pH. However we have less than ideal topsoil here with shale underneath. We plant our figs a little deeper (2-4”) than they were grown in their pots as they’ll readily shoot out roots from their branches. When planting we topdress with granular limestone (to neutralize the pH) and fertilizer. Figs (and most other trees) benefit from a little topdressed fertilizer/compost the first couple of years but then seem to do just fine on their own. We keep our trees very well mulched to help conserve soil moisture and will continue to topdress with granular limestone and new mulch every few years to keep soil conditions ideal.
Adequate water is very important for at least the first year to get the plant established. Our trees are on automated drip irrigation so they get regular doses of water, but you can provide the same by watering the trees on a regular basis and never allowing the soil to dry out. A good mulch can really help conserve soil moisture and reduce water stress on a young tree.
Recommended Varieties for the Northeast
- Malta Black
- Dark Portuguese
- LSU Improved Celeste
- Tacoma Violet
- Black Greek
- Ronde de Bordeaux - may have a tendency to split
- Marseilles Black VS
- Papa John
- Hardy Chicago
(All of the above in-ground recommendations plus…)
- Desert King (early breba crop only)
- Adriatic JH
- Nero 600M
- Kathleen Black
- LSU O’Rourke
- Lyndhurst White
- Celeste (may have a tendency to drop figs)
Stay tuned! This list will be ever evolving and changing as we find varieties that work well in our climate.
A friend was over the other day touring the farm and noticed the maze of black tubing that comprises our drip irrigation valves at the orchard entrance.
"That looks complicated" he remarked.
"You know, it's not really as complicated as it looks", I chuckled, "Did you ever play with Legos as a kid?"
"Yea of course"
"Well, if you can put together a Lego set you can certainly put together a drip irrigation system"
"Do they make drip irrigation systems out of Legos?"
If you have a small garden or just a few raised beds you may be asking, why even bother? I'd almost tend to agree. If you're just maintaining a small area part of the fun of watering the garden every day may be in seeing how things are growing. Kat and I started out with just a simple raised bed on the side of our first home and part of the fun was coming home from work, watering the garden and seeing how much things grew.
But let's say you've moved on to a larger plot and watering during the hot summer months becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. Taking some time to setup a simple drip irrigation system will pay for itself time-wise in short order.
Why else? Drip irrigation can help reduce water-related foliar diseases by watering right at the roots. In addition, drip irrigation (versus irrigating overhead) applies the water right where the plant needs it: at the roots, so there's less waste.
Properly done and with just a little maintenance, a drip irrigation system can last you many seasons and save you oodles (yes, oodles!) of time.
When I first started setting up my own drip irrigation system, my first question was about getting the right parts. Thankfully, many sites sell starter kits for various types of installations: potted plants, garden beds, vegetable beds, greenhouses, and more. It takes the guess work out of an initial setup.
In addition, many online retailers, knowing that this can be tricky topic, have setup tutorials to help the first-time user get a grasp on the fundamentals. See a few links below for some great articles and tips to get started.
See DripIrrigation.com’s articles on drip irrigation http://www.dripirrigation.com/articles
Take a look at DripDepot.com’s education section: http://www.dripdepot.com/education
Starter kits along with tutorials were a great help in understanding all of the pieces that need to be in place for a system to work properly. With this knowledge in hand, I ordered my first drip system kit and then added other parts I thought I'd need based on the number and type of plants I was trying to irrigate. Did I get everything right? Nope. But the good thing is that irrigation parts are typically pretty inexpensive so you typically won't break the bank. Plus, it's good to have any extra unused parts around in case you expand your system in the future.
Irrigation at Threefold Farm
At our current Threefold Farm location, we're fortunate to be on a good well that supplies 3-4 GPM (gallons per minute) at the hose spigot. Not a huge flow by any means but sufficient to water a pretty large areas at a time with drip emitters. We've divided our system into several zones that come on at set times throughout the day. Since this well also provides water for our house, we have these turn on mostly during the night when we're not using water in the house.
Here's what our zones look like:
|Zone||Duration||Every Day Start Time||MWF Start Time|
|Zone 1 (Main Vegetables||15 mins||9 AM, 4 PM|
|Zone 2 (Orchard Vegetables)||20 mins||9:30 PM, 4:30 PM|
|Zone 3 (Figs West #1)||25 mins||2:30 AM|
|Zone 4 (Figs West #2)||25 mins||3:00 AM|
|Zone 5 (Figs East)||25 mins||3:30 AM|
|Zone 6 (Orchard West)||25 mins||4:00 AM|
|Zone 7 (Orchard East)||25 mins||4:30 AM|
|Zone 8 (2014 New Plantings)||25 mins||5:00 AM|
|Zone 9 (Nursery Area)||8 mins||8 AM, 1 PM, 5 PM|
|Zone 10 (Berries)||25 mins||5:30 AM|
|Zone 11 (Japanese Maples)||25 mins||6:00 AM|
We've used a variety of different types of drip emitters for different applications over the years. Some we've come to use through trial and error, others come about through seeing what different nurseries and orchard use and trying out the same here. It seems that every year we learn a little something new or come across a type of emitter we haven't tried before and decide to give it a go. Here's how we handle the various types of drip irrigation we have setup here.
For potted plants
For smaller potted plants (< 2 gallons) we rely on drip stakes and button drip emitters. The setup is simple and allows us to accommodate very small pots on up to 2 gallon pots. We do this by placing a 2 GPH pressure-compensating drip emitter on our 1/2" supply line, then split it either 2 ways or 4 ways. For the smaller pots we use the lines split 4 ways, for the larger pots we use the 2-way split lines and sometimes stick 2 emitters in one pot.
For larger potted plants we exclusively use product called Spot Spitter. These are very economical (less expensive than the drip stakes when you factor in the button emitter and splitter) and do an excellent job with larger pots: 2 gallons on up to 50 gallons. They could even be used on larger pots but I'm thinking you might want more than one spot-spitter per pot. Spot spitters are rated by the GPH that they output and the type of spray that they put out (narrow versus wide).
Both of these types of emitters have worked really well through multiple seasons and even sit out in our cold winter weather with no adverse effects, though they'd probably last longer if I stored them in a sheltered location for the winter.
For raised beds & vegetable beds
In our vegetable beds we've gone through a couple different types of drip emitters. Starting out we used soaker hoses. These are 1/2" hoses that "weep": water drips out along the entire length. These worked well when we had just a few beds, but became somewhat impractical for larger-scale watering. In addition, the hoses put out a lot of water, so it would have been impossible to water a larger number of beds at a time with this approach.
We’ve now switched to using ¼” dripline. This flexible tubing has drip emitters inserted at various spacing with various flows. We’ve found that for what we’re growing, the 6” spacing of 0.5 GPH drippers works well. If you’re exclusively growing larger crops, 12” or even 18” spacing may work well for you. We rotate crops in and out of our beds so we wanted a universal spacing, and 6” seems to work well.
Dripline (as well as drip tape) is also available in ½” diameters and would be good for long rows of crops. We prefer to use ¼” because it’s more flexible. Dripline is used in more permanent installations while drip tape is typically replaced every season.
One thing to note is the length of the ¼” dripline runs. With 6” spacing @ 0.5GPH our runs of dripline off of the main ½” line are limited to about 30’. Any more than 30’ and you’d begin to see a dropoff in drip output as the line simply can’t handle the water output. 30’ works well for our 4x12 beds and we can lay out the tubing quickly and easily to accommodate whatever is planted.
For orchard or fixed-distance plantings
In an orchard or other tree-row planting simplicity and cost are major factors. Runs of dripline can be in the hundreds of feet. Tree rows are typically kept mulched or left as bare ground to reduce competition and give the tree the advantage over groundcovers. If some dripline is hit by a tractor you want repair to be simple and cost-effective. Therefore I’d recommend using ½” dripline for watering. Depending on the length of run, available water pressure, tree spacing, and the needs of the particular tree you’re growing, drip emitter spacing ranges from 12” all the way up to 48”. We don’t employ any ½” dripline for tree crops here, but I’ve seen it used in commercial orchards for a variety of trees and bushes planted in long rows.
For mixed plantings of trees, shrubs, and other plants
A typical garden bed is likely to have a mix of flowers, trees, and shrubs. In our own orchard, the same zone might water some larger trees along with a few bushes laid out in rows.
For trees our current emitter of choice is the adjustable bubbler. When the tree is small the bubbler can be dialed way down to just a trickle. Once the tree is larger the bubbler can be opened up (if you’ve got the pressure!) to soak a larger area and account for the increased water needs of the tree.
In a mixed planting, try to plan out the run of your main irrigation line and account for the different types of plants beforehand. For instance, one of our irrigation runs consists of mostly trees but also a few blueberry bushes laid out in rows. For the trees I went with adjustable bubblers then branched off the main line to run ¼” dripline (6” spacing, 0.5GPH) to the blueberries. For a commercial orchard this type of mix and match (read: haphazard) approach may not be a good idea, but it works well in our small orchard.
All of our watering would not be possible without the use of individual watering zones. We simply don't have enough water pressure to water everything at once. Zones are a way to split up the plants you water into groupings. See our zone spreadsheet above for an example of how we’ve split up ours. Have a lot of plants and not sure how to split up your zones? Do some simple math before laying out your irrigation setup to determine how much water you want to put out to each plant over the time that you irrigate.
Example: Our well produces about 4 GPM or 240 GPH. Therefore in ideal conditions I can run 240, 1 GPH drip emitters off of a single watering zone. Or I could also run 120, 2 GPH emitters off of the same zone. Or approximately 240’ of ¼” dripline (assuming 6” spacing @ 0.5GPH). Adjustable bubblers throw a wrench into the mix but make some estimates assuming the bubblers will be halfway open (most give a range of output in their specs). The lower the output of the drip emitters you choose the more emitters you can have in a particular zone, but be aware that lower output emitters will cover a small amount of ground versus wetting a larger area with a higher output emitter.
Watering is one of the most critical factors in establishing new plantings. In order to make things easy on ourselves all of our watering is set to run automatically on a schedule. How is this done? Well, we currently have this setup through battery-powered hose-end timers. These timers are built to run on a user-defined schedule all growing-season long on a single 9V battery.
How do they work? Pretty well. Our timers typically last us 2 years since they sit exposed in the sun all summer and are exposed to storms and rainy weather. They’ve been reliable enough to keep our potted plants alive and thriving through a few seasons, though we have had them quit on us mid-season. They’re easy to program and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of watering schedules: 3x a day for the potted plants, 2x a day for the vegetables, a few times a week for the trees and bushes.
I’d recommend watering everything really well and pretty frequently the first year, then backing off in subsequent years as the plants become more and more established. Regular watering will help the plant to grow to producing size more quickly and reduce stress on the plant. Fruit will also tend to be larger. We start off with watering 3-4x a week then will back off to 2x a week once things are established.
Centralized control & remote triggering
In the future, we plan to ditch battery-operated timers for a centrally controlled system. There are irrigation controllers now that can be controlled over the internet and via mobile devices. It should be rather simple to convert our existing system to a centrally-controlled one in the future. Look for another article if we do!
All of our plants love the regular watering they receive via drip irrigation and the plants respond with tremendous growth. For our potted plants, this means that they also want a lot of nutrients or they start to yellow. We try as much as possible to incorporate necessary nutrients into the soil mix but sometimes it doesn’t keep up with growth. Enter fertigation (fertilizing + irrigation).
Fertigation allows you to fertilize your plants while you irrigate. By using water soluble fertilizer and a fertilizer injector, a small amount of fertilizer can be added to the water so that the plants are fed and watered at the same time. Currently we fertigate just our potted plants because it’s a controlled environment and the plants can’t seek out nutrients as easily as they might in the ground. Water soluble fertilizers are available with both organic and conventional options.
Do you have irrigation setup on your garden? Got any advice to share? Let us know in the comments!