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Fruit Trees in High Elevations / Cold Places

Posts: 522
Location: Sierra Nevadas, CA 6400'
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Hey All —

I recently became owner of a fairly large old cow camp in the High Sierras (6400'). One of my dreams in life is having a small Apple orchard, probably mostly for cider production. Of course I'd love all kinds of tree fruits, but one thing at a time. I'm trying to use this summer for observation, measurement, planning, and experimentation. One place I'm falling short is understanding the constraints around growing fruit trees, and how to tackle them with earthworks/etc. I met with the woman who leads up the Ag Extension office, and unfortunately it was fairly unproductive. She advises primarily from software that depends on extensive soil pit analysis (common in the foothills), and kind of refused to believe our situation was as it was (mostly she did not believe we had the soil depth we do). Her advice on the topic was "impossible." Which I kind of took to mean I'm on the right track.

Anyways, what I'm trying to understand are what are going to be the hardest challenges, and general advice on the topic (I'd appreciate any book recc's!). I refuse to believe that with the combination of rootstock, variety, earthworks, and good old fashioned trial & error I can't get a couple dozen trees living happily in the High Sierras. California just does not get that cold.

About the location:

There are a few meadows on the property, with a 20 acre primary meadow I'd like to experiment with (well, a small chunk of it). There is one full-time creek that meanders through the meadow and a half dozen seasonal creeks that flow as long as there's snow to melt above. The meadow is sandwiched between a cliff face that goes up about 1000' in elevation and a smaller hill that's on our property that rises about 300' from the meadow floor. The meadow sweeps gently downhill along about a mile toward a larger creek bordering our property. The soil is slightly acidic, with about 8-10' of fairly rock free uncompacted soil until you hit a clay layer (see attachment). As you get closer to the hill it gets more and more rocky until it's too difficult to dig with hand tools. Areas of the meadow turn into a skunk cabbage bog around some of the seasonal creeks, but it seems like a good chunk of it sees decent drainage throughout the year. During the summers the whole meadow explodes with daisies, lupin, and hundreds of other flowers I can't identify.

Unfortunately, I don't have good data on temperature in the area yet. I'm setting up some temperature sensors / weather stations, but it'll be a year or two before I get a good picture. USDA maps claim the area is 7a/7b, but I would suspect the reality is something a little lower. In the winter, the meadow fills in with about 5' of snow (with a couple 10' drifts) blowing off the mountain adjacent. The temperature usually hovers around mid 40s during the day and close/below freezing at night. A _really_ cold storm in the Sierras is usually around 8-10˚F, usually in January/February. But we haven't had one of those in at least 5 years as The Blob wreaks its havoc on our cold fronts. We are also on the Western slope, so tend to get warmer storms as the mountain wave action pushes the air higher and higher toward the Crest. Summers are mild with occasional thunderstorms. While there's usually snow on the ground into May/June, Spring usually hits mid-march with a lot of snow, but warm daytime temps (50-60˚), and storm temps above freezing or just barely below. Freezing temps usually return by late October / November. That being said, weather is weather… and in high elevations things can get wacky.

From my own research, it seems to me the big challenges of growing fruit trees up here will be:

  • Deer / Bears
  • Late frosts
  • Cold air sinks
  • Lower number of growing degree days

  • So… now what I'm trying to get a handle on are the things I'm missing or underestimating. Do Apples warrant building sunscoops and placing boulders for warmth? How bad and late of a frost does it take to wreck a crop of cold hearty apples? What kind of rootstocks and varieties should I look into (eating & cider)? I will likely be experimenting with all these things, but with the long lead times for apples I'm feeling a little less confident on my usual guess & check method here.

    I'd also appreciate just about any advice or thoughts you might have on growies given the conditions. I won't be able to keep animals (winter access is via snowshoe/snowmobile and will not be a full time residence for the near future). But I would like to grow just about anything I can and maybe a few things I can't in the meantime.

    PS — I'd just like to add how useful and enjoyable this forum has been for me. I've had a casual interest in permaculture for a few years, and after reading Sepp Holtzer's Permaculture last year I've been hooked, and now spend far too much time reading ancient threads here. I hope to lurk less and share more once I get some progress on some of my projects!
    [Thumbnail for 1-(1).jpg]
    Soil profile where creek has dug in
    [Thumbnail for 1-(2).jpg]
    Meadow / skunk cabbage
    [Thumbnail for 1-(3).jpg]
    Wintertime meadow
    Posts: 5717
    Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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    Sounds like a great place to grow fruit trees.

    I recommend that you do some observation of your local area this summer. Notice what your neighbors are growing, or what's growing wild, and plant similar things. They'll do fine.

    Posts: 4694
    Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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    Howdy Kyle, sounds like you are going to have a great adventure! I took a look at this wiki page and it looks like you have lots of local plants to look for or to introduce. Take some of these plants and then research domesticated plants that may thrive in the same conditions. I am at 7800 ft in Wyoming and have lots of wild fruits. You will need to protect any small fruit trees from deer, elk and moose.
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