A teaching and demonstration orchard

Story and Photos by Jeff Wilson, Ph.D.

In the northern part of Mississippi, situated on the grounds of the North MS Research and Extension Center in Verona, lies a beautiful teaching and demonstration orchard and vineyard. As it heads into the growing season, this garden has already provided gardeners with numerous hands-on educational opportunities. Today I want to tell you about how this orchard was implemented and the opportunities it will provide in the future. 

Rabbiteye blueberry varieties

Funding for this project was provided by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Preparation began in the fall of 2015 by selecting a site that received full sun and was on a slightly rolling hill. Next, the soil was tested to determine nutritional requirements as well as soil type. The weeds were removed and plant rows were laid out. The area was determined to have fair drainage and was amended accordingly using composted pine bark. The trees and berries were installed in March 2016 by the horticulture team at NMREC.

The rows of this orchard were laid out in an east-west direction, with the tallest trees being placed on the northernmost rows. This pattern was used to best fit with the natural slope of the land. The southernmost rows were reserved for blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), blackberry (Rubus spp.), raspberry (Rubus idaeus), and muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) plants. The rows north of that were planted with apple (Malus spp.), pear (Pyrus spp.), peach (Prunus persica), plum (Prunus domestica), persimmon (Diospyros spp.), and pecan (Carya illinoinensis) trees. Planting the taller plants on the north side prevents any shading of the smaller growing crops. 

Blueberry summer pruning demo

Of these 10 different plant types, 44 different cultivars are being grown. Multiple cultivars allow for the observation of different plants that have not yet been proven successful in our region. These also allow multiple educational methods to be demonstrated to commercial growers as well as the home gardeners. 

Non-traditional trellises are being used for the blackberry, raspberry, grape and muscadine plants. This allows us to decide if less expensive methods will work for trellising. Multiple methods of irrigation have been installed to conserve water and place it directly at the base of the plants. 

The goal of this orchard is to grow fruit and nut crops in north Mississippi with the fewest inputs possible. The orchard is not certified organic, but we only treat with chemical products when absolutely necessary. Two methods used to achieve this are proper plant selection and weekly scouting. Plant materials were selected because of their known disease resistance and their ability to grow in this region. 

This peach tree was recently pruned.

Plants have been lost due to various reasons. For example, leaves never emerged on two pecan trees the first year. These plants could have damage by a freeze or may not have been healthy upon arrival. We lost all of the raspberry plants due to the high temperatures of our summer months. They will be replanted to try again, but high success rates are not expected for this plant in Mississippi. A couple of other plants were lost to physical damage (aka string trimmer). 

Pruning demonstrations have been held during both the winter and the summer, along with harvesting demonstrations. These sessions have educated extension agents, commercial growers, and homeowners with hands-on activities. We hope to continue these educational programs for many years to come. 

For information on upcoming events at NMREC, follow North Mississippi Horticulture on Facebook and @MSUPlantMan on Twitter.

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