Montana is known for a short growing season but also micro-climates that make each site unique. Understanding how to assess a property for its unique growing conditions is an important aspect of selecting land for orchard production.
An ideal site is characterized southern or eastern exposure, sloping terrain to provide cold air drainage, well-drained soil and proximity to dependable water for irrigation. The orchard should also be located in an area that can be protected from wildlife.
Climate, weather and terrain
Climate and terrain greatly influence important factors in the development of quality fruit. Apples require a minimum of 1000 chilling hours, 8-10 hours of sunlight a day and at least 100 frost-free days to bloom and produce mature fruit. In addition, late frosts at crucial stages of bud development can wipe out a crop.
The climate of a site can be evaluated on a macro scale by locating the nearest Agrimet station and reviewing historical weather data to get an idea of max/min temperature, precipitation, occurrence and timing of late season frosts and other weather related information influencing plant growth and development. In addition, the Montana Climate Office provides maps displaying degree-day, precipitation, and growing season information. However, these tools should not be the primary factor in determining a suitable location, as they offer a more regional rather than a localized climate assessment.
Historical plantings can also provide useful perspective on suitable orchard sites. This map illustrates over 70 heritage fruit orchards (with trees >75 years old) throughout Montana along with the present research sites, overlaid on Montana ecoregions and land resource units (LRUs) per NRCS. Note that historic orchards are concentrated in the west, southwest, and west central LRUs (as of 2020, there are commercial orchards present in all of these LRUs).
To more accurately assess the climate and potential weather challenges of a particular site, one must look at the specific site in relation to the surrounding area. Ideally orchards are located on south- or east-facing 4-8% slopes. Depressions in the landscape or barriers to air movement, including windbreaks, are locations for potential frost pockets. Narrow valleys and sites situated at the mouths of canyons can also be cooler than surrounding land and often windy. In windy locations, particularly east of the divide, consider planting shelterbelts with attention to cold air movement.
The type of vegetation present can also reveal information about the site's attributes. For example, your might find sage brush and bunch grasses if the site drains water quickly and receives adequate sun, or conversely, you might find moss, ferns, and sedges in an area that is moist and cool much of the year. If possible, observe the potential site throughout the year to determine the ideal location for an orchard based on amounts of sunlight, water, and air movement. Also consider the potential for severe weather events—such as hail—particularly in Eastern Montana.
The NRCS's Web Soil Survey can provide an important first glance at a property's soil resource and basic terrain. It will provide information on soil texture, depth, drainage and water holding capacity, among other attributes. In addition local soils should be examined digging pits to determine soil depth and changes in texture. Use a soil probe (available at most Extension Offices) to collect samples for laboratory analyses including pH, organic matter, micro and macro nutrients, and texture. Depending on the test and laboratory, most analyses cost approximately $25.00 for results, with an additional charge for recommendations. When choosing a lab, consider if the lab specifically tests orchard soils and provides recommendations for apples. Contact the lab directly or visit their website to obtain protocols for sampling.
Water and irrigation sources
With annual precipitation often below 14 inches, irrigation is a necessity in any Montana orchard. When determining if a site is suitable for your orchard, determine whether the local water source is adequate for irrigation. Apple trees generally need 20 in (1.7 ac-ft) of water per year, meaning that watering from a well with a 10 ac-ft volume limit will provide enough water for a five acre orchard under normal growing conditions. On properties where a well or irrigation pump exists, an understanding of the available pressure will provide an understanding of what type of irrigation system can be installed. Drip systems can operate at 8-10 psi and sprinklers at 10-20 psi; however, this does not account for friction loss or change in slope from the water source. Growers should understand their water rights—both from irrigation ditches and wells—prior to purchasing any property or sizing their orchard. For more information on water rights contact the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. More information on irrigating orchards in Montana and the west can be found on our orchard irrigation page.
Weeds and unwanted vegetation can be difficult to control. Particularly challenging are perennial weeds such as Canada thistle, quack grass, and field bindweed. Even alfalfa can be a competitive foe to young trees. Knowing what weed pressure exists and developing a plan prior to orchard establishment is an important part of assessing a site for orchard suitability. Your county Weed District or Extension Office can be a helpful resource in identifying weeds and other vegetation that might interfere with tree establishment. You can also find resources for identifying mature weeds through the Montana Weed Control Council. The MSU Weed Seedling Identification Guide is a great identification resource for growers who are assessing properties in the spring, when many weeds are immature.
Past land use
Past land uses can influence soil quality, the most obvious example being soil disturbance from construction. A less obvious issue is past use of residual herbicides used in pastures where grazing has occurred. Residual herbicides including aminopyralid, aminocyclopyralid, clopyralid, and picloram are commonly used in Montana pastures to control noxious weeds. These chemicals provide long-term control of weeds and are not harmful to grazing animals, however they can persist in soils and animal manures for years. Some signs that further analysis should be conducted to determine if residual herbicides are present include a lack of broadleaf plants, a history of the land being used for pasture and grazing, and stockpiled manure. If there is any doubt, a bioassay can be conducted to determine if herbicides are present. Bioassays are the preferred form of testing, as labratory analysis can cost hundreds of dollars and some plant thresholds for toxicity are below detectable limits for the equipment used. For more information on avoiding residual herbicide contamination and conducting a bioassay, refer to MSU's How to Prevent Non-target Injury of Broadleaf Crops and Vegetables by Residual Herbicides.
The microclimates of Montana's mountainous terrain make any landscape-scale tools difficult to apply to a specific area. The best assessments are done on the ground throughout the year to identify issues like frost pockets, pooling water, unwanted vegetation, and other attributes influenced by climate, terrain, and past uses.