Delaware Valley College plants for the future, opening a new, educational orchard

May 07, 2012

When 650 fruit trees were planted in April on DelVal’s Doylestown campus a new generation began. Students will now be able to walk down the rows and see the science of tree fruit production, the differences between three different planting systems and the results of using three types of rootstock.


“Delaware Valley College has a long history in hands-on learning as an integral part of education.  This learning by doing approach began 116 years ago when the college began teaching ‘science with practice,” said Russell Redding, dean of agriculture and environmental sciences. “The new orchard honors this approach to teaching and learning.”

The orchard is designed with education in mind. The goal is to provide students with the opportunity to study cost differences, the volume of fruit produced by each system, and the differences in the fruit produced by each planting system.

“The new orchard will expose students to management techniques for contemporary fruit production,” said Dr. Steve DeBroux, co-chair of the college’s Natural Resources and Biosystems Management department. “We’re redoubling our efforts, so students get the very latest in agriculture science…we’re in the planning stages for big, positive changes in plant production. This new orchard is just one example of that.”

Associate Professor of Horticulture Dr. Jacqueline Ricotta said the main users of the orchard will be DelVal’s Commercial Fruit Production and Advanced Pomology classes. She said the college’s Integrated Pest Management course might also use the orchard.

"The new orchard will provide just a wonderful opportunity for experiential learning of tree fruit production in the most up-to-date methods,” said Dr. Ricotta. “It will enable students to see fruit production in all stages, from bloom to harvest, and obtain critical orchard management skills.”

There are four types of peach and three varieties of apple in the new orchard.

Each variety was grafted onto three types of rootstock, M9, B9 and M7. B9 is the most dwarf, M9 is medium-sized, and M7 produces a freestanding tree that is the largest of the three.

The planting systems in the orchard include: Tall-spindle, Central-leader, and Vertical-axis.

The first system, Tall-spindle is a modern, high yield system because of the amount of trees that can be packed into an acre. It is the quickest to fruit; in this case it could yield fruit as soon as fall 2013, but the most expensive to plant because of the costs of the additional trees and the trellising system that supports them.

Tall-spindle trees have a straight central trunk. The side branches are removed after they fruit, so the tree is in a constant state of renewal with no permanent side branches.

The orchard also includes the more common, traditional Central-leader system, which has larger trees and the least number per acre. Trees in this method do not require a trellis for support.  The Central-leader is the lowest cost of the three to plant and has the lowest yield per acre.

The last system, the Vertical-axis, requires a little more time to bear fruit than Tall-spindle and is the second most dense of the three per acre. The trees are grown in a way that is similar to the Tall-spindle, but with some permanent lower branches. The trees become narrow at the top and wide at the bottom like a Christmas tree. The yield per acre isn’t as high as with the Tall-spindle, but the costs of planting this system are less, because the system uses fewer trees.

DelVal alumnus, Doug Christie, who has extensive experience and knowledge about orchards, manages the college’s farmland. He previously managed Five Spruce Farms, a 398-acre property with orchards that was gifted to the college by The Warwick Foundation.


He saw an opportunity to use his life experiences to help establish a new orchard for the next generation and provide students with opportunities for hands-on learning.

“We’re in the education business,” said Christie. “The new orchard allows us to demonstrate the latest production techniques so students can experience firsthand the benefits of each system and make up their own minds about which system is best for them.”

Christie, working with faculty and students, collaborated with Dr. Win Cowgill, a DelVal alumnus and a Rutgers University fruit specialist, to plant the orchard.

The orchard will use trickle irrigation, which was developed in Israel by farmers who needed to grow food in desert conditions. This type of watering system conserves water by just putting the water on the roots, where it is needed.

With income from the fresh market apple, the unprocessed apple that the consumer eats, becoming more appealing for local growers to produce than the processing apple, some local growers are switching up the way they plant to a more dense system and a more visually appealing apple.

“It will be a chance for the students to work in a high density orchard and see how different trees and production systems work,” said Christie of the new trees. “If a student is not going to start his own orchard, he’ll probably work for a commercial or family orchard. Most commercial orchards are moving toward these high density systems.”


Dr. Steve DeBroux, co-chair of the college’s Natural Resources and Biosytems Management department, wants students to come away from DelVal with a strong foundation in the business side of the industry, since this component is critical to keeping the family farm alive.

“This is what makes agriculture such an exciting industry – it requires a deep understanding of science, marketing and business,” said Dean Redding.  “Students will see all of these aspects and more when they step into the classroom and the orchard.”

When the new trees produce fruit, they will be used for pick-your-own through the DelVal Farm Market. Interested visitors will be able to walk down the rows and learn a lot from observing the systems while enjoying a day at the orchard.