Nomadic Orchard




Introduction: Nomadic Orchard

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

A portable life support system for fruit trees. Giant self-watering planters.
The trees can be moved anywhere with a forklift or a truck.
A 70 gallon water tank under the tree wicks moisture up to the tree's roots as needed.
Rain water and sunshine are free. Fruit trees are free. Dirt and boxes are free. You do the math.

The big plastic tubs used here are "macro bins" the winemakers next door gave me.
They are about four feet square. Seen here with a fig tree and a fruiting cherry.

The Tree Dolly was used for transplanting and A-Frame for heavy lifting.
Here's the A-Frame transplant method without tree boxes, just into the ground.
Many thanks to Dad, Rachel, James, and others!

Step 1: How Does It Work?

A wooden platform supports most of the dirt above the level of the water.
Along two sides of the platform the dirt extends down to the bottom of the water tank
This wet dirt acts as a wick to raise water up into the rest of the dirt, where the tree's roots can get to it. I call any similar arrangement with rags or dirt a "Pot Wick" or "Potwick". It's fun to say.
There's a 2" overflow hole in the side of the tank at about the 70 gallon mark.
That keeps the water level from getting too high and drowning the roots of the tree. A plant's roots need both air and water.

Tool Box for Thought:
"Soil Mechanics" is the name of the science that studies the interaction between particles and moisture. The "Wetting Angle" is the angle of a water droplet where the meniscus contacts a solid material. The lower that angle the greater affinity the water has for the solid. A very hydrophilic material with a very low wetting angle will have no water droplets on it. The water just sheets out.
"Pore Size" is how large a void is in the soil.
Capillary Action occurs where the attractive affinity at the contact line of the Meniscus exceeds the weight of the water below the meniscus. The water is magically lifted against the force of gravity.
Wetting Angle and Pore Size together tell you how high and how fast the water will move through your dirt.
The particle size distribution determines the pore size distribution.
The pore size distribution determines which pores will contain air and which contain water. Like a sponge, the small pores will contain water and the large ones, air.
Since the roots need both air and water, a jumbled up arrangement of pores is great, so both air and water get to all parts of the root system.
Agitation and pressure compacts the dirt and eliminates large pores. That suffocates the roots two ways. By making a denser mass of dirt between the roots and the sky, and by making smaller pores that wick more water.

Step 2: Wooden Platform

I grabbed some shipping pallets to make the platform. I didn't use any pallets with the IPPC (International Plant Protection Confusion) mark. Those have been fumigated or given other treatments that I didn't have time to investigate. I used mostly white oak pallets, they're pretty rot resistant. I'd like it to last five years or so. I used galvanized nails mostly.
I cut one pallet down to the size I wanted, removed the bottom boards, and filled in the gaps in the top with boards ripped from other pallets. The new pallets were easy to pull the nails from. For the rusty nails I ground the heads off and pulled the boards off that way. Otherwise the rusty nails broke the boards too much while removing them.

I added legs, side boards, and cut a big hole for the refill pipe.

Step 3: Platform Installed in Tank

There's a 6" or so gap along each side of the platform for the dirt wick trenches.

Hoisting ropes run under the platform. Those ropes hang over the sides of the box while filling with dirt, and get tucked under the mulch after that. When it comes time to re-plant the tree those ropes will make the job a lot easier.

Step 4: Pipe and Lining Installed

The refill pipe allows refilling the tank without disturbing the dirt or washing nutrients out of it. A cap on this pipe will prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the water tank.
The dirt extends down to the bottom of the water tank along two sides of the platform.
This side trench dirt acts as a wick to raise water as needed up into the rest of the dirt, where the tree's roots can get to it.
The cotton tarp and cardboard keep dirt from falling into the water and also act as additional water raising wicks. By the time they rot away the dirt will have been stabilized by roots, worms, and other critters.
The wooden platform with legs supports the dirt and tree just above the level of the water.

Step 5: Raised Sides

The macro bin isn't quite tall enough for trees as big as we're getting, so Rachel helps build raised sides. The posts are 4x4 from big pallets used to ship sheet metal. The side boards are a mix of pallet wood and construction scrap 2x4 and 2x6 lumber.

Step 6: Go Dig Up a Tree

My dad and I got a fig tree and a bearing cherry tree from James in Fremont.
He's making room for an addition to his house. We used the Tree Dolly and A-Frame. It was a lot of work but satisfying.

Step 7: Plant the Tree

You're tired, stupid, and ready to make big mistakes. The sight of your tree's leaves wilting makes you want to hurry.
If you use a forklift, remember they're really dangerous, especially for high lifts like this.
The higher your forklift raises something, the less weight it can safely lift. You learned this in forklift class.
Take the time to do it right, and recruit help from the Ben Hur temp agency if you have to.
After you have the tree planted is the wrong time to decide it's rotated the wrong way, or you should have mixed something else with the soil.

Step 8: Got It Made in the Shade!

Move your trees into a shady spot to rest for a while. The plant is confused and distressed.
The last thing it needs is to be on the sun's anvil right away.
We dug up these trees after they were waking up, it would have been better to do it in the winter when they were asleep. But that's life in wartime! When the free tree needs to move, you've got to move it!

Step 9: Happy Nomadic Fruit Trees

So there they are taking it easy in the shade of a building. I mulched them heavily to keep the top of the soil from drying out, and threw some smashed eggshells in that in case the pine mulch was acidic. Caps on the refill pipes keep mosquitoes from breeding in the water tank.

Be the First to Share


    • Mason Jar Speed Challenge

      Mason Jar Speed Challenge
    • Pumpkin Challenge

      Pumpkin Challenge
    • Bikes Challenge

      Bikes Challenge

    10 Discussions


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Are they blooming now? Did you get fruit last year? : )


    9 years ago on Introduction

    When I moved into my house (which I bought) I assumed I could just plant trees and be happy. That was until I found my neighborhood had fruit robbers in the form of bugs, critters and lawn care 'professionals' that came back after seeing my fruit ready to harvest.

    I had put most of my trees that needed chilling time in the front yard which has no fence. That is the northern side of the house. I will attempt to put all my peaches and plums into barrels cut in half longwise (thanks for the info, Redhead) so they will have more 'toe' room and the other robbed trees (figs) into the plastic barrels cut in half from top to bottom. Then use the transporting methods in your other instructables to move them from the cold side into the protected back side AFTER THE FRUIT is set.

    Let the dogs out into the back yard every time they hear anything and I may actually get a decent harvest one year. I think I need to cut them back so they are smaller trees but I will educate myself more before taking this task on. I look forward to NOT SHARING my hard work, fruit and large watering bill with the thieves. <3


    10 years ago on Introduction

    i'm not sure i agree with angry redhead - in my experience, it's possible to grow trees, even fruit trees, for years.  decades, if necessary.  with root trimming you'll be able to even use the same containers though it will take a small army to lift a tree out of that box.  with proper care, adequate dirt changes, fertilization, and watering  you'll create a stunted tree but nonetheless full of fruit.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Based on what I've learned about growing fruit trees in containers, I have a few concerns with this for anyone wanting to maintain fruit trees in containers permanently especially on this scale:

    Root pruning must be done every 1-5 years which is why most container grown trees won't require a forklift - it's too much effort.  From what you said in one of your steps, it sounds like you plan on repotting these trees to even larger containers once they've outgrown these which is very ambitious - soon you'll need to be a crane operator.  Plus there's no knowing what sort of damage the tree roots could inflict on the tank and supports.

    Tree selection for growing in containers is also very important.  Some trees such as peaches and plums are such vigorous growers that they don't make good candidates for growing in a container.  Figs are slow and can be easily maintained to remain dwarf in size.  Citrus are also popular trees to grow in containers.  I'm not too sure about cherries, but I suspect they aren't a good candidate.

    Keeping the soil consistently moist for fruit trees might not be the best idea especially for the trees that come from areas with very sandy/rocky soils.  It might work really well for certain fruiting plants like tomatoes which need consistently moist soil to prevent blossom end rot, but I'm not sure about trees and bushes especially the ones native to the Mediterranean/Middle East.

    And because not everyone lives in California, there's what to do when it comes to overwintering plants since hardiness is based on the tree being in the ground and how that might affect ever increasing pot sizes or root ball pruning which wasn't mentioned.

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Both these trees grew in the heavy east bay flats black clay, in a garden that was irrigated, so these roots are used to being kept wet all the time. It was interesting digging them out, The top few inches of soil was mulched and very loose, then a region of lots of roots for a couple of feet, and about two feet down the nearly undisturbed wet black clay soil and very few roots.

    I was given a couple of root bound potted citrus trees that have stopped fruiting.

    I'll take your advice and thin their roots a lot before re-planting them in bigger pots.
    Thanks for the tip! I'll let you know how it goes


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Tree roots tend to spread out rather than down.  Most tree roots can be found in the top 18" of soil which is why it's very important to dig the tree out as wide as you possibly can rather than as deep as you can.

    Girdling can certainly be a problem with trees which is why it's very important to inspect the roots of trees, and girdling can cause the decline/demise of a tree if not attended to properly.  If it's been in the pot for a long time, it might need a soil refresh and some root pruning.

    If you want something that'll blow your mind, look at this.  It's only 13 cm tall and has 16 crabapples (by my count).  That's a crazy amount of production for something so itty bitty, but bonsai requires lots of limb and root pruning.  I have a hunch bonsai techniques could be applied to larger potted fruit trees, but the fruit trees would have to have root balls that could be feasibly trimmed without resorting to butchery.  Maybe 10 gallons or so.

    10 years ago on Introduction

    That's an amazing idea. Ive always wanted to plant myself some fruit trees, I've had vegetable gardens for years, but have also moved frequently so I've never bothered with fruit trees. Can you tell me how large you would expect a tree planted this way to get, and also how would you transport it, in the back of a large flatbed stood upright or some other way?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I don't know how big these particular trees would get, they were in the ground 5 years when I dug them up. That would make them 8 years or so old right now? Both trees have been crowned, so that would limit their height.
    I'd load them on and off a truck with a ramp or an a-frame crane, or with a forklift if I had one at either end. A trailer would work well also, loading the same way.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I just planted two tall sprouted purple potatoes I grew last year the same way. The biggest problem with the bucket I use is the top gets tons of water and the bottom gets none, and it's not that deep of a bucket. I will have to give this a shot. Nice instructable!