Branching Out: The Farmer as Arborist
WHAT A WONDROUS EXPRESSION of life trees are. Beyond their own existence, there are all the life-enhancing qualities they provide for other species—food, shelter, shade, clean air, protection from wind and rain, carbon sequestration and erosion control. A world without trees is hard to imagine.
Ninety-nine percent of the labor on our farm goes to growing vegetables and herbs for market, but every two or three years we’ve been unable to resist the urge to plant a few trees.
Thanks to our past efforts, today there are about 80 fruit- and nut-bearing trees scattered around the farm, including apples, peaches, persimmons, quince, pawpaw, chestnut and butternut, as well as an assortment of noncommercial trees like willows, spruce and red maples. We do not spray any of them with chemicals or use synthetic fertilizer. Thanks to a long spell of surprisingly congenial weather, 2015 was a banner year for apples in the Hudson Valley. There were no periods of extreme drought, no excessive rains, no widespread windstorms or devastating hail. In the first weeks of May, all our fruit-bearing trees produced a massive and uncommon profusion of blossoms—what commercial growers refer to as a “snowball bloom.” The second half of the month was warm and dry— ideal conditions for pollination and a resulting heavy fruit set. June brought welcome rains, while a dry July and August kept pests and disease pressure down. September brought more rain, which allowed developing fruit to put on size. Temperatures in October were mostly benign. All in all, it was a recipe for success.
That’s not to say that management practices are irrelevant—on the contrary, there are plenty of factors that can influence the harvest. If you’ve got a hankerin’ to “grow your own,” here are some very basic pointers for the beginning grower of apple trees.
Selecting an apple variety
There are several factors to consider when choosing which apple variety to plant: when the fruit ripens (early, mid- or late fall); flavor (sweet, tart or somewhere between); texture (crisp, tender, juicy); best use (fresh eating, baking, salads, sauce); storage life; and resistance to disease. Tree nurseries and their catalogs eagerly tout the attributes of the various cultivars they offer. Personally, I like a little tartness, and we give high marks to varieties that have a moderate storage life and some resistance to common apple diseases. Liberty, Freedom and MacFree are three varieties we like, especially for their disease resistance.
Most apple trees are not self-pollinating, nor will they pollinate the flowers of other trees of the same variety. This means you must plant at least two different apple varieties that flower at roughly the same time. Otherwise you’ll have a meager fruit set, or possibly no fruit set at all.
Standard trees are the ones our parents and grandparents knew, though they are not as common as they used to be. A standard apple tree can grow to be 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide and, if it remains healthy, it will bear a tremendous amount of fruit over a long period of time—but you have to wait at least seven years for the first fruit to appear. Standard trees are challenging to manage: They must be pruned, thinned and sprayed (if you choose to spray). Also, you need a long ladder or good tree-climbing skills to harvest apples from standard trees, which invites more opportunities for accidents.
At the other end of the spectrum are dwarf trees. These generally reach a height and width of just 8 to 10 feet. They are relatively easy to manage, require less pruning and can bear fruit just three years after planting. Because of their diminutive size, harvesting the fruit also is easy. Commercial growers increasingly favor the dwarfs because of their manageability and rapid maturity. On the down side, dwarf trees bear fewer fruit than standard trees, and they are not as sturdy or well-grounded. They should be staked so they don’t get uprooted and blown over in strong winds or when carrying a heavy fruit load.
Semi-dwarf trees are just what you might expect—in between dwarfs and standards. They reach a height of between 12 and 15 feet, generally bear fruit three or four years after planting and require a bit more work to manage. They are sturdier and better rooted than dwarfs; once mature, they will yield twice as much fruit as dwarfs but about half what a standard tree will bear. A tall person can access most of the fruit on a semi-dwarf without a ladder.
We have all three tree sizes on our farm. We like our standard trees for their beauty, longevity and heavy fruit set. We appreciate the lower management requirements of the dwarfs. At the end of the day, though, we find semi-dwarf trees to be the best choice.
Soil and location
It’s a good idea to have your soil tested before planting any tree or vegetable. Apple trees prefer relatively deep and well-drained soil with a pH ideally between 6.2 and 6.8. A few rocks, even big ones, are not a problem. Adjust the pH of your soil with any of the major nutrients like phosphorous, potassium, calcium or nitrogen. Most trees like at least six hours of full sun a day; apples can tolerate a little bit of shade, but too much will definitely hamper their growth and fecundity. (For more information on soil testing and pH adjustment, see “The Dirt on Dirt” in The Valley Table 65, Spring 2014.)
Apples and most other fruit trees are not grown from seed—if they were, they would not grow “true to type.” Instead, they are propagated by grafting a scion (a stem, with leaf buds) of one tree onto the rootstock of another. It’s very important that the grafting point (identified by a bump, offset angle or change in bark color near the base of the trunk) is positioned at least two to three inches above soil level when planting an apple tree.
The best time to plant apple trees is in the spring after the ground is fully thawed and drained of excess water. Plant your trees promptly after they arrive from the nursery. The roots should be moist (soak them in water overnight if they are dry); any damaged roots should be trimmed. Dig a hole big enough to accommodate the roots without having to fold any of them, and rough up the sides of the hole with a pick or hoe so they are not smooth or glazed. As you place the tree roots in the hole, spread the topsoil over them and tamp it down with your foot or a heavy blunt object to get rid of any air pockets. Throw some mature compost into the hole if you have any, along with any amendments recommended by a soil test. The subsoil from the lower depths of the hole should go back into the hole last.
Once your tree is in the ground, it will need plenty of water to set its roots into the soil. Give it at least five to ten gallons over a period of several minutes; a week later give it another good soaking.
Pruning and thinning
Unless you have purchased a pre-pruned tree (recognizable by cut branches), it’s important to prune back some of the side branches immediately after planting. This stimulates growth in the other limbs and restores balance between the tree’s above-ground and belowground parts. (Tree roots are traumatized and damaged when they are dug up at the nursery; cutting back some of the lower branches reduces the nutrient demand and allows the roots to re-establish themselves.) As the trees grow, further pruning during dormant periods is highly recommended—most backyard orchardists tend to prune too little rather than too much. The objectives are to remove damaged and dead branches; to improve structural strength, access and productivity; to reduce congestion; and to allow more light to reach a tree’s center. Lopping shears, hand pruners, a small bow saw and a good ladder are the tools of the trade. Guidelines for different approaches to pruning can be found in nursery catalogs, books and online.
Once the trees start bearing, thinning (removing excess fruit) should be done ruthlessly. In a good year, a dwarf or semidwarf apple tree might produce up to 500 fruits. If left alone, a fair number will usually drop off in June (the “June drop”), but there will likely be so many still remaining that, at maturity, the average fruit will be not much bigger than an apricot. Non-organic commercial growers use chemical thinners (usually caustic materials or hormonal-type growth regulators) to induce more of the small apples to drop. Fewer fruit left on the trees means those remaining will be larger and of better quality.
Usually, the only recourse organic growers or those who don’t want to induce further fruit drop with chemicals is to thin by hand. This is done soon after the June drop, when the apples are about an inch in diameter. The recommendations are that only one fruit (preferably the biggest) be left in a cluster and that there be no less than four inches between those that remain. A thorough thinning could result in the removal, via pinching or snipping, of 80 percent of a tree’s fruit (no small task).
As spring approaches, think about planting some apple trees in your backyard. It’s a commitment, for sure, but one that will pay off over time, give delight and good eating, and make you feel more connected to the earth we live on.