The old apple and pear orchards got a big nod of approval from an expert organic orchardist this month.
On a windy May 11 more than two dozen people came to McCollum Orchards for a Field Day called “The Thorough Orchardist – Planningfor Success with Tree Fruit.” It was organized by the Northeast OrganicFarming Association-NY as a technical consultation for us Journeyperson participants and open to all those interested in learning about planning, planting and caring for organic orchards. We hosted it and gave a brief introduction to the farm and our vision. The main speaker was an expert orchardist, Mike Biltonen, from Red Jacket Orchards in Genesee, which offers delicious tasting fruit juices and has almost 10 acres certified organic of its 600 acre commercial orchards.
Bracing against a chilly breeze with hot coffee and brownies, we crowded onto the loading dock of the 100-year-old apple packing shed – a fitting place to talk about orcharding. We covered three main topics:
- Land preparations needed for a successful orchard
- Growing requirements of apples and pears (and other tree fruits well-suited to the area)
- Organic management considerations, financial expectations for tree fruit crops
These issues are at the top of our minds as we plan out the 5-10 acres of fruit trees for the u-pick section. After clearing the final 8 acres this spring, we are at the stage of preparing the soil. Mike explained that, as with other perennial plants, it is much easier to minimize weeds and amend the soil before planting your crop. He recommended ordering hardy rootstock and disease-resistant tree varieties, preferably semi-dwarf or standard as opposed to full dwarfed varieties, which are less hardy. Orchards should be in north-south rows to maximize sunlight.
Pests and diseases came up often during the discussion. The list of insects and diseases for tree fruits is not long, but worth studying to know their insect life cycles and when to expect certain types of pests, such as coddling moths, apple maggots, etc. The typical organic spray is copper.
Some orchardists are moving toward holistic methods to disrupt the insect life cycle with pheromones or use other methods like trap trees and adding beneficial insects for more of a balancing act than total control. Aspects of holistic orcharding appeal to us for a couple reasons. Namely, the old trees are simply too tall to spray effectively and we think the trees could be healthy and productive with the right holistic management.
In searching for resources for organic orcharding, apparently, you just have to know who to ask. Mike passed around a chart of disease-resistant rankings of apples that he and other organic growers have been working on for a few years. The Holistic Orchard Network, run by the author Michael Phillips, has a lot of good information and an active forum. They also have a seasonal orchard checklist, which is helpful for busy growers to stay on top of tasks.
Other issues we covered for First Year Orchard Considerations included groundcover, irrigation and fencing and the costs for orchard start-up. We got the recommendation to move away from the conventional orchard grass as a ground cover and toward a diverse group that includes wildflowers to attract pollinators and field radishes if we are concerned about soil compaction. Luckily we plan to plant the cutting flowers between the pears, so that will work out well.
The most fun was when we all trooped out into the orchards and got some hands-on demonstration by Mike on pruning and pest scouting. Now, we have worked hard to bring back the overgrown orchards. But, we know that they are not the prettiest trees. Some are rotted out in the middle. We were prepared for critique. So, our jaws hit the floor when, while looking at the apple orchard, Mike said it looks like a very healthy orchard. Even though it is overgrown, he is excited about the trees’ potential! The unique variety, Northern Spy, is very appealing and has steady demand. With some more care over the next 3-5 years, we could get an estimated 3,000 bushels from the trees!
Once we picked our jaws up off the ground, we listened to Mike’s recommendations intently. Turns out that we are pruning them too aggressively. Instead of removing all the smaller branches, we should focus on opening up the upper canopy to let through more light to the lower branches and then start training some of the lower shoots to become branches. These will produce fruit in a few years. Training them will give us more low and mid-range bearing surface. So, less work for us in the spring time (but more work harvesting in the fall!) To train the new shoots, we can simply bend them to a 45 degree angle when they are still young and flexible and tie them to the trunk with twine and secured with a nail. If we are worried about the hollowed out branches breaking off, there is no reason we cannot just prop them with posts.
It felt great to know that we are on the right track with the trees. The recommendations we received make us more prepared to both bring back the old orchards and plant new orchards, too. Seeing the orchards’ future reminded me of the century-old year old banyan tree in Hawaii, that covers 200 square feet. Or the 150-year-old orange tree in California that has been moved twice from flooding. Or the original Red Delicious apple tree in Peru, Iowa, originally called the Hawkeye, that was cut down several times and kept re-sprouting. In this time of such tragedy in Oklahoma and uncertainty everywhere, being amongst some trees that keep giving despite a harsh climate is a small way to feel some peace and resilience.