Organic Broadcaster

Seasoned growers discuss springtime orchard chores

By Kelli Boylen

Even though the orchard looks dormant in March, the trees need a lot of attention before they blossom in late spring. Pruning, reinforcing tie-downs, monitoring for disease, and making sure equipment is working and supplies are ordered make this a busy time of year for orchardists. Here’s how seasoned growers manage early spring in their orchards.

Anton Ptak, Rachel Henderson (pictured with their son) grow a variety of fruits on their 60-acre farm near Menomonie, Wis. Photo submitted

Anton Ptak and Rachel Henderson
Mary Dirty Face Farm, Menomonie, Wis.
Anton and Rachel grow apples, cherries, plums, pears, apricots, and peaches, along with currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and a half-acre of table grapes. Their 60-acre farm is half wooded. They currently have about five acres planted in perennial fruits with approximately 800 trees. This will be their orchard’s fifth spring.

One thing they’ve learned about caring for orchards in the springtime is that expectations and plans can’t be based entirely on previous years—the timing for tasks varies with the weather.

As soon as the snow is gone, they will go out to the orchard to look things over, making sure each tree is still properly staked and tree guards are still in place. They learned the importance of this monitoring the hard way. In their orchard’s early years, they lost trees because they hadn’t noticed broken ties and the wind blew the trees over when the limbs became heavy with apples.

Because their orchard is fairly young, they are still establishing its infrastructure and need to work on buildings and irrigation systems at this time of year.

“Spring is a balancing act to make sure we don’t lose sight of what all needs to get done,” Anton said.

Now is the time they make sure all their equipment is working, and that they have their spray materials, tree stakes, and insect and disease monitoring plan ready.

Some orchardists begin pruning in the early winter, but Anton likes to wait until the coldest weather of winter is past, usually starting in late February or early March.

Anton likes to keep pruning to a minimum with young trees that have not yet begun to bear fruit, doing only what is necessary to shape the tree. “You want the tree to be able to have as much photosynthesis as possible, so only take off damaged or poorly placed branches,” he said.

With trees that are bearing fruit, pruning is more intensive and is needed to maximize the quality and quantity of marketable fruit. Pruning is something he really enjoys. “It’s an art form,” he said. “There is no ‘correct’ way to do it. You need to have a long-term vision of how the tree will form.”

Anton and Rachel usually start monitoring for disease and pests about April 1, but that date really depends on the spring. They work to keep spraying to a minimum, and, although they are not certified organic, they use the products and sprays allowed in organic production.
Giving the trees what they need nutritionally is important to prevent the stress which makes the trees more susceptible to pests and disease, he explained. “We do nutrient analyses on soil and foliar samples every three years or so. Sprays consist of nutrients (fish, seaweed, and molasses for trace minerals) to feed the plants, biological pesticides for soft-bodied insects including codling moth, and kaolin clay for the yet-to-be-adequately-controlled Plum Curculio.”

Anton and Rachel purchased their first 20 acres in 2009, and visited as many other growers as they could. “We really found everyone was very willing to share their knowledge with us,” Anton said. They also went to conferences, classes and read books to learn everything they could about orchard care.

For the first four years, Anton and Rachel commuted from Minneapolis to their farm on weekends. A year ago, they were able to move to their land, making it easier to monitor their plantings and get pest and disease problems back under control.

While they are not yet able to make a living from their orchard, they hope to eventually. For now, Anton continues his work with a renewable energy development company.

To help new growers get started, Anton recommended talking to other growers in the region who manage similarly sized operations, keeping in mind that every growing site is different—elevation, deer population, density of plantings, etc., all play a role in an orchard’s success. He also cautioned new growers to not get too big too soon, suggesting they only plant the number of trees they can care for properly.

Harry and Jackie Hoch sell fruit and value-added products, such as applesauce and syrups, from their certified organic farm in La Crescent, Minn. Photo submitted

Harry and Jackie Hoch
Hoch Orchard, La Crescent, Minn.
Harry and Jackie Hoch have 40 acres in fruit production, including 24 acres of apples, two acres each of grapes, plums, and raspberries, plus smaller plots with apricots, strawberries, blueberries and cherries. Their farm is certified organic. They rely on natural processes to keep pests in check, using organic sprays to reduce insect pests during natural peaks. They also encourage beneficials by providing bird houses, wild flower plots, diversified ground cover on the orchard floor and pocket ponds for amphibians.

Because their orchard is relatively large and it takes several months to prune, Harry usually
starts pruning in December after the trees go dormant. Once pruning is completed in the spring and the soil is dry enough to not become compacted, he runs a flail mower to chop the pruned branches in place to mulch under the trees.

Harry also starts monitoring for disease this time of year, mainly by evaluating apple scab spore maturity in overwintered scabby leaves. In early May to June, he looks at the spores under a microscope using the squash-mount method. Other control strategies include tracking weather conditions using data loggers and verifying infection periods using a computer model. He uses a liquid lime sulfur spray when necessary.

Harry said proper identification of a pest or disease not only decreases the chance of harming the crop, but it also saves money by not using the wrong spray. Knowing when to spray also decreases the possibility of harming the fruit.

Harry sprays his trees with compost tea post-leafing and pre-bloom. “The tea gives the trees a boost,” he explained. “It puts beneficial non-pathogenic organisms on the leaves. When pathogens come, they have to compete with the good things already living on the leaves. Pesticides and fungicides can’t provide this type of beneficial competition.”
The Hochs also plant in the spring, taking care of the soil before they ever plant an area. “We start out with a cover crop and then work to establish perennial grasses and clovers before planting,” Harry explained. “We also make sure the area has a proper grade, and we compost in the area to increase biological activity. We focus on the soil biology more than the soil chemistry.”

Spring planting at Hoch Orchard can vary greatly due to the amount of moisture in their clay/ loam soil. “We’ve planted in March and we’ve planted in May, depending on that year’s weather.”

In spring, the Hochs also bring out the cultivator to work up the soil under the drip lines of the trees. “This helps prevent competition with sod-forming grasses and keeps the trees feeder roots in the rich soil near the surface instead of going down too deep to where the soil isn’t as fertile,” Harry explained. He cultivates under the younger trees up to three more times during the growing seasons. He lets annual grasses grow under the established trees in the summer, since they can compete better with the weeds, and just runs a mower under those trees.

Harry advises new growers to learn as much as they can about pest and disease as they do about the fruit they are trying to grow. “Join a grower’s group or other organization, attend field days and read grower blogs—see what others are doing and learn from them,” he recommended. “And, remember to avoid ‘silver bullets.’ If someone says ‘All you need to do is…’ it is probably too good to be true.”

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer with an agricultural background. She lives with her family on a homestead in Iowa.

From the March | April 2015 Issue

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Orchard Help

A section on the MOSES website offers resources and educational materials for orchardists.

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