Training Trees

As leaves fall in our orchard, the structure of tree branches starts to emerge from under its leafy coat. Soon the orchard will look like the picture above. We spend a lot of time in the winter, spring, and summer coaxing trees into their optimal form.

Every tree is tied to a metal stake to keep the trunk upright and to prevent the tree from blowing over in storms.

This picture from spring shows a newly planted tree with a plastic bag fastened over part of the trunk. This creates a greenhouse-like condition and encourages branches in that section of trunk to grow, which avoids undesirable bare, branchless sections. We remove the bag after several weeks, when branches have started to grow.

Here’s another trick we use to encourage branches to develop on the tree trunk. The picture shows the trunk of a very young tree. The bud in the picture might develop into a branch, or it might stay dormant. We’ve cut a notch in the bark above the bud. The notch will heal over in time, but meanwhile the cut disrupts the flow of plant hormones in the stem and encourage the bud to develop into a new branch. (The bud “perceives” that the entire trunk above it has been cut off and “thinks” it needs to grow to save the tree.)

Once branches have started to grow, we use twine, wire, and metal limb spreaders like the one shown here to force the branches into a more horizontal position.  Relatively horizontal branches grow less, but produce more fruit.

All of which helps to produce more of these:

Spreading mulch

In the past two months I have been spreading bark mulch underneath the trees in our orchard as time permits.  The mulch suppresses weeds that would compete with our trees, it protects the soil from erosion, and it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. 

We buy mulch every year from local sawmills; the bark is a by-product produced as the mills saw lumber for furniture, cabinetry, and flooring.

In March of 2014, at the end of the polar vortex winter, when it was still cold outside but tolerably warm in the shop, our neighbor Lynn, our longtime employee Emily, and I built a wagon to haul mulch to the orchard. 

I purchased white oak lumber from a local sawyer for the wagon.  Our generous neighbor Lynn, a retired farmer and jack of all trades who has lived on this road all his life, thought everything about the wagon was bigger and stronger than it needed to be.  “It’ll be heavy,” he warned.  “It’ll be solid,” I said.

This is the wagon when it was new and shiney.  And heavy.  And solid.

I load the wagon with mulch.  One wagonload holds enough mulch for fifteen trees.

Two of our best employees (both named Emily) and I are spreading mulch around newly planted trees.  Early spring is one of my favorite times of year, when the grass is green but there are no leaves on the trees.  Clear, clean, crisp, and bright.  Everything’s possible.  Nothing has gone wrong yet.

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I am spreading mulch with our son Andrew in November, when harvest is done and most of the leaves have fallen.  This is also one of my favorite times of year.  The growing season is complete, for better or worse, short days put a limit on labor, and I can wear my favorite warm work clothes.

Actually, every time of year is one of my favorite times of year.

I love that mulch, I love those people, I love that wagon.

Our Unusual Apple Varieties

Our list of apple varieties may contain names which are unfamiliar to you – Winecrisp, Goldrush, Liberty, Pristine, Williams Pride, and so on.  We don’t grow Honeycrisp, Gala, Golden Delicious, or other common supermarket apples.  Why did we choose these unusual varieties?

Virtually all of the organic apples in the supermarket were grown in the Pacific Northwest.  Not near wet Seattle, where it rains 37.5 inches per year in average, but in inland, near-desert areas such as the Yakima Valley, which receives barely 8 inches of precipitation per year.  Organic apple production is concentrated there because dry conditions drastically reduce the amount of disease which infects the apple trees and fruit.  Plant diseases thrive in humid, wet conditions.  In the apple growing regions of Washington, growers supply water to the tree roots using drip irrigation, but the above-ground parts of the trees stay dry and disease free.

In Wisconsin (and most of the eastern United States) we have frequent rains and high humidity during the growing season.  Consequently, diseases thrive.  Conventional, non-organic apple growers use chemical pesticides to keep the diseases in check.  But organic apple growing here is challenging. 

Many diseases can attack apple trees, but the most consistently destructive disease in our region is apple scab. In wet years it will defoliate trees, reduce yield, and cause cracked and spotty fruits.  Our orchard consists entirely of varieties which were specifically selected to be naturally resistant to apple scab without needing any sprays or special treatment.  Most of these varieties were bred in the past sixty years at universities and experiment stations in the midwest and eastern United States.  The most prolific of these apple breeding programs was based in Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey.  Other varieties that we grow were bred in Europe, Japan, and Canada (apple scab is a problem throughout the world’s humid apple-growing regions). 

A wonderful part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement is that many new organic orchards have started in our region, and local organic apples are becoming increasingly available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.  Some local organic orchards do grow mainstream apple varieties which are susceptible to scab, and these growers typically rely on sprays of sulfur and liquid lime sulfur to keep scab in check.  (Yes, organic apple growers can use certain sprays, as specified by the National Organic Standard – non-toxic and primarily natural products.)  We don’t have any reason to think that sulfur and liquid lime sulfur are dangerous to consumers, but they do have effects on wildlife in the orchard, and liquid lime sulfur is particularly caustic and dangerous to the grower who handles and sprays it.  We prefer to avoid these materials as much as possible. 

Fortunately, many of the scab-resistant apple varieties are outstanding, and some are becoming common even in non-organic orchards.  We sell a large portion of our apples through grocery stores, especially the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, and our varieties sell well even though household names like Honeycrisp are on the shelf nearby.  Online reviews have given high ratings to many of of our varieties – see these for instance: Winecrisp, Williams Pride, Pristine, and Goldrush.  We love our apples, and many of our CSA members agree that they’re outstanding.  But tastes differ and not everyone likes them.  Most mainstream apple varieties taste very similar – sweet, juicy, and crisp.  There’s a much wider assortment of apple flavors, tastes, and textures out there in the world, and our varieties represent a broader spectrum of the possibilities.  If you find mainstream apples bland and boring, give us a try!  But if you’re devoted to Honeycrisp and eat nothing else, we’d encourage you to be cautious and just try out our varieties by signing up for one of smaller sized CSA shares

It’s also important to remember that every apple variety benefits from being eaten at its peak.  Most supermarket apples are picked fairly immature and stored for long periods; flavor suffers.  We pick our apples near the peak of ripeness and get them to you quickly.  Enjoy!

-Chris