St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pruning the apples

Back in the 1950s, Dad and Mom planted 100 apple trees to supplement the 15 trees already around the farm yard.  The goal was to increase the sales of apples in the fall when there was a lull in the harvest and the cows were mostly dry.   
Mom stands under the flowering crab--planted at least 50 years ago and still thriving. 

We tried a dwarf tree, but the deer ate it

I think all of the original trees are gone, but about 25 replacement trees still remain in the orchard.   I planted a few replacements, but didn't take good care of them, and most are gone.  One of the decisions we have to make is whether we should expand, contract, or maintain those trees.  This is the time of the year that pruning is supposed to be done.  

The U of MN says pruning is to: 
  • Remove weak, broken, diseased or unproductive branches, including any that are growing directly upward or downward.
  • Keep branches at the top of the tree shorter than those at the bottom.
  • Remove water sprouts (thin twigs growing vertically from trunk or branches).
  • Remove suckers (vertical shoots growing around the base of the tree). These can be removed throughout the growing season as they appear.
  • Remove branches competing with the main stem. The main stem must remain the tallest part of the tree.
The goal is to have an "open" tree where sunlight penetrates to wherever an apple might be found.  Dad pruned the trees until he couldn't anymore, and then didn't worry about it, as they still yielded apples, just had more problems with overloading and crowding.  I am debating whether next week should be devoted to pruning.  

The orchard came about as a way of making money.  A full sized healthy apple tree could yield 10-20 bushels of apple in a good year.  
100 apple trees X 15 bushels/tree X $5/bushel = $4500.  

I doubt that we ever got more than $1-2000 a season, but that was a lot of money 50 years ago.  With 4 boys, no migrant labor was needed!   People generally bought apples in those days by the bushel ($5).  

With the decision to go into apples, we fenced off the portion of the cow pasture directly east of the driveway--a relatively flat piece of the farm that, other than a garden and raspberry bed, was open.  It was a lot of work digging all the holes by hand, carefully planting the trees and caring for them for the next 6 years as they grew big enough to have a few apples.  

The apples were standard size, meaning big trees.  The varieties included Connell Red, Fireside, Macintosh, Jonathan, Haralson, Cortland, Wolf River, Harlared and a few others I can't remember.  We already had a very early variety--Yellow Transparent, a huge old Hibernal that bore 25 bushels each year for pies, and a couple of Northwest Greenings for winter storage, a Wealthy, some Beacons, and others--full sized when we planted the 100 new ones.   

Apple trees can be quite finicky, and so one is never finished pruning, fertilizing, spraying and replacing them.  A hard winter can kill off many, or damage them, especially if days of extreme cold vary with days of sunny warmth in mid winter.  Some varieties handle most winters and others are good for 15 years, and then the 35 below season comes along and kills them off.  You don't just plant them and then pick the apples and get rich. 

By the late 60s, the apple trees were bearing heavily and we were in the apple business.  Our price was $5 a bushel except for Hibernals at $1 per bushel, and of course prices varied as to size, variety and yield.  Generally apple trees yield every-other year, but with pruning and a good layer of rotted cow manure applied annually, most will bear each year.  Wet conditions meant apple scab, lowering the value; dry conditions meant smaller apples, again lowering the price. 

Apples, left to themselves, will be filled with worms most years.  If you want to sell apples, you must have decent fruit--and that meant spraying them with insecticide and fungicide. You need a big sprayer for 100 full sized trees!

Dad and his brother-in-law, Ralph Haselhuhn, had tried a business for a couple of years of white-washing barns.   Farm barns on Grade A were expected to be clean and white inside, and that was accomplished by mixing unslaked lime and water in a barrel to make a white-wash type of paint.  They had a Briggs and Stratton engine connected to a piston water pump to spray the whitewash in the barn.    They went to the farm, swept down all the cobwebs, dust, and scraped manure off the lower walls.  They masked the windows with newspapers, covered the barn machinery with paper bags or sacks and then started the engine and sprayed the walls and ceilings leaving a extremely white barn interior.   Some folks had their porches or garages sprayed too.  The expenses were minimal, mostly labor and a little for the lime.

The problem with this business was two-fold; farmers were notoriously slow or unwilling to pay, and there was a lot of competition--very inexpensive to go into this business.  So, after two years, they decided to quit, and Dad converted the engine and pump to spray the apple trees.  Before this, he had tried to use the hand pump sprayer--very slow and really unable to reach the top of the trees. 

By this time, the old dangerous sprays of lead arsenate, DDT, and harsh chemicals had been replaced by Sevin--a chemical that messed up the neuro system of the bugs, and quickly broke down in outdoor conditions--and continues to be considered a relatively safe spray for food.  

Dad kept a few hives of honeybees to pollinate the apples and carefully avoided spraying during apple bloom season to keep the bees from being exposed.  He sprayed every 11 days from May through September, trying to stop a few weeks before an apple was ready for sale.   Sevin, sprayed before July, can cause apples to fall off the tree, a practice that actually is useful in thinning the fruit to get to bigger apples. 

The current plan:  prune some of the trees moderately this year; plant 10 new semi-dwarf trees, and consider fencing the orchard. We haven't any dwarf or semi-dwarf due to the deer browsing.  I pruned a tree two years ago a little late in the season, and it caught fire-blight and died.  February is fine; March too late.  January too cold.   

The deer are terrible on apple trees, so you have to fence in the small ones until they are 10 feet tall, and then the deer will browse them as high as they can reach.   Dad and Mom didn't have as many problems as they always had a farm dog who believed that the only animals allowed to eat on the farm were him, the boys, the cows, and grudgingly the cats. I think a fence would be less bother. Other than a huge huge expense, that would be the way to go!  Or maybe, will just study the nursery catalog and let the orchard follow me into gentle decline...