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tree training

May 27, 2011

on most tuesday afternoons, i have the pleasure of spending a few hours trailing a 3rd generation apple and pear grower as he goes about caring for his orchards, which cover several acres of rolling hills outside the town of rochester, wi. on my first visit, we mulched some young trees with last winter’s sheep manure, and i met the adorable and impossibly fuzzy new lambs. the second time, we walked through all the orchards noting the blossom set on each apple and pear variety, looking for pollinators, and setting traps to monitor for codling moth. we also tried a bridge graft on a tree that had been damaged over the winter by a meadow vole.

this week, we went to all the young trees bob has planted in the past couple of years (which he propagates himself) to do some spring tending — taking steps while they’re still small and pliable to help them grow into the most perfect apple trees they can be.

spreader on a young apple treefirst, we assessed each tree’s overall health and vigor. then we looked for a leader, the main branch pointing straight up that will become the central trunk of the tree. in many cases, a young tree had several branches competing for this role. when there were two or more possible leaders, we picked the best one (most upright, largest diameter, most branches or leaves coming off of it, and/or most vigorous growth). then, to make the other leader wannabes into side branches, we used wooden “spreaders” — a slat with a notch on each end — to bend each branch to a 45 degree angle from the chosen leader. the spreaders will stay in all season, and by next year the branches should hold their new angle unassisted.

with some trees, the leader was seriously tilted to one side. our second step then was to pound a metal stake into the ground next to the tree, and then tie the trunk to the stake to pull it back to upright.

finally, we pruned any unnecessary branches, as well as one or two shoots near the top of the leader that might compete with the main shoot and cause it to grow more slowly. it was difficult (emotionally, not physically) to cut off living parts of such small trees — bob often would make a decision and then hastily cut before he could change his mind — but when we imagined the full-grown trees, they always seemed headed for success after we’d finished working on them.

last week, most of the apples and pears were in full bloom. walking through the orchards, the trees seemed to be buzzing with vibrancy. bright white and pale pink bursts covered both the younger dwarf trees and majestic old standards, with the subtle dark rose of unopened buds just visible on the later blooming varieties. we bent to breathe the subtle fragrance — sweet on the apples, more indescribable on the asian pear to the left — and stopped to watch honey bees and small native pollinators travel from flower to flower.

this week, aided by a particularly strong wind storm over the weekend, most of the petals have fallen to the ground, leaving behind tiny, naked ovaries where each bloom was. the lucky ones that were reached by a pollen-borne sperm will grow a few millimeters ever day over the coming months until they are mature fruit.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gene richeson permalink
    May 27, 2011 8:05 am

    Comprehensive and well written and illustrated!…….I recently observed Orin Martin’s walk thru of the Fifth Crow Farms apple orchard, together with his two “2nd year apprentices”, Zoe and Sky, and your description and illustration captured the essence of that experience concisely………bravo!………g

  2. thea maria permalink*
    June 4, 2011 9:12 am

    thank you gene. i’m glad the essence came through.

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