Big cats, Old Glory and other thoughts on apple growing

I recently heard from a caller requesting information about apple growing. The caller didn’t ask for much — just which varieties do the best in our area and advice on how to grow them without chemical pesticides and would like their first crop as soon as possible, please. It’s the usual aspiring organic fruit grower’s dream. As any wannabe fruit grower who has never cut a water sprout or twirled a picking ladder will tell you, just mash up some bugs in a blender, spray them on your trees and you’ll be munching clean, shiny apples come fall.

Why commercial growers use chemical pesticides at an ungodly cost is never quite explained other than to suggest that they secretly want to see the earth paved and painted green. I’m not making fun of these people — far from it — because this was once my dream as well. I now use chemical pesticides grudgingly but I don’t want to discourage those who want to try to grow fruit without them. Don’t give up on the dream just because I did — there may be other reasons — such as not having the time to pick bugs off of the undersides of leaves. My suggestions as to how to go about setting out and growing an organic orchard may seem radical and, to some, even blasphemous.

Here we go. Even in the case of the quickest yielding trees, the process takes years before any yield can be expected. First, we need to get used to a tree’s time frame — this may not be as easy as it sounds. Do you remember the book “Living on The Land” by Alicia Bay Laurel? This book, though it may seem like a whimsical children’s book today, was taken quite seriously in the early ‘70s. When you’re a 17-year-old male and pretty girls in faded, patched blue jeans and reeking of patchouli oil think that a certain book is particularly cool, the inclination is to study up in the event that there might be a surprise quiz.

There was one page that I particularly liked and that made sense in an abstract way — it was captioned “How to Slow Down.” The page featured a pencil drawing of a figure lying on his side, staring at a small plant. The instructions read as follows: “Plant a carrot seed — watch the carrot grow — eat the carrot.” Really, though, don’t try this at home, but you get the idea. Adjusting to a tree’s time frame may take some work if we’re used to being in control or have been “brainwashed by the capitalist system to be a consumer.” Oh, Alicia, where are you today?

Now, on to the trees. First, forget any so called “progress” made in fruit growing since, say, 1940. The relatively recent trend (remember, we’re thinking in a tree’s time frame) has been to bunch the trees together for higher per acre yields and to make them smaller to accommodate the increasing rarity of skilled ladder handlers. We, presumably, have plenty of room and can appreciate the exhilaration that only a 24-foot picking ladder can provide.

Let’s begin by starting the rootstocks from locally grown seeds. We can start these indoors like anything else. “But I want to plant some trees now.” Forget it — the ground isn’t ready and the rootstocks will probably be big enough to set out by the time that it is.

With immense hydraulic pressure, tree roots break up the subsoil — that’s right, roots are the original hydro‑frackers. These roots, though, will appreciate some help. Subsoiling, to some degree, can be accomplished with a medium-size tractor. However, since this is a one‑time investment that should benefit generations to come, I recommend a visit from a Caterpillar D‑8, the largest tractor this side of a strip mine, (yes, we had big Cats in 1940) equipped with tall subsoilers or “rippers.”

Next, the ground should be planted in corn — corn roots kill some of a fruit tree’s subterranean enemies. Today, corn is generally planted by drilling it into standing winter wheat or weeds then applying a herbicide which causes the wheat or weeds to die and become mulch — works pretty slick. Though finding a farmer to use the ground for corn may be easy enough, finding one who would plant and cultivate it the old-fashioned way may be a challenge.

Getting a little complicated? It is possible to just stick some trees in the ground and to get good results. However, our area, being long established as a fruit growing region, has a long established pest population, latent in our ecosystem, as well. I regularly harvest reasonably clean fruit from un‑sprayed trees in western Loudoun County, Va., historically a dairy and cattle farming region with deeper topsoil. The only pests that I’m usually in competition with there are huge wasps that eat the ripe apples from the inside, turning them into little Chinese lanterns. In regards to fruit tree pests, Hampshire County is, unfortunately, Ground Zero. That being the case, the trees need all the help that they can get.

Building up the topsoil, which tends to be thin in our area, is another challenge. Due to some economic realities of the past, the soil may have been farmed to exhaustion and compacted as well. I’ll defer to the many books on the subject which basically involves working organic material into the soil and perhaps planting a nitrogen fixer such as vetch.

Another question concerned what varieties might be best suited to our area. That’s a tough one — our climate changes so rapidly these days that what may be suitable today may not be so by the time the tree reaches full bearing. An example is the Jonathan apple. In the 1980s, Jonathans were the first apple harvested after the contract pickers arrived. These guys didn’t come all that way just to pick a few bushels — there had to be some serious volume. Now, Joanathans are getting harder to find largely because of their susceptibility to fire blight.

Fire blight kills the whole tree and doesn’t waste any time doing it. It leaves the dead growth with a scorched appearance hence the name. Back then, we didn’t have fire blight in our area — it was considered more of a deep southern pest. It’s certainly here now. The only non‑chemical treatment for this pest may be to cut off and burn affected limbs during dormancy. A similar pest, equally as deadly but slower acting is cedar/apple rust. This pest has been with us forever.

Cedar/apple rust is alternately hosted in apple and cedar trees, the spores actually traveling back and forth on the wind and carried by birds and insects. The organic approach to controlling this pest is easy; simply cut down all cedar trees in a 2-mile radius. I’m not being facetious — this was a common practice prior to the development of pesticides capable of controlling cedar/apple rust.

The late Hunter Maddox, a Frederick County school teacher and legendary football coach related an interesting tale. In the 1930s, there was an especially vigorous campaign to eliminate cedar trees in the Shenandoah Valley, a very productive apple growing region. A group of ladies who objected to this practice tried to thwart the fruit grower’s efforts by tying American flags in the tops of the cedars — cutting down a cedar would mean cutting down Old Glory. It didn’t work — maybe the growers hired Canadians.

Now, let’s say that a few years have passed — we’re a little older and ready to set out the rootstocks. My suggestion regarding spacing is based on the personal observation that a tree in an open field generally fares better than trees crowded to form a hedge. I’ve seen disease enter a row of densely planted trees and be conducted from one end to the other. Moreover, densely planted trees create a separate environment from the surroundings in general which can be a hotbed for insect and fungus growth.

I recall picking in a New England orchard in the ‘70s. The trees were on seedling rootstock and thus quite large. The trees were spaced so that a picker would shoulder his ladder and have a short walk between trees. This was the healthiest, most productive and aesthetically pleasing orchard that I’ve ever been in.

Here’s where I deviate even further from the norm. I am continually fascinated by one simple fact; if all of the seeds from every apple ever grown were planted, each would produce a different and unique apple. Though the differences may be so subtle so as to be microscopic, like snowflakes, no two would be the same. Let’s let the rootstocks grow to bearing and show us what they’ve got. Though they might produce apples that don’t meet the many requirements of commercial viability, these apples may prove to be perfect for our needs. Some trees will produce useless apples — these can be grafted to something more desirable.

Does all of that sound like a lot of work? It should — and that’s not even half of it, especially if we’re not using chemicals. But all that work and more is represented in that lovely view between orchard rows. Many of us find it enjoyable to visit local orchards and buy apples in multi‑bushel quantities. For those of us not in a position to devote all of our time to our apple trees, visiting the local orchard may very well be as good as it gets.

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