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Monday, February 13, 2017




Monday, 9:00 AM.  25 degrees F at the ferry dock and on the back porch.  Wind WSW, calm with light gusts.  The sky is clear, the humidity 85%.  The barometer is falling, now at 30.07".  It is a gorgeous morning, the week ahead predicted to be mostly in the 30's to low 40's  (except for a cold snap midweek) with a mix of partly cloudy and clear skies.  Sounds great, but March looms ahead!
  Bayfield orchardists are pruning their apple trees.  Bayfield has been growing apples since its inception, so many of the apple trees are very old.  Well cared for and properly pruned apple trees can produce almost indefinitely.  I have read that the apple tree that inspired Newton to write the theory of gravity over three hundred years ago is still producing apples.
   Most apple varieties will grow naturally to be quite large.  A standard apple tree will make a good shade or screen tree. But most apple trees one sees are not very large.  This is because of two factors: the trees are pruned regularly to keep them short; and, more modern trees are grown grafted on dwarfing rootstocks, such as those of crabapples,  that limit the size of the tree.
   Apple trees are also pruned not only to limit the size of the tree, but to improve the apple crop and make the apples easier to pick.  Pruning apple and other fruit trees severely will grow fewer but larger apples, which are easier to pick and ship than a lot of small apples.  Trees are also pruned to allow more light to reach the ripening fruit.
   Every orchardist has their own pruning style, but in general apple trees have a low, spreading profile, no main leader and several strong branches reaching out from the main trunk several feet up from ground level.  It should be noted that there are other, more complicated and labor intensive methods of pruning apple and other fruit trees employed to good effect in European and other countries.
   The basic factors in pruning apple trees are simple, and somewhat similar to any tree pruning.  
   Step one: remove sucker branches that grow from the roots and from the base of the trunk and from large branches. 
   Step two: remove any branches that cross each other and rub together.  
   Step three: remove any dead wood.  
   Step four: prune to let light into the tree to ripen the fruit, and prune to keep the apples easy to pick.  
   Personally, and for aesthetics as well as ease of picking, I like apple trees pruned to have over-arching branches that nearly reach the ground, in a rather weeping shape.  There are other considerations, such as encouraging the growth of fruiting spurs, short branches on second year and older growth that bear numerous fruit buds, but that is too difficult to deal with here, except to say that in general  apple flower buds grow on second year and older growth, and pruning back sucker wood and tip growth will encourage flower and fruit production.
   Growing fruit trees as espaliers, i.e., trained to grow flat against a wall or on a wire fence is an old method that has come back into practice as a modern means of heavy production of fruit in a confined space.  Properly done, the fruit is easier to pick from espaliered trees and the fruit ripens better.  It is a very nice way to have a few fruit trees on a small property as well, and is very decorative.  The trees are grown rather like grape vines.
   Pruning tools should fit the task, and a good quality bypass hand shears should be used on small diameter branches, a lopping shears may be used on those over 1" in diameter and a pruning saw (not a chain saw) can be used on larger branches.  For the best results, trees should be pruned every year in late winter or early spring.  Touch-up pruning can be done during the growing season.  Fall pruning should be avoided as in can stimulate unhardy growth, and wounds that don't heal over for a whole winter can cause problems.
   Pruning apples in Bayfield can be a real chore if the snow is deep, as it usually is in late winter, and orchardists regularly plow lanes between rows of trees, and sometimes must don snow shoes to do their work.
   Apple varieties come and go in popularity and it is a real challenge for apple growers to try to stay ahead of the popularity contests, but many of the old fashioned varieties are as good or better than the new ones as far as taste and appearance are concerned.  Where new varieties are most important, in my estimation, is in selecting for disease and insect resistance, as that will eventually lead to growing apples organically, which is a very important concept, as apples must be sprayed many times during the growing season to render them marketable.
   A return to the growing of apples for apple cider, apple wine and hard cider is an encouraging trend, as those were the primary reasons for growing apples in years gone by, and a good hard cider is as good a libation as beer, and a good way to utilize and store the nutritional value of apples.
   The apple genus, Malus, has as its epicenter Kazakstan in central Asia, where the original wild species still grow. Earlier in my career I met and worked with a Kazakhstan horticulturist who was from the city of Alma atta, which means "Mother of apples." 
    Apples are genetically a very malleable genus, and new varieties are constantly being produced, both in nature and in horticulture, and the prospects for further development of the apple fruit for flavor, keeping quality and for juice are very bright.

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