Photo courtesy Flickr
Managing Dwarf Fruit Trees: Not to worry about skill. If I haven’t been able to kill them, I doubt that you can. I gave up on the tiny MacIntosh, lopped all the branches back to the trunk using a sharp tool on a dry day, and it’s happier than ever.
Crop: green apple prunings make delicious bbq fuel. Crush the stems of extra branches with a hammer, set them in warm water, and let them bloom indoors. Apple shoots make elegant rustic chopsticks that can then add flavorful smoke to the next grill.
If the weather permits a good set of fruit, there will be far more infant apples than a tree can support. It’s common practice to remove the least promising nickel-sized fruit. It’s easier to pluck tiny apples off a tree than stall and pick golf-ball sized ones off the ground after they drop or rotting larger ones that reek of vinegar and harbor clouds of fruit flies. Don’t ask how I know this. Waste fruit should go into the garbage rather than the compost. Old cookbooks will have chutney and green apple pie recipes.
Prize table fruit is managed one fruit to a cluster. I’ve experimented, though, with consciously growing for flavor over looks. I have usually thinned to several fruits in a group. In the past I’ve harvested fruit into dairy crates and stored it over the winter in a chilly pantry. By late winter, a healthy fruit is wizened but sound, and the low water content makes it delicious in a crisp, especially if I mix varieties. The last several years I have not irrigated with anything but run-off from the roof, and what there has been of the crop has been delicious. The small crops are the result of weather and some over-pruning that sent plant energy into stems and leaves as much as from thirst, I think. It seems to me that fruit with low water content stores better, but I have not run a control.
Fertilizer: trees, as I understand them, require surprisingly little food. A barrowload of compost under each tree should keep it happy.
Irrigation: five gallons per tree per week. A flexible duct directs rainwater from the roof onto the ground between the trees. Rain during a given week would support skipping irrigation, depending on the rainfall. July, August, and September will be the months to be attentive. I shift the duct when I mow to distribute the runoff, so the groundwater in the orchard is in good shape. The trees are deeply rooted.
Pest control: birds are a boon until harvest approaches. Flocks work the trees every day of the year. A manic grower will cover trees with netting for the most beautiful eat-out-of-hand fruit. Sauce and juice do not require the same attention to detail. The experts recommend an organic oil spray in late winter to control the sucking pests that live on the trunk and stems of the trees. I have used baker’s Pam to good effect. One or two big cans should cover eight small trees easily. A different product may be more effective. I control sucking pests on rhododendron and roses with nicotine, planting a cheap cigar under a rhodie with chewed leaves and cigarette butts under a rose plagued by aphids. Cigarette butts should serve an apple tree equally well.
The current recommendation to control coddling moth is to cover each fruit with a little nylon bag. It might be worth the trouble, and the state agriculture people would no doubt appreciate the effort. Short on time for cultivation, I have been planning to hose down this year’s blossoms to limit fruit set and the consequent moth infestation-the classic worm in the apple. I value the orchard as much for a sense of neighborhood continuity and for its aesthetic value as for the produce. Tilth over in Wallingford is the go to for expert advice. Before moth bags appeared on the market, people coated round red things with Sticky Paste and hung them on the trees to entrap the unwary insect. They used red Christmas ornaments or fishing bobbers embellished with red nail polish. The costume supply at Northgate probably stocks plastic ornaments year round.
If you’re growing for juice, a worm or two isn’t going to ruin your product, so the red spheres might be an easier way to control. Garden manuals advise for producing block-buster gorgeous grocery store produce. There’s much room to finesse procedure depending on your purposes, but that’s as much as I can responsibly suggest. Home grown tree fruit is a vector for pests that menace commercial orchards.
Some home growers stuff little terra cotta pots with hay (dead grass?), shredded wood excelsior, or perhaps shredded paper to attract bugs like earwigs. They park the pots sideways on the branches of the tree.
Keeping the site clean is important. That means picking up windfalls and raking up fallen leaves at the end of the season. I mow the orchard and assume that mulching the leaves in place is sufficient to disrupt the life cycles of pests. Raking could well be a better way to go.
A simple way to keep parasites off the trees is to spray them with water. The bugs get sick. The trees like having clean leaves (and bark). Spray from below, too. There’s a leaf roller to watch for: early in the season it glues a leaf into a cylinder with its cocoon. They work fast and hatch fast, but if you keep an eye out for them and just crush the cocoon, there’s no problem. My trees are all shoulder height.
Pollination: we have healthy populations of something that looks like it produces honey and of bumblebees. I have considered adding mason bees, but they might displace the resident flyers. Cities are a haven for hardy bees. In a crisis, one can pollinate by hand with a soft brush. Blossom time is critical.
Pruning: late winter is the time for major work, but it’s all right to nibble on the trees over the summer. I do so to acquire bbq wood and to expose developing fruit to the sun.
Weed control: I have been using benign herbicide to keep buttercup and hairy cat’s ear at bay, being careful to avoid the trees themselves. I seem to be getting away with it so far, but care is needed. One false move and a tree will swoon for a year.