The evolution of the orchard: Year Two

This is the third in a series on planning, planting and tending the fruit orchard. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

Spring of 2009 was the beginning of my orchard’s second year. Unfortunately, it didn’t start out too well. In March I noticed that three trees had been nibbled by meadow voles (a type of mouse). In fact, under the safety of the snow, they had girded two apple trees (a Goodmac and a Hibernal) by chewing a complete ring around the trunk just above the soil level. This meant that the trees would eventually die, as food would not be able to move from roots to leaves and vice versa. I had sprayed Skoot on all the trees in the fall and assumed that would protect them. Well, it turns out that’s why tree guards were invented! My Mount Royal plum tree was also gnawed on, but not completely girded, so I applied a wound spray and hoped for the best. It recovered with only a nasty-looking gash on one side of the trunk.

I ordered two replacement heritage apple trees from Siloam (a Princess Louise and a MacIntosh) and a Grenville plum from Boughen’s to fill an empty space in the orchard. When I picked up the apple trees, I commented to the owner that I was disappointed that the trees looked much the same as they did when I planted them the year before – basically, three-foot tall sticks with a few leaves at the top. He asked if I had cut them back when I planted them. I was dumbfounded. Why on earth would I plant a three-foot tall whip (basically a stick) and cut off one-third of it?!? No one ever mentioned anything about cutting them back when I bought the trees, and I assumed pruning was something that I would need to do in a few years. He then explained that cutting back the trees (or “heading” them) as soon as they were planted would encourage growth of lateral branches. Without that encouragement, there was little growth last year. When we planted the replacement trees, we cut them – and all the now two-year-old whips – back by the requisite one-third. Sure enough, they did start growing branches over the summer, but basically, I had lost a year’s growth. I tried to be philosophical about it – after all, I was in it for the long run and would have the trees – and their fruit – for years to come, but I didn’t quite convince myself.

I spent the month of May watering, weeding and picking off tent caterpillars. Luckily, they never established nests in the fruit trees (I’m not overly squeamish about bugs, but the idea of hundreds of caterpillars in their “tent” nests really grosses me out). In June, the tent caterpillars were still there, along with little green caterpillars. I thought I had gotten rid of the latter only to discover that they fold part of the leaf around themselves and hide there. Once I realized that, it was easy to squish the folded leaves with them inside. Aphids appeared in July – it was actually the column of ants climbing one of the trees that got my attention. It’s true what they say about ants “shepherding” aphids: the ants feed off the sticky excretions of the aphids, so they marshal them to food sources (in this case, my fruit trees). I sprayed the aphids with Safer’s End-All, which controlled them.

Despite various insects feasting on the leaves, the new branches on the fruit trees grew well over the summer. So much so that our local herd of deer (luckily only five of them) would stop to nibble on them as they took a short-cut across the orchard. I guess they were pruning the branches for me!

By the end of October I once again treated the trees with Skoot, although this time I painted it on with a paint brush to ensure more complete coverage. I also wrapped tree guards around all the trunks. The orchard was ready for winter and I was already looking forward to next spring, hoping to see some fruit trees in flower. In the meantime, I started researching pruning techniques.

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