Near organic apples

Regular readers of this blog know that I like to talk about the idea of growing near-organic apples.

With the near-organic method, you spray as little as three times early in the season when the apples are still very small — starting when they first begin to grow. Then two more sprays are applies spaced about ten days to two weeks apart. If it is rainy during that time period, then another spray may be needed. After the third spray application, you stop spraying. By the way, I sometimes do a very early pre-blossom spray.

I use a general, all-purpose orchard spray mix, one with both fungicide and insecticide in the formula.

The reason why this technique works as well as it does is because it takes advantage of the life-cycles of orchard pests. Generally, the insects that cause the most damage to apples emerge early in the season. The spray knocks back the population of pests. Then once the spraying is over,the population of beneficial insects begins to grow and help keep pests in check. At least that’s one theory I’ve heard.

Minor cosmetic surface blemishes were the only problem with our near organic apples.
Minor cosmetic surface blemishes were the only problem with our near organic apples.

Through the season, as the apples grow in size, pesticide residue is washed off with the rain and breaks down in the sunlight, hence the name “near-organic”.  There is no official term as “near-organic” but it helps to describe how the apples were grown.

The apples often have some discoloration due to harmless fungi on the outside surface of the skin. I just wash off what I can (or rub it off on my shirt) and eat the apple whole.

I’ve been using this method for many years and have had great success with it. It’s not a guarantee that it will work in your situation but it would be worth a try if you are aiming to reduce your use of pesticides while still having half way decent apples.

I certainly would not recommend it for someone who’s livelihood depends on their apple crop, but for a few trees in the backyard, it may be worth trying.

Bob

Netting on grapes

We had to get our bird netting on the grape vines this week.

The grapes have been turning purple very quickly and are getting sweeter by the day. That whole process  of ripening is known as veraison  in the wine making world. But for me and the neighborhood birds, it’s just plain ripening.

The birds are starting to sample the grapes and I can tell more fruit was missing every day. They are not eating a lot of grapes just yet. Even though the grapes are becoming a deep purple color they are still not sweet enough. Birds start eating grapes when the sugar content reaches about 15%. Grapes need to be around 22% in order to make wine. A little simple math tells us the grapes will be long gone before they ever get sweet enough to make wine or even grape jelly for that matter.

We use Concord grapes for making jelly.
We use Concord grapes for making jelly.

Really, the only way to keep birds from decimating a grape crop is to install a barrier so they can’t reach the fruit. That’s where the netting comes in. This year we invested in new, premium polypropylene bird netting. The netting is 14 feet wide and 45 feet long — two panels will cover the row.

We unroll, then drape the net over the vines. Then we fold the bottom edges up and fasten it back on itself to enclose the entire  grapevine.

Once we get the vines covered and they are protected from the birds, we’ll be able to taste test the grapes at our leisure and pick them once they have sweetened up to our liking.

Bob

 

 

Bitter pit on apples in storage

One of our gardening goals is to grow as much as we can for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, I bet you do that too. Even if we end up with only enough servings for just Thanksgiving dinner, I call it a successful harvest.

Judy needed to come up with a dessert for Thanksgiving this year so she decided on homemade-from-scratch, gluten-free apple cobbler. Of course you need apples for apple cobbler so I went to my storage bin for the apples.

They were not the pristine apples I usually have, these were covered in small, unsightly spots. I’ve seen those symptoms before in years past. They had  “cork spot” sometimes called “bitter pit”.

To me, cork spot is a more accurate description than bitter pit. For one thing, apples don’t have a pit, they have an apple core. The other reason is because of the corky appearance and texture of the affected area. On the other hand, the spots do have a bitter taste, so “bitter pit” works too.

Some scientists separate bitter pit and cork spot into two different disorders with the difference being the timing when the spots show up. If they show up before harvest, it is cork spot. If it develops in storage they call it bitter pit. Either way it is not caused by any disease organism or insect.

Even though the disorder may not show up until Thanksgiving time, it has its beginning way back during the growing season when the apple was still on the tree. As the apple grows, there is some competition for water between the developing fruit and the growing leaves. That water competition may cause a calcium imbalance which weakens the cell wall in the fruit leaving it open for the symptoms to develop.

The corky textured spots occur just under the skin.
The corky textured spots occur just under the skin.

Pruning, of course, has a big effect on the number of leaves on a tree. So the proportion of apples to leaves can be different from year to year.

Rain or lack of it determines the amount of soil moisture available and that can change almost weekly during the growing season. So it is a complex set of events that contribute to the problem which is why you may not see it every year in your home grown apples.

Improper storage will often lead to bitter pit. In my case, I’m guessing it was because I did’t get the apples into storage quickly enough. That can cause the spots to show up before you have a chance to use the apples.

I had a few different varieties of apples in storage and some apples had spots and others didn’t — some varieties are more prone to bitter pit than others.

The corky texture of the spots made it much harder to peel the apples. Also, I ended up with smaller pieces because I had to cut away the affected area to get rid of the bitter taste.

Judy’s apple cobbler turned out great and was a big hit at the dinner, you couldn’t even tell it was gluten free!

I spared everyone from the convoluted story about the apples and their bitter pit spots.

Bob

Never pruned apple trees before? Here’s five fool-proof cuts you can make

Although you can prune apple trees just about any time of the year, most apple growers agree spring is the best time to do it. You may have seen professional orchardists out pruning trees as early as February but that is only because they have so many trees that they need the extra time to get them all pruned before the growing season starts.

Pruning and shaping apples trees takes some knowledge and experience to get it right but there are a few cuts you can be sure of even if you’ve never pruned an apple tree before.

Before pruning remember to make the cuts near the junction of the twig or branch and the main branch or trunk. Don’t leave a long stub. Conversely, don’t cut into the trunk or main branch, that makes it difficult for the tree to heal. Try to leave just a small “collar” to allow for proper healing.

You’ll need two basic tools:

1) Use a sharp pair of pruning shears for twigs and small branches.

2) Loppers resemble over-sized pruning shears. They are much more sturdy than shears, have longer handles and are used for for cutting larger branches.

 

Anvil pruners (left) are OK but, to make the cleanest cuts use the by-pass type (right).
Anvil pruners (left) are OK but, to make the cleanest cuts use the by-pass type (right).

Here’s five basic cuts to make when pruning apple trees:

1) Cut off all dead twigs and branches. The spot where they attach to the tree provides a entry point for disease and other pests. Once a branch dies, the tree will try to heal around the dead branch. Unless the branch is cut off or falls off naturally, healing will never be complete.

2) Prune away “suckers”. They are those thin shoots that grow up around the base of the tree. They don’t contribute anything to the tree and make their growth at the expense of the rest of the tree.

3) Help increase light penetration and improve air circulation through the tree by removing all “water-sprouts”. Those are thin shoots that grow straight up from the main branches. They don’t produce fruit and will grow larger each year eventually distorting the tree.

4) If two branches are rubbing against one another, remove the weakest one. Rubbing damages bark leaving a wound for disease organisms to enter the tree.

5) This one will take a little more thought. Prune away weak branches that are shaded by more vigorous branches. Even though they may produce fruit, it won’t be the quality and volume produced by stronger branches. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited a mature apple that has been properly pruned through the years, it’s easier to tell which are the weaker branches.

There is much more to proper apple tree pruning but these five cuts will go a long way to improving the health of your tree and building your confidence for more sophisticated pruning.

Bob

Lemon tree recovering from frosty fall temperature

Sometimes gardeners are given plants that others can’t use or take care of but they just can’t bare to throw out. That happened to me this past summer when someone gave me a four foot tall lemon tree. It was in mediocre condition, a little weak and run down and needed some extra attention.

I re-potted it and applied slow release fertilizer pellets. Once or twice a week it also got a dose of manure tea solution.  It took me the rest of the summer to nurse it back to reasonable health.  And it actually looked pretty good going into the fall.

I always like to keep my citrus trees out as long as possible in the fall. It seems like a bit of a chill tends to make them a little more hardy. I don’t worry about the trees if it gets down below freezing. They seem to do well even when it briefly dips into the upper twenties at night.

One evening this fall I got caught stretching the season out too much. The overnight temperatures were predicted to be around 28°F so I moved the trees to a sheltered area near the garage, tossed a light frost cloth over the top of them and let them stay out that night.

The actual temperatures were almost ten degrees colder than predicted. The oranges looked a little droopy from the cold but I was pretty sure they would pull through. I’ve seen them handle some pretty cold temperatures after a power outage. The new lemon tree however, lost nearly all of its leaves. A large percentage had already fallen off of the tree and were laying on the frosted ground — it did not look good at all.

That day I moved them all into a semi-heated area in my garage for storage. The temperature stays in the upper 40’s and the trees get a few hours of winter sunlight from south facing windows.

 

These buds started out as just tiny green bumps. Here they are about a quart of an inch long.
The new buds grow from the node where the old leaves used to be.

A couple of days after Christmas I noticed some tiny green pointed buds here and there on the lemon tree — it was still alive and wanting to grow leaves! A few days later, buds were emerging from branches all over the tree.

This week, the buds are still growing and developing into new leaves and twigs.

Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.
Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.

I’m fairly optimistic that the lemon tree will completely recover but it’s not out of the woods yet, we still have plenty of winter left before spring arrives.

Bob

 

 

Protect fruit trees from mice damage

Now that the fruit trees are all dormant, disease and insect pests have also gone dormant and won’t be bothering the trees until spring. That doesn’t mean the orchard is completely safe from pests.

There’s another kind of pest active out in the orchard during winter; meadow mice, or more accurately, meadow voles.

Voles look very much like mice and are about the same size. They act much like mice too, especially in the way they gnaw on things.

During the winter when the ground is snow covered, voles build tunnels under the snow. The tunnels are built to help hide them from predators and to help keep them warm while they search for food. They travel through those tunnels over and over through the winter.

So far, our mild beginning to winter means that voles haven’t had to worry much about finding food, but that could change as winter drags on.

Meadow voles eat a wide variety of grasses, seeds and other kinds of plant material. Unfortunately, they sometimes develop a taste for the tender bark of young fruit trees, especially if the vole population is large and their other food sources become scarce.

I’ve lost a few fruit trees from voles through the years. One way to keep voles from damaging vulnerable trees is to install a physical barrier around the trees.

Installing a cylinder of wire mesh — hardware cloth — around each fruit tree, keeps voles from gnawing on the tender bark. It’s like having a miniature fence around each tree.

I use 18 inch wide hardware cloth and form it into thin cylinders about six to eight inches in diameter around each tree trunk. This gives the trees plenty of protection in case there is a lot of snow cover. The mesh size has to be one-half inch, less is even better, otherwise voles will crawl right through to get to the bark.

Hardware cloth
Full service hardware stores will cut hardware cloth to any length you need. Other stores sell it in pre-packaged lengths.

There’s a plastic tree-wrap rodent barrier on the market. It’s easier to install at first but needs to be removed each spring and re-installed each fall. Even though it’s designed to expand, if left on, the plastic material will keep the bark from developing properly.

A hardware cloth cylinder can be left in place for a few years until the tree matures and has developed coarse bark that is less appetizing to vole.

Bob

Paw paw tree from seed

I’ve heard experts, farmers and others say for decades that paw paw is on the verge of becoming the next “in vogue” fruit. They may be finally right.

Since current paw paw varieties are so difficult to handle and are impossible to ship because of the soft fruit, only local paw paws are ever available.That makes them well positioned to become popular with locavores and other foodies.

Five years ago I planted eight seeds from a paw paw fruit and ended up with a half dozen seedlings happily growing in pots. Unfortunately, they were lost during a move and I never pursued starting any more. Since it takes five to seven years for a paw paw tree to begin producing,  by now, I probably would have had a small crop to pick this year.

A few weeks ago, I was given a paw paw fruit. I was inspired once again to save the seeds and start all over again with my future paw paw orchard.

Like most trees native to this area, paw paw seeds must be stratified before they will germinate. Stratification involves exposing seeds to cold temperature and adequate moisture.

I case you've never seen one, this is a paw paw.
In case you’ve never seen one, this is a paw paw. It contains about a dozen seeds.

In this case, paw paw seeds require 90 to 120 days at 32°F to 40°F while being kept moist. The vegetable crisper of a refrigerator is just the thing to meet those conditions. Just rinse off the seeds, and place them in some moist peat moss in a zip-lock storage bag. Toss the bag in the crisper and forget about it until spring. Don’t let them dry out or freeze, either one will kill the tiny paw paw tree embryo inside the seed.

Next spring plant the seeds into pots of good potting mix. If all goes well, the seeds will sprout in about two and a half to three weeks. Then re-pot as needed in order to give the new seedlings plenty of room to grow.

The most difficult part of the whole process may be finding a paw paw fruit in the first place.

Bob

 

 

Heirloom fruit tree 14 year odyssey

Fourteen years ago I planted a ‘Lord’s Seedling’ apple tree, an heirloom variety. It transplanted well and made really great growth the first three years.

Then during the winter of the fourth year, disaster struck. Under the snow, near the base of the tree, mice chewed the bark all of the way around the trunk, girdling it.

That spring the tree leafed out normally. Somehow, it stayed green the entire season. It didn’t make any growth of course because the connection  between the roots and the top was severed.

I could have tried to repair the damage by grafting but I was very busy that spring and never got to it. I decided to write it off.

The next spring, a few shoots sprang up from what was left of the roots. Most of the shoots were obviously from the root-stock, the part of the tree on to which the Lord’s Seedling was grafted on to at the nursery. Those shoots would never produce a Lord’s Seedling apple because they have a different genetic background.

Looking closer, I noticed one tiny bud looked like it may have been above the point where the tree was grafted. That meant it could have been a Lord’s Seedling bud.

I removed all of the shoots from the rootstock except that one bud. I nursed that bud and later it grew into a vigorous shoot.

During the following years, that bud became a tree. I still had no idea if it was a Lord’s Seedling tree or just a tree grown from the rootstock.

The beautiful golden-brown russeting on Lord's Seedling apple is considered a defect by the commercial apple trade. It is a normal part of the appearance of this variety
The beautiful golden-brown russeting on Lord’s Seedling apple is considered a defect by the commercial apple trade. It is a normal part of the appearance of this variety

This year, the tree grew a full crop of apples and I was finally able to see what variety it is. Low and behold, turns out it is a Lord’s Seedling tree after all.

I took an educated gamble on the tree and it paid off fourteen years later.

Bob

 

 

Apple maggot flies

I’ve seen noticeably fewer insects in my garden this year. It’s probably due to the relatively cool temperatures we’ve been having this summer, especially at night.

While looking at my apple trees this week I noticed some funny little insects flitting around the leaves and fruit — they were apple maggot flies. It is the larval stage of this fly that causes brown streaks inside infested apples.

 

Apple maggot flies have a distinct pattern on their wings. They are somewhat smaller than a house fly.
Apple maggot flies have a distinct pattern on their wings. They are somewhat smaller than a house fly.

Normally, the early varieties are the ones that really get hammered by apple maggots. However this year, my early apples were free of those pests. My guess is that because of the weather, the flies took a little longer than usual to develop and were not around around in sufficient numbers to cause any noticeable damage.

Now that I’ve picked all of my very early summer apples, the maggots have moved over to the other later varieties that have apples still developing. The adult flies are looking for apples on which to lay eggs. The eggs will hatch into those pesky maggots that ruin so many apples.

The storm front moved through yesterday and the rain has ended. That gave me a chance to spray my trees this morning to knock back those apple maggot flies. I like to spray early in the morning when the air is calm and spray material is not being blown back in my face by wind.

There are other ways of controlling apple maggot flies that take more time such as trapping adult flies, or wrapping each individual apple to protect it from egg-laying flies.

I suggest you spend some quiet time with your trees soon and look for apple maggot flies. If you find them, use your control method of choice. Your trees will reward you with pest free apples.

Bob

 

 

Wild Crabapples

I have a young crab apple tree in our wildlife area that I’ve been watching for the past few years. It came up on its own several years ago and this is the first year it produced fruit.

To my surprise, the little apples on this tree are very tasty — plenty of apple flavor with a hint of almond after-taste. I’ve tasted other crab apples in the past and many of them were either flavorless or downright inedible.

They are about two or three times the size of the typical flowering crab apple fruit you see in people’s front yard but, they’re still too small to do much with. Fortunately the apple core is so small I can eat the whole fruit without really noticing the seeds. However, you can only eat so many crap apples before you lose your taste for them.

Since I have so many of them, I decided to try to make a type of rumtopf , a concoction made with fruit, sugar and rum. With their long stems and deep red color, they look a lot like cherries. So I just washed them, picked off the blossom ends and dropped them into alcohol and sugar. Instead of rum, I used brandy because that’s all I had on hand.

The crabapples look like cherries when packed in a jar.
The crabapples look like cherries when packed in a jar.

I’m really not sure how my rumtopf will turn out but I know it won’t go to waste even if it’s not perfect.

Meanwhile, there are still loads of crab apples left on the tree. The frosty temperatures have mellowed out their flavor even more and they’re still nice and crisp.

As for the rest of the crab apples, I think I’ll leave them for the wildlife.

Bob