Orchard Maintenance

Since we are in the midst of yet another mild winter weekend, we took the opportunity to go out and prune our fruit trees for the year. Late winter or early spring is the time to do it, so we are right on schedule with this annual task. Young trees that aren't bearing fruit yet don't need much, and this is all we ended up cutting this year from the 10 little trees in front of the house:


On the left are branches from the peaches and nectarines; on the right are the very few apple branches we pruned this year. The only branches that we cut were ones that were crossed, a few water sprouts, and one or two on our biggest peach tree (the Reliance) that were ready to be headed back a bit. This summer will be the third season for most of the trees in our orchard, so we are hopeful about having some fruit this year. Here is a look at a few of our trees, post-pruning:


Our big Reliance peach is probably the most likely to bear fruit this season, and the one that got most of the pruning this year.


This is our 4-in-1 heirloom apple (four heirloom varieties grafted onto one tree). It got the most pruning of the apples this year, and since it blossomed last year (we reluctantly picked them off so the tree's strength would go into its roots and branches), we are hopeful for apples from this one this year.


Among the least likely to bear fruit is this pear tree, our Anjou. The pears were planted last year to replace some cherries that had died, so they are a year younger than the other trees in the orchard. Also, pears take much longer to bear fruit than other trees, so we aren't expecting anything at all out of this tree this year. Even if it does blossom, we'll have to pick off the flowers to prevent any fruiting, so it can have another year of strong growth first.

The other task of early spring is to fertilize the trees. To do this, we measured their growth before pruning to see how much taller they are than last spring. According to The Backyard Orchardist (an absolutely indispensable reference that you should buy immediately if you are growing fruit trees), young trees should grow about 15-20 inches in a year. Too much growth, and you need to dial back the fertilizer; too little, and you add more nitrogen. Two of our trees were right on target, so we are going with the standard 1/4 pound of nitrogen again on those. Others we will adjust as need be (four will need less fertilizer, two will need more, and the pears will get just 1/8 pound of nitrogen because the book said not to give them very much, so that's what we are doing). 

To keep all of this straight, I have a nice table of growth and fertilizer rates per year that is probably very boring for you, but is really useful for us to get these amounts right. 


There's also a lot of math involved in calculating the fertilizer (look at the nitrogen number and figure out the percentage of nitrogen per pound the fertilizer actually holds, then figure out how many pounds you need to get a pound of actual nitrogen, then cut it back to only 1/4 of that for a 1/4 pound of actual nitrogen, then make any percentage increases or reductions based on your growth chart … whew!). I was an English major, so this yearly algebra exam is a pain. Anything that will help us keep track of all those numbers is good.

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