This year, I want some fricken’ apples from my trees. Not to whine, but I Deserve them. It’s been eight years since I planted my first set of fruit trees, and only my namesake Jonathan gives me any fruit. And it only gives me about eight apples' worth. The rest of my trees give me nothing but agita, as they say in the old country (i.e., New York).
There are a number of reasons why apple trees might not fruit. Let’s go through some of the popular theories and my thoughts about how they relate to my own specific situation, shall we?
1. Lack of pollinators. I’m hoping to host a beehive this year, to test this, but it could actually be a longshot as a solution, as there are at least five colonies of bees within a mile from my trees, so my orchard is probably within their range. My ornamental crabapple seems to fruit nicely, so I suspect that pollinators aren’t really the issue, much as I want to have a good excuse to keep bees. That said, I do have concurrent blooming here of my apple trees and wild violets and such, so I’ll try to mow down the pretty volunteers during the apple blooming period, to help the honeybees focus.
2. Lack of sunlight. It would unthinkably awful if I planted my orchard in too dark a location. I’m really hoping not. Fortunately, my most productive tree is in a relatively dark part of the orchard, and my reasonably productive vegetable garden gets equal light to several barren trees, so I am somewhat optimistic that lack of light is not the cause.
3. Lack of soil nutrients. Eh. The guy at Cooperative Extension didn’t think this was that likely, even though he’s the one who’d I’d pay to have the test done, so it’s probably not that.
4. The weird varieties I planted take longer. That’s actually fairly plausible, as they are all older varieties. Still, though, eight years seems like a long time to wait.
5. Lack of horizontal limbs. Horizontal limbs produce more fruit buds than vertical ones do, and by using branch spreaders and stakes, you can control this. It seems another longshot, but I’ll try to be more vigilant this year about spreading branches. I did get a fair amount of blossoming last year, though I’m not sure if I got “enough.” Paying attention to this is another of the year’s goals.
6. Overly zealous pruning. The theory is that by cutting out too much stuff, the tree responds with wanting more vegetative growth, rather than fruit buds. I'm suspicious that my pruning isn't moderate and appropriate, but I will lay back some, this year, and refrain from pruning most trees. Though, it's hard, man....
7. Lack of applied poisons. This is what I’m hoping the real issue is. I haven’t been spraying my trees at all, out of some wide-eyed notion that it’s best to avoid polluting the planet, and that my trees would produce fruit anyway. My operating theory was that I’d wait for a lot of awful fruit before I invested in spraying, which I’d do to improve the fruit a bit, but there’s some suspicion among those who actually have some orcharding experience that the nasties are terminating my baby apples before they get big enough to actually get recognized as baby apples.
The best book I know about raising apples is The Apple Grower, by Michael Phillips. It’s very thorough, and the 2005 edition is filled with helpful color photos. He takes an IPM/reasonably organic/eco-friendly approach, which involves paying careful attention to the trees and pest activity, and matching pests with a calculated, measured, preferably earth-friendly response. That’s the responsible approach to growing apples. It is also an engaging read, and I recommend it highly for anyone with a fruit tree, or even just a hankering for one.
Hooray for organic farming. But far easier and more common is the blanket approach. Apply wide-band toxins that kill everything in the orchard except the apples: curculio, earthworms, honeybees, grass, chickens, neighbors, whatever. Only the tree and the evil witch’s picture-perfect apples (like what we get in the supermarket) remain unscathed.
My hope had always been to follow the organic approach, but it’s time to be a little realistic. It’s been eight years, and I’ve been able to make exactly one pie and a quart of undrinkable liqueur from my twenty trees. Who am I trying to kid? Organic orcharding and I are currently rather fruitless collaborators.
So, with a certain degree of regret, but also practical resignation, I must say, alas, to Hell with the planet. At least, for a year or two. I’ve got to rule out the various local pests as a factor for why I get so few apples, and so I’m hoping to embark on a spraying program that will result in some fruit, for a change. This will at least give me a reasonably intelligent starting point from which I can then curtail my evil ways, moving forward, and be more thoughtful and measured. But this year, it’s “spray, baby, spray.” Of course, as an unlicensed amateur, there’s a limit to the kinds of toxins I can get a hold of, and I will actually still applying chemicals conservatively, compared to what goes on in commercial orchards, but it is certainly not organic.
I’ve bought a backpack sprayer and just ordered a respirator and some magical potions.
My current intention is to spray three substances on the trees. They are:
• Dormant Oil. This goes on the tree when it is still dormant, and its job is to smother scale, mites, and scab.
• Fungicide: Immunox 61000 (Myclobutanil), to control fungi such as Cedar Apple Rust, scab, and such
• Insecticide: Triazicide Once and Done Concentrate (Gamma-Cyhalothrin), to kill insects such plum curculio, sawfly, tent caterpillars, leaf rollers, stink bugs, tarnished plant bug, leafminers, and so on. It sounds wonderful, except that it will also kill any nice honeybees that happen by, so the timing of this one particularly is fairly critical.
The way to time the applications is based on traditional stages of bud growth. For example, honeybees are vulnerable to accidental poisoning, and because I’m practically on a first-name basis with several thousand of the locals, I’ll lay off the insecticide when the trees are in bloom. Other applications are timed to coincide with lifecycles of the target critters, trying to catch them when they are most active and vulnerable. And I want to finish using the nasty stuff well in advance of when the fruit gets picked and consumed. The exact dates of when sprays are recommended will vary over the year, from region to region, and between apple varieties, and there are endless variations that commercial orchardists do depending on weather conditions and what critters they observe and what chemistry is in their arsenal; proper farmers have access to weaponry that we amateurs can’t legally procure.
Below, I’ve tried to assemble what I hope will be a reasonable pest-management schedule for a backyard orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts, balancing appropriate controls based on our area’s common pests, and so on. I hope that orchardists and gardeners with more experience can offer improvements and refinements to this plan, particularly if there are obvious deficits.
For the record, this is a schedule based on research but not actual experience, so take it for what it is.
The dates are estimates, based on how they fell in previous years, but the exact dates of bud stages will vary, depending on temperature. The bud stage must guide the application here, not the date.
Home Apple Orchard Spraying Schedule
April 2 (Dormant): Dormant Spray 1. Oil should be applied when there will be a 24 hour period where the temperature does not fall below 32 degrees (arguably, 40 degrees).
April 9 (¼-inch to ½ inch green tip): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
April 15: Dormant Oil 2
April 22 (Pink): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
Starting April 29 (Bloom): No spraying. Watch bees buzz while the blooms are on.
May 10 (Petal Fall): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
May 24 (10 to 14 days after Petal Fall): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
(Optionally, stop spraying. But better, follow up every two or three weeks with another combo spray. This year, I expect to try every three weeks.)
June 15 (5 weeks after Petal Fall): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
July 10 (8 weeks after Petal Fall): Combo Immunox and Triazicide.
There have been many sources that informed the above schedule, most of which had great advice that I’m not following, particularly:
Note: I've been periodically changing dates on the above schedule to match incoming information. This approach does not come from the perspective of a successful orchard! Just an accumulation of advice that I hope will lead from one.