This past weekend I attended a workshop put on by Farm Start at Ignatius Farm. Ignatius Farm is situated in Guelph and has a large community shared agriculture program, community garden plots and an eight acre orchard. The workshop was held in the orchard and was on summer pruning and thinning. Aside from picking and climbing I haven’t had very much experience working with fruit trees. And the trees that I have worked with, mainly around the city, typically aren’t pruned in the way that commercial orchard trees are. Many of the trees that Not Far From The Tree picks around the city are much larger than your typical orchard tree.This made it particularly interesting for me to be in an orchard setting learning about how to manage trees for better production.
The trees are nothing like what we see around the city. They are aggressively pruned to be kept short. Having them so short makes any work to be done with the tree much easier. For many of the large trees around the city, it may be too late to implement some of the pruning techniques that we learned but some of them will still work with a larger tree.
The workshop was led by Ignatius Farms field manager Lorne Jamieson. The first thing Lorne showed us was what is called weighting. Weighting is when weights are suspended form the fruit producing branches of the tree in order to pull the branches downwards. This allows for more air to enter into the tree and prevent a build up of moisture. Keeping moisture off of the blossoms and fruit makes it less likely for fungal or bacterial diseases to flourish. We looked at a couple of different styles of weights and the ones that were best were ones that are least invasive to the tree. It is important not to cause any tearing of the bark or cracking of branches as disease can enter through these wounds. The weight we all liked the most, and Lorne suggested strongly, was essentially a clothes peg with a weight glued to one side. The weights are clipped to the branches until the branch has been pulled down to the desired level. These weights could easily be made at home. As the fruit grows the becomes heavier the fruit will act as the weight and the weights can be removed
We then looked at treatments for the base of the tree. Lorne suggested using gravel at the bottom of the trees. This is done for pest control. Gravel provides an area without grass or shrubs that would shade mice from their potential predators. The mice will be scared of walking on to the gravel where they could be spotted by predators. This will stop mice from climbing the tree and doing damage to your fruit.
Lorne also suggested having what is called a predator bush. This is an area of overgrown weeds near a tree that is attractive for beneficial predators to live. Some of these strategies are great for orchards but may not be the best for a yard you want to live in. One of the beneficial predators that these bushes attract is the common garden snake, so depending on your comfort level with snakes this may not be the best technique to implement.
The next fruit tree care topic we discussed was the process of thinning. Although I am very familiar with the process of thinning vegetables I had no idea that tree fruit was also thinned. Thinning is where you go through the fruit that has set on the branches and pick off fruit until you reach your desired spacing. The spacing of the fruit ranges based on the tree, for apples the desired space is one apple every five inches, for plums it is three inches. Doing this will provide the fruit with enough air movement around it and prevent the fruit from bumping against one another. This will provide you with big unblemished fruit and typically not reduce the production of your tree. The way Lorne put it is you can either thin and get a hundred pounds of nice big apples, or you can not thin and get a hundred pounds of small blemished apples.
Finally we discussed summer pruning. This involves cutting off any new growth. Doing this will allow more light and air into the tree. It will also prevent energy from going into vegetative production and allow that energy to go towards the fruit. New growth branches are typically green and grow upwards. These should be cut as close to the branch as possible. It is important not to leave cut branches laying at the bottom of the tree as pests will be attracted to them and can spread disease to the tree.
This was a fantastic course that was full of great information. Farm Start puts on a lot of these, some pertaining strictly to farming, but a lot of the information is transferable to gardening or caring for trees in the city. The next orchard workshop is on disease resistant varieties of apples and is held at Avalon Orchards. Maybe I’ll see you there!