The instant orchard
Planting bigger trees is a way to fill the space quickly with less detailed training and pruning.
Dale Goldy explains how large branches are removed and upright branches tied down to prevent competition with the central leader. This Honeycrisp block was planted in 2008 using nursery trees.
Dale Goldy, horticulturist with Stemilt Growers, Inc., in Washington State, has the same objective as Auvil Fruit Company when establishing a new orchard: The trees should reach the top of the trellis by the second leaf, so they’re ready to crop in the third.
But Goldy has a different strategy for achieving that.
Whereas Auvil Fruit Company plants bench grafts and trains the young trees in the orchard, Goldy prefers to plant an instant orchard, using full-grown nursery trees. If the planting is planned far enough ahead, he likes to use two-year-old knip trees, which are even larger.
He has tried growing trees in place, but said it’s effectively moving the nursery into the orchard, which requires a significant amount of detail work. Workers often didn’t adapt well to the crossover between nursery and full-grown trees.
Goldy is in charge of a 340-acre orchard at Quincy which has been planted over the past three years on former row-crop land. Starting fresh at a new location means having to find a labor force from scratch, but he’s starting to build a regular group of workers. “It just keeps getting better and easier, and involves less management time,” he said. “Everybody develops their skill level.”
Recognizing the skill level of the workers and making maximum use of that is more important than the training system that’s used, he believes.
For Goldy’s current system, he plants unheaded nursery trees with a tree planter, spacing them 3 feet apart with 12 feet between rows. He installs the five-wire vertical trellis before the trees leaf out. The bigger the tree at planting, the more important it is to have the trellis in early, he said, so they don’t snap off in the wind.
During the establishment phase, the tree rows are drip irrigated and fertigated, but the alleys are left dry. This allows any excess water in the tree row to dissipate into the drier area between rows and results in more even moisture and nutrient availability to the tree and more even tree growth, Goldy believes.
Tree training during the first season focuses on eliminating competition to the central leader. The central leader is fastened to the trellis with U clips, and a bamboo stake is fastened vertically to the top three wires to support the top of the leader as it grows and to stop it from flopping over. Bamboo is cheap, and it takes minimal labor to install, Goldy said. The top wire is 9.5 feet high.
Branches that are more than half the diameter of the central leader are removed, preferably in the winter when it will invigorate the tree. Cutting strong branches from the base of the tree and leaving stubs is not something that is instinctive to people because they’re afraid of removing potential fruit, Goldy said, but removing big branches is the way to get the trees to grow to the top of the trellis and achieve yields of 60 bins per acre by the fourth leaf.
He’s sometimes used the analogy of an irrigation pipe to explain the concept. If the central leader is the main pipe and too many big-diameter pipes are drawing water off along the way, very little water is going to reach the top of the main pipe. The branch pipes must be small enough that a large enough volume of water gets to the very top.
Honeycrisp, which is basally dominant, produces a lot of long branches, but it’s important to get good vertical growth in the first two years, Goldy emphasized. “The sooner you get to the top wire, the sooner you can back off the fertilizer and hope to get better quality cropping.”
Upright branches are pulled down to horizontal with string that is either attached to a wire or looped around the tree trunk. Goldy said he avoids fastening string with nails and uses thin twine that will rot before it causes a girdling problem. Tying down weakens the branch so it doesn’t compete with the central leader, and when the branch crops, the fruit hangs directly below the branch, which avoids limb rub.
Goldy estimates that labor accounts for about 25 percent of the total establishment costs of the orchard (when land and wind machines are included). The relatively high cost of the trees is offset by lower labor costs than if the trees were grown in place.
During the second leaf, the training is similar, with even more aggressive removal of strong branches. Goldy said he does not allow the trees to fruit in the second leaf because with a small crop, the apples would be oversized and of poor quality.
“With Honeycrisp and a lot of these new varieties, you have to get a substantial amount of production to grow quality fruit,” he said. “Fussing around with 15, 16, or 18 bins per acre is not going to get you quality fruit. I’m looking at not cropping something until I get 30 bins per acre. If I wait to that point, I’m going to have a lot better control over my quality.”
Also, the trees would take longer to fill the space after they start cropping.
“With these new varieties, you only have one shot while the tree is in the juvenile state to get the growth,” Goldy said. “You have to stay focused on getting the tree to the top wire before you lose juvenility. Once you pull the switch and pull the fertilizer off and start cropping, your vertical growth is going to go away.”
A sprinkler irrigation system is installed in August of the year after planting to establish a cover crop by the time the trees come into production in the third leaf.