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This is the fourth in a series of articles covering all aspects of planning and establishing a competitive orchard.

Before committing significant money to a nursery order, growers are well advised to do their homework in choosing who grows their trees.

Visit the nursery beforehand to see what type of tree and the quality they grow, suggests Paul Tvergyak of Cameron Nursery, Eltopia, Washington. Look for things like the height of the graft union, tree uniformity, and feather placement.

“Try to evaluate how good their nursery and tree growing practices are,” he said. “Are they good growers?” Horticultural practices are a good indication of the care they put into growing their trees.

Tvergyak notes that once the nursery has been selected, growers should place orders as early as possible to avoid later surprises, especially for popular rootstocks like the Malling 9 clones Nic 29 and Fleuren 56. “When nurseries run short, some fill the orders by first-come, first-serve,” he said, adding that others spread the reduced number around all of their orders, giving priority to those with replacements.

“When you find a nursery that you like, stick with them,” he said. “Bouncing around doesn’t gain you very much.”

However, he advises growers with large orders to spread the orders around several nurseries to minimize the risk of being all at one location. Then, if freak weather like a windstorm that snaps trees in halfoccurs at one nursery, the entire order will not be lost.

He also suggests that growers have alternate rootstock and variety choices when placing the order. “If you have to have Aztec Fuji on 337 rootstock, you may get shorted. But if you’ll also take Nic 29, or something similar, you are more likely to get your order filled if there’s a problem.”

Tvergyak said the differences between the various M.9 clones are much less than differences that occur from management styles, he said. “But make sure the nursery packages the substitute trees so they can be kept together in the block.”

Not widgets

“Some customers want to fine-tune every aspect of the trees,” Tvergyak said. “But trees aren’t widgets. There will be some variation between them.” Nurseries experience the same weather issues that growers are challenged with and must deal with bud loss, tree loss, and other cullage issues that affect tree quality and mortality.

He tells growers to focus on irrigation and pruning to bring uniformity into the block. “Sometimes we worry too much about the minute details and let the elephants crash on the other end.”

Know what your site parameters are and what families of rootstocks will do well there, he said. M.26 is too big for most of the systems used in Washington, but it may be ideal for a smaller grower who doesn’t want a high-density system and can use a freestanding system, without the pressures of fireblight or collar rot.

Tree quality

Mike Robinson, general manager at Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Washington, agrees with Tvergyak that growers should learn about the growing practices and philosophies of potential nurseries. “You want to make sure that the tree you buy is the best possible tree for your system,” he said, adding that tree quality is why growers often plant in place and take on the role of nursery. “Each nursery has their own style of tree that they grow, but beyond that, weather can dictate what you end up with.”

Robinson said that growers shouldn’t expect to be able to specify exact tree standards to a nursery unless they are willing to pay for it. Nurseries cannot retrain their crews just to grow a small percentage of trees in a different manner than their normal style.

He has had success in dealing with small nurseries that are just beginning and are hungry for business and willing to jump through hoops for an order. “But they may not have the varieties you want and plant material health might be questionable.”

He encouraged growers considering club or controlled varieties to also check out the nursery that is the supplier of the club trees. “Who are they, and what type of trees do they grow?”

Scott McDougall of McDougall and Sons in Wenatchee, Washington, believes that for his company, the most important feature of a tree is that feathering starts at 32 inches. Ideally, they want seven to eight feathers on a treenot two or threebut it’s unrealistic to think that every tree will be perfect.

“Nurseries are getting better about where they are putting the feathers,” he said, adding that the feathers used to be placed much lower.

The caliper or diameter of the trunk of finished trees should be in the range of one-half inch to seven-eighths of an inch.

Scion rooting

McDougall likes the graft unions to be about three to four inches above the ground when the tree is planted to avoid scion rooting.

Scion rooting has been a problem in many orchards, and in a high-density planting, scion-rooted trees can grow too vigorous for their space. Trees inevitably sink after planting and irrigating, and can easily sink two inches when a machine planter is used.