Left, Sleeping eye. Middle: Standard tree. Right: Potted trees. Bottom: Bench grafts.
Several types of trees are available from nurseries for planting, with costs as varied as the tree types, ranging from around $8 per tree for knipboom to $1.20 for bench grafts, without royalties. But beware of the hidden costs that are associated with growing the less expensive trees.
Scott McDougall of McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, Washington, has grown a variety of tree types through the years. He’s planted rootstocks in place to bud later in the summer, used bench-graft starts (one-year bench grafts from a nursery), and planted finished nursery trees. His company also has grown its own trees. About the only tree he hasn’t tried is a knipboom.
“My feeling now, after doing all that, particularly with the plant in place, is that the savings we received were good, but there’s also more tree care involved,” McDougall said. “You have to be very careful with what herbicides are used, and even still, you’ll have some mortality and have to replace trees. With today’s economics, I’m not looking at those plant-in-place anymore.”
He said today’s high land costs and reduced availability of orchard sites have shifted his approach to planting orchards for the future. “Land in Washington is double what it cost a few years ago, and it’s getting hard to find,” he said, noting that he’s heard of sales going for $10,000 an acre. The plant-in-place approach doesn’t pencil out anymore because the grower must wait four years before production. “You really need a finished tree that’s feathered so you can get into production quickly by the second year.
“And, the longer you wait to come into production, particularly with our industry’s herd mentality on a new variety, you’ve just lost two years of higher returns.”
With costs varying between $1.20 to $2.80 per tree, depending on quantity, plus royalties, bench grafts are the least expensive type of tree to buy, and, as with sleeping eyes, tree structure can be developed to suit the training system as it grows in the orchard.
Shorter decision window
The main grower advantage to bench grafts, besides cost, is the shorter window of six to eight months of lead time in deciding what rootstock and variety to grow compared to more than two years for a finished tree, said Paul Tvergyak of Cameron Nursery in Eltopia, Washington.
Planting in place eliminates planting shock that occurs with finished trees, but growers are taking on all the risks that the nursery normally takes. Tvergyak recommends that growers order 15 percent more than what’s actually needed to allow for tree mortality. “Plant the extra trees in an outside row, and then you’ll have a ready replacement for those trees that don’t make it.”
Longer planting wait
Growers have to wait until after the last frost to plant bench grafts in the field due to the tender graft unions that are still sensitive to cold temperatures. In some years, it may be June before they are planted, coming when labor may be needed elsewhere.
Bench grafts need some type of covering like a grow tube to encourage the young plant to knit the graft union, provide protection from herbicides, and provide a conducive climate for the plant to grow. “That’s another cost for the grower,” Tvergyak said.
“But pests and diseases also love the grow tubes, which are about 20°F warmer than the ambient air temperature,” he said. “So, now you need some way to get pesticides shooting downward and inside the grow tubes.” Additionally, if temperatures are going to climb above 90F, the tubes must be slid up about four to six inches above the graft union to allow air circulation.
The cost of sleeping eyes is in the $1.40 to $3.20 per tree range, without royalties. Sleeping eyes have similar advantages to bench grafts, including a shorter lead time in making rootstock and scion decisions compared to finished trees, though not as short as bench grafts.
Tvergyak said that the root system of a sleeping eye is more developed than a bench graft because it was grown in the nursery for a year. And because it is dormant, it can be planted just like a bare-rooted tree.
If the top (scion) doesn’t make it, growers still have a viable rootstock and could rebud. But with a bench graft, a sucker from the trunk must grow up.
Disadvantages to both bench grafts and sleeping eyes are that most nurseries will not give guarantees or warranties for the trees after delivery, Tvergyak said. With a finished tree, the nursery will at least come out and try to determine who was at fault for tree loss within one year after planting.
Passion for baby trees
“You need to find someone on your staff that has a passion for growing baby trees,” he said, referring to growers who go the nonfinished tree route. Bench grafts and sleeping eyes are more sensitive to soil moisture, weather extremes, powdery mildew, and cutworms than finished trees. “Fieldmen need a different set of eyeballs when working with bench grafts or sleeping eyes.”
The biggest advantage of a finished, two-year tree is that with proper horticultural practices, you can have fruit on the tree in the same year. Most production practices are designed for two-year trees, said Tvergyak, adding that the dormant trees can be planted in late winter or early spring when growers have more time. Additionally, the trees come with a warranty from the nursery.
“Branch placement will not be perfect, but it will be close,” he said.
The biggest disadvantage is not really the cost, Tvergyak said, but the cash flow issue. “Having to put 20 to 30 percent down on the order ties up a grower’s money for two years before the trees are ready. You don’t get any interest on that money, and if you cancel the order, you could lose some of that deposit.”
Also, growers must guess what will be happening in the market two years ahead as they select the rootstock and scion combination.
Often called an instant orchard when planted, knipboom trees have a strong root system and feathered branches and can fill orchard space quickly. Knip trees are commonly used in European orchards but relatively new to U.S. growers, with only a few growers planting them and very few nurseries growing them.
Knip trees cost about $1 more per tree than standard, finished trees, but fruit quality and yields can be good in the second leaf, if a crop is desired.
Dale Goldy of Gold Crown Nursery in Quincy, Washington, planted his first block of knip trees in 2007. Already, with just a few years of experience, he thinks tree training costs will be much less than with standard trees and that minimal training and pruning will be required once trees are established.