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Is it better to plant full-grown feathered trees or sleeping eyes? It all depends on the tree density, Dr. Terence Robinson, Cornell University horticulturist, has concluded from his trials. Robinson, who is based at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, compared various types of Empire trees in a trial planted in 1995: —sleeping eyes (budded rootstocks with no feathers) —one-year-old whips (7/16-inch caliper, no feathers) —two-year-old whips (1/2-inch caliper, no feathers) —two-year-old trees (3/4-inch caliper, and six feathers after pruning) Prices ranged from $2.50 each plus $1 royalty for the sleeping eyes to $6.50 plus $1 royalty for the feathered trees.

Robinson explained during the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association’s annual convention how he tracked the yields for the first seven years, and said he was surprised how well the sleeping eyes performed. Although there was a significant difference in yields between the sleeping eyes and the feathered trees, there was little difference between the sleeping eyes and the one-year-old whips. Robinson then took the yield data for the first seven years and projected the profitability of the various trees over a 20-year lifespan of an orchard when planted at different densities.

Robinson said profitability can be improved by increasing tree density, regardless of tree type, but at a certain point the cost of the feathered trees exceeds their value and the profitability is lower than with the other systems. If trees are planted at densities of up to about 850 trees per acre, a feathered tree is the most profitable. If the tree density is between 1,600 and 3,000 per acre, the up-front investment for feathered trees may be too high, and the sleeping eyes are more profitable. But, he cautioned, unless the sleeping eyes are managed properly, it can be a poor investment. “I’m still a firm believer in feathered trees.”

Sleeping eyes

Yakima, Washington, orchardist Dave Allan told the IDFTA conference how he plants sleeping eyes at a density of 1,281 trees per acre. Because he can buy the sleeping eyes for between $1.25 and $1.75 (excluding royalty), he can save $6,000 an acre in the initial capital ­investment. Apart from the lower cost, sleeping eyes enable Allan to train the trees right from the start as he wants them. Feathered trees might have limbs that are too big or in the wrong position for his ­system. The sleeping eyes are planted with the bud union well out of the ground to ­reduce vigor. In high vigor soils with vigorous varieties, the union is six inches above the ground.

With less vigorous varieties in poor soils, the union is four inches above the soil. The sleeping eyes are supported by bamboo to prevent the young bud from being moved around by the wind and breaking. The top leaves are removed to encourage branching. Branches are tied down to the wire trellis. The trees need to be worked on weekly. He aims to develop 24 fruiting limbs on each tree. For a yield of 40 bins per acre, he will then need 2.3 fruit per limb. Where the sleeping eyes don’t grow, he replaces them with full-grown trees, as uniformity is important. “The success of this whole system is understanding the system and being able to convey that to the people who work for you,” he said. “Otherwise you fail.”