Ines Hanrahan marks bins of fresh WA 38 apples to be cataloged at Washington State University’s Sunrise research orchard in Rock Island, Washington, in October 2017. This particular set of fruit came from WA 38 trees planted on Malling 9 rootstock. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
Ines Hanrahan marks bins of fresh WA 38 apples to be cataloged at Washington State University’s Sunrise research orchard in Rock Island, Washington, in October 2017. This particular set of fruit came from WA 38 trees planted on Malling 9 rootstock. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

With the first harvest of the new Washington apple variety quickly approaching, growers are eager for any tips they can glean to grow the highest-quality apples.

Washington State University, which bred the WA 38 apple to be marketed under the brand name Cosmic Crisp, regularly shares information on horticultural and packing practices for the new apple.

But getting information from other growers who’ve thrown in with the new variety, from different regions of the state, can be beneficial, too, which is why a panel of growers shared their insights on the new apple during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s annual meeting in December.

Troy Huck of Monson Fruit said the company entered the WA 38 program to be on the first end of it. “We think it’s going to be a good piece of fruit. It’s just an apple and a tree, and I think we’re going to do pretty good with it.”

So, here are their tips for the WA 38 apple and tree:

Douglas Fruit planted 20 acres of WA 38 in 2017 — another 100 acres were planned this winter — and without having to worry about marketing fruit, “we just put the gas to them and grew them,” manager Paul Stiekema said.

Washington’s south Columbia Basin is ideally suited for the variety, with soils that range from sand to sandy loam, and the struggle is to slow down the trees sometimes.

The trees are planted on a V-trellis with four, seven or eight wires and spacing ranging from 1.25 feet to 2.5 feet depending on the rootstock. Rootstocks planted: Budagovsky 9, Bud.10, Geneva 11, G.41 and Malling 9.337, but his favorite so far is Bud.9.

Stiekema said growers should plant as early in the spring as is practical, particularly for G.41 or any rootstock that may struggle in the early going.

Douglas Fruit restarts any branches in poor position or that are out of balance, aiming for a leader that is three times bigger than anything coming off of it, and notching where scaffolds are needed. The company also tips all feathers and stubs back to three fingers.

“Rule No. 1: You cannot prune a tree into submission. So, if you have a tree that is not behaving, cropping will slow it down, or turn the water off. And if you are going to prune it, prune it later in June,” he said.

Monson Fruit also is testing several rootstocks, grafting onto Malling 106 blocks and growing on Geneva 935 and G.41.

Workers secured a G.41 block planted by hand right away, but as it grew through the summer, Huck said he had over 200 trees die. “It’s like the bud union slipped on me. I’m not sure it’s compatible,” he said.

On G.935, the trees grew a lot of flat wood and thicker wood, he said, so they tied them. “That was a stronger type tree. It looks like it’s going to do very good for us, in terms of hitting the wire. We will crop it in the second leaf,” he said. “We’re debating whether we’ll tip it. Figure we’ll cut off 50 percent of our fruit with tipping.”

“People say worry about blind wood. Typically, it’s training, how fast we get into it,” he said. “That’s a manpower issue.”

He also advised growers not to be greedy with this apple. “We need to pick it right, in the third or fourth leaf. It’s going to be an inconsistent piece of fruit, and there’s going to be apples that won’t taste good,” he said. “We can screw this thing up fast if we’re not careful.”

WA 38 is the second apple Conor Killian of Killian Orchards has planted, after Honeycrisp, and he has found pruning the two varieties to be “night and day.”

Last year, the WA 38 had a lot of vigor and growth, so he tipped three times and with no fruit, had it hedged, but not until mid-July. “A month later, I had pretty much full bloom on that. That was interesting to see happen,” he said.

He scored at green tip, then noticed that two rows got missed.

“It was mid-May by the time they came out. We girdled again and had four to five leaf shoots. They didn’t take as well as when you girdle earlier,” he said. “The earlier stuff had 85 percent take, compared to the non-girdled tree — enough where I will do it every year in the future for regrowth.”

Another thing to consider: WA 38 can be disquieting in the amount of fruit it will drop, said Tom Auvil, a 50-acre grower, who planted 2 acres of WA 38 “because it’s a great product and it’s the next great opportunity for our farm.”

Auvil expressed concern that dormant tipping and pruning may reduce fruit set. “Until you can verify that it’s not going to reduce the amount of fruit you get, I would not do a lot of tipping on fruiting limbs,” he said.

Auvil also advised growers to wait until the third or fourth crop to decide on what chemical thinning program they need. WA 38 will tend to drop 40 to 50 percent of the clusters with no thinning required, which is why WSU researchers have advised pollinizers every 30 feet or so in blocks.

Auvil said he thinks growers can sustain 80 to 90 bins to an acre on a vertical planting if they don’t allow the trees to get too weak.

“It’s going to be an early variety for us to grow. We’re not going to have to spend a lot of money on chemical for thinning. We’re not going to have a narrow harvest window — Cosmic is a single pick,” he said.

In a fire blight scenario, where they may need to apply some lime sulfur, start at 2 percent.

For storage, Auvil said warm-rooming the fruit at preshipping works well. Anything before January doesn’t require MCP (1-methylcyclopropene), and the fruit stores well for 10 to 12 months. “It has a lot of flexibility in how we store it, market it and handle it,” he said.

It’s been said that wine grape growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, recognizing the potential to brand their products by the region, began to improve their quality of their Pinot Noir when the growers started working together and sharing tips.

“If we take that philosophy and act like a club at least for the first four, five years, we will all do better,” Stiekema said. “Differentiate your branding and marketing, all the rest of the stuff you want to do, but as growers, we need to work together.” •

—by Shannon Dininny