Dave Taber wants to complete the canopy before cropping his Honeycrisp trees. <b>(Geraldine Warner/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Dave Taber wants to complete the canopy before cropping his Honeycrisp trees. (Geraldine Warner/Good Fruit Grower)

When orchardist Dave Taber planted 35 acres of Honeycrisp in 2014, he was determined to do everything right in order to maximize production and profitability.

The planting was split between two locations with 10 acres at one site and 25 at another.

Last fall, Taber, of Oroville, Washington, hosted a field tour at the 10-acre site, which also has a half-acre rootstock trial planted in collaboration with Tom Auvil, research horticulturist with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

Taber explained that the site, a former apple orchard, had been left fallow for about 12 years, but he followed advice to fumigate anyway. The ground was irrigated and fumigated in the fall of 2013 and the trees planted in early spring 2014.

Planting early gave the trees a head start, he said, and there was a noticeable increase in growth compared to other trees he planted a month later. “Every day counts in the spring,” he stressed.

The trees were planted 2.75 feet apart with 11 feet between rows, for a density of 1,440 trees per acre. For Taber, who farms 300 acres in 14 locations, this was his first Honeycrisp planting and his highest tree density ever.

He used 14-foot poles with the intention of installing them 3 feet deep, but had difficulty digging the holes, even with an excavator, because of a layer of moraine.

Some trees were planted with a tree planter, but an alarming number snapped off at the bud union in the process, Taber said. Other trees were successfully planted by hand using a PVC pipe as a guide to ensure accurate spacing.

Despite the difficulty of installing the posts and anchors, Taber said he felt confident he could make the trellis secure enough. He tried not to cut corners on anything and used high-quality wire of the right gauge.

Once the trees were in, he fertigated and applied granular fertilizer and foliar nutrients as well. He paid close attention to irrigation and sprayed for mildew weekly.

“We feel we did everything perfectly,” he said. “We’ve never paid that much attention to baby trees.”

By the summer of 2015, Taber was giving the block a score of seven out of 10, though he thought others probably would give it a nine or 10.

Some of the trees have blind wood, which will affect future tonnage. He thinks it could have something to do with a November freeze in 2014, the year they were planted. Also, extremely hot summer temperatures could have played a role.

“I believe that both years (2014 and 2015) we may have stumbled somewhere on irrigation,” he said.  “If you stumble at all with any young trees, but especially these, it will affect you forever.”

Taber said a soil moisture monitoring service might have helped, but as the orchard is at Oroville, close to the Canadian border, it’s difficult to get people to go there. “We’re at the end of the line,” he said. “But if I spent the money I spent on this again, you have to have something along those lines.”

To crop or not to crop

The question he faces now is whether to crop the trees this year, in their third leaf. Many people have encouraged him to crop them, but Taber feels it’s critical to be patient and build the bearing surface first.

“They say the top wire is the goal and anything above is a bonus,” he said. “But I want to be above. We look at the growth and I see a little bit of inconsistency. I’m not where I want to be at the top. So, to me, my factory’s not built, and I’m 90 percent certain I’m not going to crop them, and I’m going to cut most of that growth off again.”

Taber fears that cropping them too early would be a waste of time and cause him grief.

“I’ll get a few bins in the warehouse and make some money, but I’ll reduce the growth of my factory and have sub-par fruit to deal with. The orchard just keeps eating money, but I think I’m going to pay negatively for 20 years if I crop it too soon and don’t fill the space.”

Auvil said the decision to crop or not to crop is always difficult. He recommended cropping trees that have reached the top wire of the trellis. The fruit might not be packable because fruit on vigorously growing trees is prone to bitterpit, but it would help slow down tree growth.

On trees that have not reached the top wire, at least the top half should be defruited to stimulate more growth, he suggested.

Uniformity of trees will become critical as the industry adopts robotic harvesters within the next few years, he said. “Consistency of the canopy is going to be a big factor in being able to automate successfully and have the productivity of the machinery at a point where you can make money as a grower.”

To avoid blind wood, Auvil recommends cutting all the feathers back to two or four buds at planting and heading the leader. Leaving a branch to grow 18 to 24 inches long with much of it blind wood doesn’t help the grower, and, for automated harvesting, branches will need to be no longer than 9 to 12 inches anyway.

Large caliper wood also needs to be removed as the trees grow.

Auvil said yield expectations for the modern orchard are 80 to 100 bins per acre, and he stressed the importance of building a trellis system that can support that load.

For example, anchor posts should be the same distance from the bottom of the end post as the trellis is high.

So, if the trellis is 11 feet high, the anchor should be 11 feet from the end post. And the tension on the trellis wires should prevent the wires being moved more than half an inch in any direction with a reasonable amount of force.

About 100 acres of trellised orchard fell to the ground this year in the Columbia Basin, Auvil noted, and it was not even a large crop year. Trellises with wires that can be easily moved are vulnerable, particularly in wet soil and windy conditions.

Rootstock trial

The rootstock trial, planted last spring, includes Malling-Merton 106, M.9 T330, M.9 Nic 29, Budagovsky 9, and the Geneva rootstocks G.969, G.210, G.41, G.935, G.214, G.11, and G.890.

After the first growing season, trees on MM.106 were the most vigorous, followed by G.210 and G.890. Trees on Bud 9 were the smallest, followed by G.41 and M.9 T337. Those on M.9 Nic 29 were intermediate.

Auvil said, in his opinion, G.890 is tough to beat for Honeycrisp on a replant site. Geneva rootstocks have the advantage over Malling rootstocks of being resistant to fire blight and Phytophthora, tolerant of replant disease, and, in most cases, resistant to woolly apple aphid.

Taber said some of the Geneva rootstocks already look promising in comparison to M.9 Nic 29. “G.939 and .890 look pretty interesting from that trial.” •

– by Geraldine Warner