Water, water, everywhere…

Last week I was in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The snow was 3 feet deep, temperatures were in the teens, and Lake Superior was frozen as far as the eye could see. It was a winter wonderland! As we drove home on Saturday evening, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge at sunset. The Straights of Mackinaw were frozen solid. It was a beautiful sight.

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What a difference a few days and a few hundred miles make! It is officially mud season now on the farm. You know what I mean, the time of year when everywhere you step or drive off-pavement becomes a squishy muddy track. I hate to drive out to work this time of year because every track becomes a puddle when it rains. And the huge rains we just got make the farm look a mess. So now we walk out to the orchard to trim now in the interest of preserving the land. Our only fear is getting stuck in the “quicksand” that is springtime in Michigan!

We are pruning young trees now, because the chances of below zero temperatures are less likely. So injury from the cold is less likely too. These small trees can be pruned quickly, but because there are so many more of them per acre it still is a time consuming process. But with a few simple trimming rules the trees can be made very uniform with short small limbs that will bear nice fruit, even in the early years of the tree’s life. Here is a video of Travis pruning some 3 year old apple trees in the snow a couple weeks ago. At least I think it’s Travis, hard to tell behind the cold weather wear!

Hopefully we have some winter weather ahead of us though. I’m not ready for spring to come yet. After all, it’s only February. And it isn’t time for our trees to wake up yet. We fruit growers like for spring to wait a bit and creep up on us slowly. I know you golfers can’t wait to get your sticks out. And you motorcycle riders are anticipating the first warm day for a ride. But if you want to have fresh apples next fall, let’s all be patient and have a normal Michigan spring.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

 

 

 

 

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Flower power!

BOOM! “What WAS that?!” A couple of weeks ago that was all the conversation around the area as the mystery explosion was investigated. Turns out it was a bunch of guys shooting at an exploding target at a bachelor party south of here! Hard to believe, I know. 😉

This week we had an explosion here that was much more pleasant. The cherry and plum trees exploded in blossoms with the warm weather over the weekend and into this week! I’ve seldom seen such an abundance of bloom on the cherry trees! And just a few days later the pears burst into full bloom too. The peach trees are full too, and although the flowers on a peach tree are not as showy from a distance, they are quite beautiful up close. Apple bloom always trails the others by a week or so and they are just beginning to open now.

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Cherry blossoms
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Peach blossoms
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Pear blossoms
The bees arrived on Monday night and are already hard at work pollinating the fruit trees. Walking through the cherry orchard there is a distinct “hum” in the air as hundreds of thousands of honeybees go about their business. These bees know their stuff! And they are well traveled too. They winter in Florida pollinating in the citrus groves. At some point the travel to California to the almond orchards to do their work. Then it’s back to Florida again to finish the winter crops. Last week they were loaded on a semi truck and hauled up here to Michigan to move into the apple and cherry orchards. There are six hives on each pallet, and each houses around 25,000 to 35,000 bees this time of year.

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These are truly “migrant” workers! Once the trees fruits are finished blooming, the bees will move into the blueberry fields. They spend the summer here in Michigan and then the cycle starts over again. It never seems to end for these little critters, but they never are as happy as when they can gather pollen and nectar on a warm sunny day. And on a rainy day when they can’t go to work they are ornery. It’s risky to even approach the hives on a day like that!

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Blossom time is always so beautiful here on the farm. The fragrance in the orchard is almost intoxicating. Each type of flower has its own distinct shape, color and aroma. But in spite of the beauty,  the list of tasks is long and demanding at this time of year. The warm Spring has pushed our season ahead of normal by about 2 weeks. We are still finishing our pruning on peaches and cherries, and it is finally drying out enough to work the ground. Soon we will be planting trees. So sometimes when we are so busy we have to be reminded to stop and smell the…blossoms! That’s good advice for everyone.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

This bud’s for you!

After a roller-coaster winter with a warm February followed by a cold March, spring finally showed up last weekend. Apparently the trees were ready, because the bud development over the few warm days was phenomenal! The growing season is off to a quick start. We are about 10 days ahead of normal growth right now. Back in February we were 25-30 days ahead, so the cold March did slow us down!

The fruits we grow on our farm fall into two categories: Pome fruit and Stone fruit. Pome fruits are fruits that have a seed cavity in the center with many seeds. Apples and pears fall into that category. They are generally grown in the same way, and even the wood of the trees is similar. The also are susceptible to many of the same pests and ailments.

The other class, stone fruits, are named such because of the single “stone” (pit) in the center of the fruit. Examples we grow are cherries, peaches and plums. Once again these trees grow and are treated in very similar ways, and have a different array of pests and problems than the pome fruits.

While in the orchards today, I looked at the different buds on the many kinds of fruit trees. On a warm day in the spring you can see the growth changes from morning to evening. Stone fruits generally bloom before pome fruits, and at this point peach and plum buds are already swelled far enough that we can see the outsides of the petals! Each bud is one peach(left) or plum(right) in the making.

 

Cherries are a little less advanced. What looks like a cluster of buds on a cherry limb is actually a cluster of clusters–each bud you see here contains 3-7 actual cherry blossoms. That is why when it’s cherry picking time, they often are hanging in bunches.

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Sweet Cherry buds

Apples(left below) and pears(right below) are set up a little differently. Each fat bud contains 5 individual apple or pear blossoms that are tightly clustered together at first. As the growth progresses they extend on their stems and separate out just before bloom. Right now they are tightly tucked inside a covering of tiny leaves. That serves a some protection against cold nights to come. But the more they advance, the less the protection and more susceptible to frost they become.

You know the saying “April showers bring May flowers”. We might just see some April flowers this year!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

The weather roller coaster…

As I write this, the temperature is 29 degrees and it is snowing like crazy outside. Yet at this time yesterday it was 57 and we were in the middle of a thunderstorm! This has been the pattern over the last few weeks. And we found out today that this February was the warmest on record!

So the questions continue: “What is this doing to the fruit trees?” Well it’s confusing to us for sure, and I’m guessing that the trees are mixed up a little too. In looking at the apple buds day after day, I can see that they have broken out of the dormant stage. The buds on some varieties are in fact quite swollen. If we remain cold for a while the growth should come to a standstill. But with the forecast reaching the upper 50’s for the weekend again, bud development will inch forward again. So how do we know where we should be in a normal weather year? And how do we compare that to where we are now? The answer lies in calculating “degree days”.

In an earlier blog I talked about chilling hours, and how important they are to the fruit growing process. You may recall that calculating chilling hours tells us how far along in the dormancy stage the trees are. But we also calculate “degree days”, and that tells us how the trees are progressing in the growing season. Figuring out degree days is done using a couple different models. For simplicity’s sake we will use the easiest way  which is done by adding the low temperature of the day to the high and dividing by two.

Apple trees grow at 42 degrees and warmer. If the average temperature for the day is above 42, you begin counting degree days. So if the low for the day is 35, and the high is 55, the average is 45 degrees. That gives you 3 degree days for that day (3 degrees above 42). Each day is calculated separately and added to the total.

With years of data in the books we can estimate the number of degree days at which fruit buds are in different stages of growth. For instance, McIntosh buds first start showing green at around 127 degree days.

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So what does all of this mean? Well as of today we have accumulated around 57 degree days. While that is quite far ahead of normal for March 1, we won’t be adding any more for a few days here with the cold weather. But the forecast will add some more this weekend and we will keep adding up the numbers as the days go by. Hopefully we will just creep along over the next weeks and not really blow up our temperatures like we did in 2012. This early warmth will probably move our season ahead of normal some. How much? I guess we will know when we get there! But at this point a week or two earlier than normal is probably a reasonable estimate. But remember, this is Michigan. It could be still snowing in April!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Recipe for an apple orchard

Well we are finally finishing up planting apple trees for this spring! It has been a real challenge getting them planted in between the rainy days. It seems just when the ground dried up enough to plant, we would get another inch of rain and have to wait again!

The recipe for an apple orchard has changed a lot over the years. Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, it was common to plant trees 35 feet apart or more with 40-48 trees per acre. Those were the big old spreading apple trees that you climbed as a kid. They were huge, often 24 feet wide and just as tall. And planting was simple. Just plant them and in 5-8 years you would start getting some apples! When the trees got older, it could take a man all day to pick two trees!

Today things have changed greatly. The recipe for one acre of orchard now looks like this:

  • 1,200 apple trees
  • 102 treated 12 foot posts
  • 7,250 feet of high tensile wire
  • 1,200 ten foot x ½ inch steel Conduits (pipes)
  • 2,400 wire clips
  • 4,800-6,000 feet of plastic tying tube.
  • 3,600 feet of drip irrigation line
  • Various other hardware.
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So let’s get started! The trees are planted 3 feet apart in the row and the rows are 12 feet wide.

 

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Posts are placed in the ground 36 feet apart to support the trees.

 

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2 holes are drilled in the post for the support wires. The wires are fed through the posts for the entire length of the row, and then they are pulled tight.

 

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Next, a conduit is placed by each tree for support, and clipped to the wires.
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The the tree is tied to the conduit every 2 feet as it grows. This supports the tree, which would fall over if it was not tied.
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The new planting looks like this at the beginning of the second summer!

This is obviously a simplified description of the planting process. Hundreds of hours of work go into each acre in the first year alone! If everything goes perfectly, we should begin to pick some fruit off the new orchard when it is three years old. Oh, I forgot. Just add sunshine and water! (and a few other things!)

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

The buzz in the orchard this week!

This week’s blog is dedicated to Rudy Katerberg. He was a good friend who taught me much of what I know about honeybees and their fascinating lives.

 

I often think that for a couple weeks in the spring, we live in the prettiest place there is! Blossom time in the orchards is beautiful. There are millions of flowers on the trees and everywhere you go is like a natural aromatherapy session! And we get to watch as thousands of honeybees go about their work on warm sunny days.

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An orchard pallet with 6 hives

Do you know that if it were not for honeybees, we would not be able to grow apples? In fact all of the fruits we grow, except peaches, require some sort of bees for pollination. We rent our bees from a local beekeeper and he brings them in during the blossom period and removes them when the flowers are finished. Each hive has 30,000-50,000 bees inside. While they are here, the bees do a tremendous amount of work. For instance, to grow nice apples, each flower should be visited 4-6 times by a bee. To pollinate the flower, the bee must be carrying pollen from another variety of apple. This is called cross-pollination. A Gala apple cannot be pollinated with Gala pollen. It has to have pollen from another variety. This is true of all apples. With acres and acres of blossoming trees out there, bees have a monumental task! But the bees love their work, and they are happiest on sunny days with light winds and plenty of flowers nearby. Here is a short video of a honeybee working on some cherry blossoms.

Not every blossom on the tree gets pollinated. Some are not visited at all. Others are not visited enough times. If you have ever seen an apple that was misshapen—one side was bigger than the other—it is because of incomplete pollination. If you cut that apple in half you will find that there are fewer or even no seeds in the small side of the apple. That blossom was not visited enough times by the bees. Here are some more interesting bee facts that will amaze you!

  • Honeybees are not native to the USA. They are European in origin, and were brought to North America by the early settlers.
  • Bees use pollen, which is really sticky, and combine it with nectar to make bee bread. They feed this to the baby bees.
  • To make a pound of honey, honeybees need to visit 2,000,000 flowers!
  • An average bee makes 1/12 a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • Bees flap their wings 200 times per second. That makes the familiar “Buzzzzz”.

Our bees are model employees. They work from sun up to sun down day after day. They will travel up to 5 miles one way to harvest pollen and nectar to feed the young in the hive. The only time they are a bit ornery is when it is cold or rainy and they can’t work outside! And, as a side benefit to us, they make honey for our toast and make it possible to crunch on a fresh apple in the fall!

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A honeybee on a peach blossom.

That’s the buzz in our orchards!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Planning, planting and other adventures

I’ll bet you thought spring would never come! This past weekend was just what everyone was waiting for! It is amazing what a few days with plentiful sunshine and temps in the low 80’s can do for everyone’s morale. Suddenly everything is motorcycles, lawn mowers and all things summer. I even saw more than a few Sea-Doo’s and boats go by on trailers! It seems everyone is happy to be outside! Over this past weekend’s warm spell our tree’s growth really exploded. It’s amazing to watch them put on 2-3 days normal growth in a single day.

Spring is a time for renewal. Time to freshen things up. Clean things up. Out with the old and in with the new. That rule applies here at the orchard too. We are finishing up on removing some older trees and planting new trees to replace them. I’m often asked “Why are you cutting those trees down? Aren’t they still growing apples?” The answer is “Yes, but we want to grow better apples!” Times change and so do people’s tastes in fruit. When the demand for an older variety lessens, it only makes sense to change our plantings around a bit. We will still grow those old favorites, just not as many of them as we used too. We need to make room for new favorites too! Planting systems change as well. Where we used to plant 120 trees per acre, we now are putting 1200 (more on that in a future blog)! So every year we remove a percentage of our older plantings and renew them with fresher ones.

Sometimes our renewals don’t go as planned. A few years ago we removed an older peach orchard and after giving the soil a year off to rebuild, we planted a fresh new orchard of Red Haven peach trees. In a couple of years the planting looked great! A beautiful young orchard just ready to bear fruit! But the first year we harvested a few peaches from the trees we became a bit suspicious. They just didn’t have the Red Haven flavor and texture and the pit would NOT come away from the peachy flesh! “Maybe it’s because they are so young yet and not settled into bearing,” we thought. “Maybe they will be better next year.” But the next season what we feared became obvious. These were not Red Haven trees. They weren’t even a very good peach. There had been a mix-up at the nursery that sold us the trees. So sadly we had to start over from scratch. This spring we removed all of those original trees and replanted. The nursery will replace the trees free-of-charge, but the time and opportunity loss will upset our plans. Dad used to say, “Better to have trouble in the barn than in the house.” And he was right.  This isn’t a disaster, just a hiccup in our best laid plans!

So for a few years here our peach harvest won’t be quite what we had planned. But hopefully in a few more years we will have a new crop of “real” Red Haven peaches that will make your mouth water! And we will be planning more renewals….

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker