Shear madness

When I was a kid we had bushes in our yard. I guess that bushes were the landscape trend du jour, because it seems everybody had some form of them. We had Spirea bushes and a big Syringa bush that always seemed overgrown. The row of Spirea bushes provided us with a fun game of guessing which bush which kid was hiding behind. They were big and dense enough that you couldn’t tell who, if anyone was there. Yes, I know, simpler times, easily entertained, yada yada.

One thing about those bushes I didn’t like though was that a few times each summer they had to be trimmed. It was a hot, itchy task performed with a set of shears that looked like a giant scissors. I have to admit that while I didn’t like the job, I did like the way the bushes looked when the job was done. Big round green (or white when in bloom) balls that if done right would be perfectly symmetrical. For a week or so. Before they started growing shaggy again!

This week we are hedging our newer apple orchards. What is hedging? Well I’ve written before about the newer plantings being a solid narrow row of trees with no breaks. So hedging is how we can quickly trim the trees in summer to keep them from getting too bushy and shading the fruit. It shapes the row into a narrow canopy so that the sunlight can penetrate and color the fruit. The task is performed with a large sickle bar similar to the old hay mowers that we used to cut hay with. Mounted vertically on the front of a tractor, the blade shears the row as we slowly drive along. We can change the angle of the cut on the fly as needed. The result is a nice even “hedge” of apple trees with the fruit exposed to the sun. Here is a before and after shot.

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Here is a video from the driver’s seat! Who knew that all that bush shearing would come back around to me later in life?

Grafting update

The grafts we did on the apple trees this spring are growing well. We’ve begun to trim back the original trees so that the grafted shoots get more nourishment and growth. Some current pictures here. Notice the grafted shoot coming out from the white taped area on the trunk! IMG_3839IMG_3843

Summer is a busy time filled with lots of varied tasks! Nobody ever says they are bored around here. If you do, we’ll put you to work!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker    tompic

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Brushing up on Spring!

Spring has Sprung!! Or at least the calendar says so. The weather has moderated some, although it is still freezing at night, and we still have remnants of snow laying around. Apparently winter isn’t giving up easily this year. Maybe it doesn’t like being told to go home!

Most of our apple and pear trimming is finished. With just a few rows of Fuji and Spy still to go, and some young Pink Lady apple trees that are still hanging on to last year’s leaves.

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Time to prune them, leaves or not!

I guess they aren’t ready to call it spring yet either. We are spending much of this week removing the trimmings from our winter pruning out of the orchards. This dry weather stretch has been helpful, because we can get around the orchards without tearing up the sod with our tractors. Some years that is not the case.

So what do we do with all that brush? Well the younger trees have small prunings that we chop into smithereens and leave right in the orchard. That’s good for putting the nutrients back into the ground. Our chopper has limitations though, so bigger limbs must be removed from the orchard and piled up to be burned.

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That’ll be some big hot dog roast! Whichever way we dispose of the brush, it has to be raked or swept into the center of the rows. And that requires a body and a rake. As kids growing up in the apple business we all knew what Spring Break meant. It meant raking brush. No, not on a beach somewhere in Florida or Mexico. Right here. On the farm. And whether Spring Break was early or late, it always seemed to coincide with…you guessed it…raking brush. Some years were cold and wet. Others were warm-ish and almost pleasant. But the job remained the same. It was always better if we could get some cousins or neighbor kids to help. The monumental task seemed to go faster that way. By the end of the week we were almost looking forward to going back to school!

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This row is raked!

With the brush cleaned up, I like the way the orchard looks in the spring. All the trees standing at attention, poised to begin the growing season.

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A fresh start. A new year. And while we don’t know yet what the season will bring, we are promised that spring will come, growth will begin, and the roller coaster ride to harvest will never be boring or predictable. Unlike raking brush….

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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 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

 

 

 

 

 

Cold weather work

Well January started out so cold that we really couldn’t work out in the orchards at all. We normally would have been pruning the apple and pear trees, but with the below zero temps at night we had to delay that work for warmer weather. Not that we wanted to be out in that cold anyway! But when we cut a branch off in very cold weather like we were seeing then, the extremely cold temperatures can damage or kill the wood around those fresh cuts. Not something we want to risk.

But now the weather has moderated to the point that we have been much warmer than normal. It looks like this month that started out so cold will wind up with a nearly average overall temperature. I’ve often seen over the years that weather tends to average out over a period of time. A wet, rainy spring more often than not leads to a dry summer. And a period of below average temperatures is often followed by above average temps. So I’m not surprised by the warm days we have had recently. Me? I’d rather have snow!

Many of you ask what we do in the winter. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not spend the winter in Florida! While we do have a little more relaxed pace in the winter months, we still have plenty of pruning to keep us busy. We try to trim every fruit tree on the farm every year. It is a time consuming task, so it is good that we have a few months to get it accomplished! We start with the apple and pear trees, which when cut, can take the cold weather better than peach and cherry trees. We like to do the “stone fruits” like peaches, cherries and plums after they begin to grow early in the spring. They are more tender and susceptible to cold injury when cut in winter.

So how do we know which branches to remove when we prune? We look for unproductive branches that are just using up resources and not producing any fruit. Those are cut out, along with a few of the bigger older branches that are getting past their prime bearing years. The best fruit grows on younger wood, so that is what we try to leave in the tree. And we want to open the tree up so that in the summer, the sunlight can penetrate throughout the tree. Because a young branch with plenty of nutrients and sunshine will produce the prime fruit that we are looking for. We also want to shape the tree so that it is easily harvested and maintained. While each tree is different, we try to keep them all the same shape and size within any particular orchard. A uniform orchard is much easier to care for than one with trees of all shapes and sizes. Below is a “before” and “after” example of a Red Delicious apple tree.

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And we are always thinking ahead. “If I cut this branch out this year, that one will have more light and strength to produce good fruit next year. And next year we will cut out that other one to make room for the one just below it to grow.” Those decisions are made hundreds of times each day this time of year. It is tiring work, both physically and mentally. Fortunately the trees are somewhat forgiving!

So we get to know our trees. Each one gets a “once over” this time of year. As we prune, we can see where the cuts were made last year, and what we will cut out next year. It’s a long term investment of time and energy that hopefully will result in better orchards and better fruit. And after a day of pruning in the cold, a warm dinner with family and a good night’s rest is a welcome way to end the day!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Trimming the trees

It’s a new year, and just like that we go back to winter with a vengeance! But it is, after all, January in Michigan-what do we expect? This time of year things on the farm have slowed down a lot. The holidays are over, the bakery is closed, and we have only a few weeks worth of apples left to sell. So now our focus turns to the annual task of pruning (trimming) apple trees.

There is an old story that when Michelangelo finished his famous statue of David an amazed patron asked “How do you create such a fine work of art?” His answer? “I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David!” While this story may or may not be true, It comes to mind when someone asks me “How do you know which limbs to cut off and which to leave?” Well there are methods and some rules of thumb to abide by, but some of is just that I kind of know what I want the tree to look like when I’m finished. If I lined up 5 of my fruit growing friends and all looked at the same tree, we probably would not all make the same cuts. That’s because we all have a different picture in our heads of what the finished product should look like!

The older plantings on our farm are pruned in more traditional ways. Free-standing trees, with strong main branches are maintained by removing the yearly “sucker” growth. “Suckers” are  the thin, upright sprouts with no fruit buds on them. Occasionally a large limb is removed in favor of a younger fruiting branch. Outsides and tops are cut back to contain the tree to it’s space and the branches are thinned to let sunlight in. This process is accomplished by riding in a self propelled trimming machine equipped with hydraulic saw and lopper. The driving and moving side to side and up and down are all done with levers run by my feet. This leaves my hands free to use the pruning tools and make the needed cuts. After years of running this machine, I rarely think about the driving part, my feet just do the task subconsciously. Up one side of the row and down the other, hour after hour, day after day.

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Newer plantings are an entirely different animal though. While some of the same principles are applied, These trees will have no permanent limbs. Every year we remove 2-4 of the biggest limbs, leaving a stub that hopefully will send out a new branch the following summer. In this way, the apples are always growing on young, healthy branches and older wood is constantly being replaced. The trees are kept very narrow so that sunlight can penetrate the entire tree from all sides. I’m still getting used to this newer method and it takes a little more thought for me, probably because I’ve been doing it the old way for so long!

So how do I keep from getting bored during the seemingly endless hours or trimming? Well I do have to pay attention to what I am doing, but I often have music or a podcast going in my ears as background noise. My phone is set for hands free calling too, so I can make or answer calls without missing a snip! Technology is great!

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So even during the heart of winter we are trying to …

Have a fruitful day!

Tom Moelker