Winter Work

by Gary Mount

The leaves have fallen from the trees and bushes here at Terhune Orchards. The plants are getting themselves set for a season of dormancy, preparing for a glorious (I hope) springtime of blossoms and pollination. As they drift off towards a time of inactivity, I am headed in the other direction! Winter work, although not as time sensitive as the growing season or as hectic as the harvest season, is one of the most interesting tasks of the year.

winter_workEach tree, bush, and cane on the farm has to be pruned every year. Pruning, the selective cutting of the fruit plant’s limbs or branches, is the farmer’s best opportunity to direct how his fruit crops will grow. During the growing season, we may water, fertilize and spray, but the biggest influence on the plants at that time is beyond our control – rain, temperature, wind, and sun – the climate.

At Terhune Orchards, we have thousands of trees: 20,000+ apple, 2,000+ peach, 100+ pear, 1,000+ cherry, 3,000+ blueberry bushes and about 10 acres of raspberries and blackberries. That’s a lot of winter work! The pruning is done by hand, and there are as many ideas about pruning as there are farmers. Each winter, I go to three or four meetings or conferences where pruning is discussed. Sometimes the discussions get pretty “interesting” because each farmer, researcher, and extension agent is sure he is right.

I am not able to do the entire pruning on the farm by myself, especially with going to all these conventions. When I come home, it becomes my duty to distill what I have learned, add it to what I think I already know, and come up with usable directions for the men who help with the pruning on the farm.

Apples are probably the most interesting trees to prune. Several factors can greatly influence the tree and the crop, such as what types of branches are cut, where they are cut, and how many are cut on each tree. Apple size, color, sweetness and shape are affected. Tree size, the number of apples per tree, the number of apples per acre, how soon the planting comes into production, and how long the tree lasts are directly related to how the tree is pruned.

Too much pruning leads to slowness to bear, lack of red color and sweetness, and large apples of poor quality. Too little pruning leads to reduction of bearing, lack of red color and sweetness, disease and insect attacks on the fruit, and a weak tree that will break under a heavy crop.

This is to say that benign neglect is not what is best for an apple tree. For example, the big apple trees in the front of the farm suffered from lack of attention this year. They ended up with a very heavy crop, small apples, and many broken limbs.

Pruning peaches is somewhat simple compared to apples. Peaches bear fruit on one-year-old wood, so we leave as many healthy, vigorous, one-year-old shoots about pencil thickness and 30 inches long as possible, spaced around the tree.

Some pruning makes me cringe. Pear pruning could be as interesting as apples, except for fire blight. This fruit tree disease (it really does look like fire has burned through the tree) attacks young, vigorous, succulent branches of the tree. It can strike a tree dead in a very short time. Since pruning stimulates the tree and promotes that kind of growth, the only solution is to prune hardly at all. Just basic shaping, minor thinning, and leave the tree alone. Hopefully the fire blight will, too.

Even higher on the cringe scale of pruning is blueberries. I am a bit new at growing blueberries, but the basics are if you want big, sweet, flavorful berries, the older canes have to be removed in rotation. If you want a lot of berries, the older canes have to be left in much longer. What a dilemma! A large crop equals small berries, potentially lower price but higher income, unhappy customers, puzzled farmer. Large berries equal less crop, potentially higher prices but lower income, happier customers, puzzled farmer. Each year I say to myself, “Let someone else prune these blueberries!”

Lots of factors can affect the eventual outcome of the fruit crop. Since many of them are beyond the farmer’s control, there is no sense in worrying about them. Besides, there is nothing to do anyway. At the end of the winter when the pruning is done, there comes the satisfaction of knowing that what needed to be done was done and what could be done for a rewarding crop was completed. Happy growing.