Saturday, November 13, 2010

Managing an Apple Orchard

As the weather has gotten colder we've still been working away, busy as bees, here at the Corner.  The source of all this activity is the apple orchard.  Never did I think when we bought this place that a few apple trees would occupy me for 3 months at a time.  Of course, I didn't count exactly how many apple trees came with the house.

The work began back in late July when Jody cleared the weeds out of the orchard.  Climbing nightshade have taken over in there and requires vigilance to keep it at bay.

From there we began thinning apples.  Apple trees tend to produce many many little apples.  The trick to getting larger fruit is to thin your apple crop.  When we came upon a clump of say 5 apples growing together, we would pull approximately 3 of them off the tree, leaving 2 behind.  Those 2 apples will receive all the nutrition that the original 5 would have received and grow into larger apples.

At the end of August our first apples matured.  There seemed to be a large amount of apples that had fallen under one particular tree so we began taste testing.  Happily we discovered this tree is a Yellow Transparent, otherwise known as an August Apple.  It produces soft yellow apples with a tart flavour.  How did we know what kind of apple it was?  We considered that the trees in our orchard were likely planted around the time this house was built.  Basically some time in the last 100 years.  You won't find these apples at your local supermarket so we needed to find a source that listed heritage varieties.  AppleManFarms lists heritage varieties and talks about varieties that are common in the maritimes and was a big help to us.  We still haven't been able to identify all the varieties on our property but we're getting there.  Identification requires a lot of items to be addressed.  The size, shape, taste and colour of the apples are important.  But other qualities such as bloom time and tree shape are considered as well.  In the coming year I hope to more carefully document each of our trees so we'll be that much closer to a positive identification.
These apples ripened in late October and were extremely tasty.  Unfortunately we haven't been able to identify them.
Now in November there are still a few apples hanging on in our trees although most have fallen or been picked.  I spent some time recently on my hands and knees clearing apples off the ground.  I managed to do some weeding while I was crawling around as well.  Once the ground was clear I spread lime and compost as the trees have not had a good feeding in who knows how long.  One of the ways I know this is because our apples suffer from Bitter Pit.  This is a condition caused by calcium deficiency.  Our apples appear pitted and brown spots occur in the flesh.  The lime and compost spread throughout the orchard will hopefully begin to alleviate this condition.

Many apples too high to reach fall to the ground and are damaged by bruising, bugs, slugs and birds.  It means a lot of clean up!
Another issue with our apple orchard is space.  Any fruit tree needs a combination of air and sun to grow large blemish free fruit.  Not enough air circulation or sunlight promotes conditions such as fungus and rot.  Many of the trees are planted tightly together and we have had a difficult time accessing the apples.  Often when we do find them they are quite small, deformed or bug ridden.  A decision was made to create a little more room and our orchard is now minus 3 trees.  It's funny but you hardly even notice they're gone.  The branches from the other trees simply relaxed into the open space and filled it right back up again.  Hopefully the removed trees will create a little more breathing room and ease up the competition for nutrients and light.

On the right you can see the stump from a former apple tree.  There was only a couple feet between that tree and its neighbour.
Things have slowed down in our orchard right now and we're getting a bit of a break but there's always another chore to be undertaken.  The next step will be pruning which we'll do mid-winter or early early spring when the trees are dormant.  In the meantime we're enjoying the fruits of our labour, slices of apple pie and cups of hot cider on a chilly evening.


  1. Wow, what a treasure you have. Two dozen apple trees of different varieties is definitely an impressive orchard. Apples are labor intensive plants to manage and they get all kinds of problems... I am amazed at how well yours are producing and what you are doing to keep this heirloom orchard going.

  2. Yes it is treasure..I agree with Laurrie. Apples are labour intensive, starting in early spring if you use the lime sulfur and dormant oil combo..right to this time of year when your hands are frozen putting the windfalls through the apple press. We had a heritage orchard when we lived on the left coast...40 trees..lots of work but oh how we miss those apples now. Lucky you!!

    BTW have a bit of the same history as you do...west to east.

  3. It must be so cool to go around picking apples like that. I hope your orchard thrives with less trees too

  4. Your own collection of heritage apples. I am betting you will both grow to love these trees. :)

  5. I keep learning from you! My "new" home on PEI has a loooooong tree-lined laneway and there are a few apple trees in amongst them. When we were there in August the apples were very tiny and I wondered why. Now I know and I will be thinning them out next year so the remaining ones can grow larger.
    Thanks again!

  6. Laurrie - It is amazing what a diverse orchard we have. Whoever planted it certainly put some thought into the trees. Instead of ripening all at once we have had apples for months now and they are each good for different purposes. We were thrilled to find that a good portion of the trees were reasonably healthy and still producing edible fruit.

    Gardeningbren - How wonderful to meet another west coaster! My partner sometimes comments that we seem to be among a wave of people coming east. Sounds like you have some great experience with apples too! I may need to pick your brain sometime as my apple experience is pretty limited. A cider press is on my list of 'wants'. Thus far I've made cider on the stovetop which is terribly time consuming and makes only tiny quantities. We have one tree of cider apples that is just calling out for us to buy a press.

    Fer - It's a great feeling to produce your own food whether it's picking apples or pulling carrots. Every year I am amazed at what comes from a tiny seed planted in the ground. And there's nothing so fresh and tasty and I get a real sense of accomplishment looking at a full freezer.

    Ms.S - I think you're right! This year has been all about getting to know each tree individually. From the beautiful blossoms, to what kind of apple does it produce, the shape of the tree, when the leaves fall. There's a lot of history and personality to each one.

    Jane - How wonderful, fruit trees are a pleasant surprise I think. Thinning is always good as it will allow some air between fruit, keep fruit from knocking against each other or rubbing but keep in mind that some apples are simply smaller so they won't always grow really big. Our fruit ranges from cider apples that are slightly larger than plums to apples twice the size of my fist!

  7. Makes me smile. I have only one apple tree with apples falling and I am struggling and you, you have an orchard. Bless. Warms my heart. Not only are you busy picking (which must hurt the back now and again), you must be busy in the kitchen too.

  8. You are so lucky to have August Apples which are my favorite for pies. They are just so nice and tart! We visit a apple orchard every year called Old Time Orchard which is located down a heritage road called the Warburton Road. They are just a fantastic couple ( he is a Chief teaching at the culinary) They have the best varieties and one set price for whatever you pick 50cent a pound. If you bring a horse down the road apples are free. It is so worth the trip to visit and they can give you great tips on managing your own apples trees. They worked wonders for us.

  9. mangocheeks - I'll admit my hubby does most of the work around the orchard. It's turned into 'his garden' which is highly amusing since he's never gardened before in his life. But there's too much work for just one so I pitch in, mostly in the kitchen. Lots to learn about growing apples and cooking them! My first time trying cider, and baking pies. I visited your site, your apple and cinnamon jelly looks divine. I really should learn how to make jams and preserves, it's really the best way to use such large quantities of food.

    The Witch - August apples certainly do make great pies! I hear they're also good for apple sauce. We're still figuring out what apples work best for what recipes. We visited an apple orchard once and picked up some tips on caring for apple trees but I think a refresher course wouldn't hurt. There's a lot to know, particularly when caring for heritage varieties.

  10. mmmm .. mmm .. mm .. homegrown apples .. looks to me like you have a beautifull orchard to play in ..

  11. How wonderful Marguerite to have a heritage apple orchard. Thanks for the tip about thinning the fruit. I have 2 apple trees about 20 feet apart they are young trees and neither have produced fruit yet. What can I do to encourage them too fruit?

  12. Jane - it's a wonderful space walking through the trees and the scene is always changing. That orchard is beginning to win me over.

    Melanie - I'm no apple expert so take my advice with numerous grains of salt! That said, I think how young the tree is could be a factor. From what I understand it can take anywhere up to 5 years for a tree to become established and start producing fruit. Where it's planted will also affect it. Like any perennial we plant, sometimes they love their chosen spot and bloom their hearts out and sometimes they pout. Anything in that location from sun, soil fertility, and pests could be affecting your trees. Something to try is pruning. A light pruning of your tree might kickstart it to start producing fruiting spurs. I'll be trying that technique this winter with a small tree. Good luck!

  13. Oh Marguerite, I'm coming for your apple pie!
    How glorious to have an heirloom orchard!

  14. It must be very rewarding, after all that hard work, to harvest your own apples and enjoy the fruits of your labors! It was really interesting to read about the steps involved in maintaining an orchard.

  15. Very interesting! Your trees are very special. The owner of the farm (I wrote about it in my last post) told me that nobody plants old-fashioned trees these days for commercial purposes. That is why we can't find a farm where they allow you to pick your own apples with a special long-handle tool. They plant dwarf varieties now. Good luck with the apple trees identification!

  16. Sandra, while we are enjoying the pie I am feeling a bit of apple overkill. What I wouldn't give for a nice orange tree after months of nothing but apples.

    Jennifer - My parents used to have a few apple trees at their home so I have some limited knowledge of how to care for apples but finding ourselves with 20+ trees has been a learning experience. I'm sure as time goes on we'll discover steps we missed and tricks that will improve the health of our trees. There's definitely lots to learn yet.

    Tatyana - It's very true, heirlooms are a dying breed. The most important aspect to an apple farmer today is that their fruit be blemish free, not bruise easily and take a long time to ripen (so they can lay in storage for long periods). Most heritage varieties are soft apples which ripen quickly and bruise easily. And as you noticed, dwarf trees are preferred so that all the apples are easily reached. It's a shame because apples trees - as a tree - are quite beautiful. Their shape often reminds me of bonsai, very twisted and full of character. If we don't preserve them, future generations won't know what an old apple tree looks like.

  17. I am apple farming vicariously through you! Apple pie is one of my all-time favorite desserts. It would be wonderful to pick my own apples out of my own orchard! I'm so glad you have the heirloom varieties. Have you ever eaten a Red Delicous apple? Yuck!

  18. I can't help but wish I had such tasty and rewarding research to do in my garden.

    Looks like you need the help of a trusty goat or pig to clear the ground of mushy apples in autumn!

    Apples trees are on my list of trees to plant at my next garden, but I will have to take steps to protect the trees/apples from the moose and bears in the area. Any apple loving wildlife in your area?

    Christine in Alaska

  19. You have a beautiful apple crop so what do you do with these beautiful heritage apples? I want to taste the August Apple, it sounds delicious.

  20. To lose three months to the apple trees.... what a wonderful life! I'm hoping to add one apple tree to my yard next year. I'm looking at some of the grafted varieties. If I had the space, I would plant an orchard!

  21. TS - I couldn't agree with you more. Red Delicious has got to be one of the yuckiest apples I've ever eaten. Part of the fun for us has been taste testing each new tree and discovering the different kinds of apples. We've done a lot of cooking too, trying to decide how best to use them.

    Christine - So far the wasps, robins and crows seem to favor the apples the most. At least during the daytime. I have no idea who might come by during the night but we do have skunks, raccoons, foxes and coyotes in our neighbourhood so I suppose anything's possible. Thank goodness no deer though, or moose!

    Cheri - Thus far we've made apple pie, apple cider, apple chips and apple struedel. And we've vacuum sealed dozens of bags of chopped apples and frozen them for future cooking. Not to mention giving them away to neighbours, friends and coworkers. Feels as if we'll never run out.

    Laura - While it's been exciting finding so many trees I think the charms of a whole orchard could wear off quickly. They take a lot of time away from the flower beds I'd like to be working on. For grafted apples you should check out Derry's Orchard in Langley (google her website). She usually has a table at Seedy Saturday at Van Dusen too (in February).

  22. I enjoy reading this kind of stuff. Thanks for sharing good knowledge