Terry Bradshaw Vermont Calais, VT Orchard-Crafted Hard Cider in the New American Tradition

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Orchard Management

My management philosophy for the orchard centers around a couple of things.  First is final end use of the product, most of which is destined for the cider press, and therefore does not need to be of the highest quality.  Also since this is a hobby orchard input of both time and materials must be minimized for the sake of my economy and the health of myself and my family.

Given that, the orchard is also intensive and designed for high efficiency.  The use of high density plantings, dwarfing rootstock, intensive training, and careful input management are designed to maximize precocity (early onset of fruit bearing years) and yield.  By fruiting the trees quickly I can both see reward from my work as well as assess some of these riskier varieties and make changes quickly without wasting a lot of years in the ground.

Nutrient management is based on soil and foliar analyses, with an eye on fully meeting the tree's needs in years one and two. After that I believe that better cider, and even better dessert fruit, come from lower yields on trees with the right nutrient stress, primarily nitrogen.  I can tune my nutrient program to maintain proper levels of the most important nutrients, especially potassium and boron (both often overlooked in home orchards) as well as calcium, magnesium, and other elements. At the same time, as the trees develop their canopy to fill their space, nitrogen inputs will be reduced or even eliminated to help contain the trees as well as improve fruit and cider quality.

The fertility program presently is based on using composts and some soluble fertilizers.  All liquid fertilizers are injected into the drip irrigation system and applied only at the exact time necessary for the tree.  This means no nitrogen after June 15, and targeting of other elements at the most opportune times as well.  I have used both soluble chemical fertilizers for quick nitrogen assimilation as well as longer-acting organic materials such as Neptune's Harvest fish and seaweed emulsions.   My preferred potassium/magnesium source is Sul-Po-Mag, organic or inorganic, doesn't matter to me. 

The soil is really what I feed in the orchard, with a few shovels of compost to each tree in the fall and applications of mulch in the summer.  I mow the ortchard a couple of times a year with a BCS sickle bar mower and lay the mown hay in the tree row to decompose.  Any leftover mulch in the tree row is pulled back in fall to avoid vole tunneling, however. Presently the tree row strips receive one or two glyphosate applications per season.  As the trees settle into their spaces, I intend to cover crop the row strips with a short growing fescue to further reduce the tree's nitrogen load.

Pest management.....

Here's the hot-button topic.  I'll expand on my philosophy and practice here later, but the orchard pest management program consists of a best-world mix of organic principles and knowledge-based integrated pest management (IPM) tools.   Actually I did very little spraying in the orchard in its first two years; a couple of applications of glyphosate herbicide and  one spray targeted at our damn tent caterpillars.  Having planted in a virgin (to apple anyway) site, there was not a lot of pest inoculum to begin with, and as long as the trees were growing well, I wasn't too concerned about a few bugs or a little disease. As the orchard develops and there becomes fruit to protect, the pest management practices will evolve and challenge me each season.

Scab management is based on low-rate protective covers during the primary ascospore season, as determined by degree day readings taken locally.  I do not need 100% scab-free fruit so a little gap in my protection window is okay, but a major hole can be covered by using post-infection materials such as the strobilurin and Demethylase-inhibiting fungicides.  I firmly believe that judicious use of the safer synthetic materials (Captan, Sovran, DMI's, others) is more benign to the environment and myself and my family than multiple applications of organically approved sulfur and copper sprays.  Cosmetic summer diseases are of no interest to me nor is a little cedar apple rust or black rot, so my fungicide protection ends by the end of June.

Arthropod management at this point will probably rely on a single application of insecticide at petal fall (around June 1) followed up by targeted summer sprays.  Most of the summer bugs are lepidopterans (caterpillars) so the organic material Bt  works well for me if the applications are properly timed.   If apple maggot becomes a concern my orchard is small enough that I should be able to trap them out effectively.

Good fruit can be grown to meet homeowner and cider mill standards using a minimum of pesticide sprays.  I feel that it is essential when setting up a program that the grower knows exactly what is in the orchard through regular scouting, and that the best materials, synthetic or non-synthetic, be available to do the job safely and effectively.

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All material Copyright Terence Bradshaw 2006-2013

terryb at lostmeadowvt dot com