How do you like them apples?
Fruit-growers give guidance on starting orchard of your own
By Suzanne Dean
There’s something almost romantic about the apple blossoms that have been blooming around Sanpete County for the last couple of weeks.
You remember the song:
“I’ll be with you in apple blossom time
I’ll be with you to change you name to mine.
Sometime in May, I’ll come and say
Happy the bride that the sun shines on today…”
The music and lyrics were copyrighted in the 1920 by a couple of obscure songwriters. But since the 1940s, the song has been recorded by Nat King Cole, Chet Atkins and Wayne Newton, to name a few.
As for Sanpete County, we have “a huge apple orchard with hundreds of apple trees of many varieties,” says Jackson Pemberton of Fairview, who grew up on apple farms in Washington state and ranks as one of the county’s apple experts.
The trees may be blocks apart, Pemberton says. And there may be as many orchardists as trees. “But that doesn’t need to prevent Sanpete orchardists from harvesting a crop almost every year.”
Pemberton and his apple-growing neighbors, Richard and Judy Prue, and Eric and Claudia Fossom, all of Fairview, have some tips for realizing that vision.
Richard Prue learned how to take care of trees during his youth when he worked for six summers for a fruit farmer in Orem.
He and Judy now have more than 80 fruit and nut trees on their 9-acre property, including at least six varieties of apple trees.
According to the Prues, success starts with your planting technique. “There’s a saying,” Judy says. “Buy a $10 tree and put it in a $100 hole.”
The hole where you plant your tree should be at least 4 feet deep and 4 feet wide, Richard says. Put bone meal and Epsom salt in the bottom of the hole. Put the tree trunk in the hole and fill the hole with horse manure.
“The manure holds in the moisture,” Judy says.
Between the end of winter and when apple trees blossom, tree cultivators have two challenges. First, you need to protect from pests (other than the coddling moth, which we’ll talk about in the minute).
You can do so, Pemberton says, by spraying with a dormant oil orchard spray such as Bonide Insecticide & Fungicide Spray or SunSpray Ultra Fine Spray Oil. It’s too late for pre-season spraying this year, but keep it in mind for next March.
The second and often bigger challenge is a freeze after trees have blossomed. When a freeze destroyed blossoms and buds on his family’s apple farm, Pemberton remembers, “We didn’t even break even and lost the money gained in the good years.”
For a long time, when frost threatened, the Pembertons tried to keep their orchards warm with scores of smudge pots, which were a little like pioneer washtubs with smokestacks on top. Once, he remembers, they burned 1,000 gallons of oil in the smudge pots one night.
Then they hit on a simpler and more environmentally friendly approach, which works as long as the temperature stays above about 28 degrees. Most spring frosts are within that range.
The Pembertons simply turned on the irrigation sprinklers and soaked the ground underneath the trees. In order for water to turn to ice, a surprising amount of heat has to be released, Pemberton says. That heat rises and warms up the tree.
“It’s not rocket science,” Pemberton says. “Start running a lawn sprinkler when the temperature goes below freezing and keep the ground wet until the temperature rises above freezing in the morning.”
While water freezes at 32 degrees, apple blossoms don’t freeze until they get down to 30.5 degrees, and the apple buds can survive down to 28 degrees, he says.
When ice forms around apple blossoms, it can act like an igloo and keep the blossom and bud a little warmer than the surrounding ice.
“A blossom encased in ice is both beautiful and vital,” Pemberton says.
Once the threat of frost passes, you need to address the coddling moth, the pervasive “worm” that burrows into and messes up apples.
To do that, you need to hang a coddling moth trap in your tree to detect the moths. The traps are available through Amazon, at nurseries and even at Walmart for $8 to $16.
As soon as two or three moths show up in your trap in one day, typically in late June or early July, you need to spray with an organic spray, such as Success or Entrust. The spray prevents more moths from hatching.
Keep watching your trap, Pemberton says. If more moths show up, spray again, right up to when the tree is full of apples. In Sanpete County, you usually don’t need to spray more than three times.
After your harvest in the fall, there’s one final step to apple tree health. You need to prune. Cut off dead and diseased branches. But equally important, open the
branches up to air and sunlight. Pemberton says a robin should be able to fly unimpeded through the middle of your tree.
Go ahead and cut off some of the branches with smooth bark, especially any growing downward, he says. Retain the gnarly branches because those are the ones where the buds and blossoms grow.
Eric Fossom, Pemberton’s friend in Fairview, is an unsparing pruner. But in early April, he pointed to a tree where it appeared a good share of the original growth was gone and said, “That tree will be covered with apples” in the months ahead.
All the techniques for producing good apples beg the question, “When your trees runneth over, what do you do with all those apples?”
The Prues, now in their early 80s, have adult children and grandchildren in Texas, Colorado, Idaho and California. When the kids come to visit, the Prues send them home with boxes of apples—Except for the children and grandchildren from California. It’s illegal to bring fresh fruit from outside across the state border. They also give as much as they can to neighbors.
A few years ago, the Prues bought a Harvest Rite freeze drying machine, available at Tractor Supply stores. The Prues estimate they freeze dry 250 quarts of fruit. That way, California family members can take home some of the bounty from their parents’ orchard and gardens.
The Prues can another 75 to 100 quarts of whole fruit and purees using the traditional water-bath or steam-canning methods.
Jack Pemberton’s wife, Chalot, cans apple pie filling, applesauce and even apple cidar.
Picking, boxing, canning and freeze drying may not be as romantic as a “wonderful wedding” where “church bells will chime,” as described in the 1920s song, but nonetheless are a fun culmination of apple blossom time.