We started our little prairie orchard in 2006 with a handful of fruit trees and berry bushes. Having an orchard of any size on the wind-battered plains is a challenge; trees need lots of water and ample protection and the open prairie offers little of both. Fruit trees are particularly sensitive which is why the orchard is relatively close to the house, tucked up against a wind barrier of ponderosa pines and surrounded by an eight-foot snow fence lined with berry bushes and grape vines. And, as with anything on the farm, it’s always a work in progress; this year we have a row of spruce trees to add to our arsenal of wind protection.
Our hard work and attention over the last 9 years has paid off and today our quarter-acre orchard has apples, plums, apricots, sour cherries, pears, and for a while we even had a peach tree. But with our Montana spring right around the corner, it’s time to dust off the shears.
We have 50 trees to prune before they start to bloom and we have been blessed with the perfect weather to do just that. Pruning is as much about timing as it is about which branches to cut and where. Ideally, we want to give our trees a few dry days after we prune, for the same reasons we keep a cut dry and clean, to avoid infection.
But pruning can be more than preventative, it can also help trees already affected by disease. This year we have an apple tree that’s contracted fireblight. Fireblight is a highly contagious disease that can spread quickly and has the potential to take out an entire orchard. By aggressively pruning the infected branches, we hope to save the tree but we’re not taking any chances with the orchard. Once it’s safe to move, the tree will be relocated.
There are two other apple trees leaving our little orchard this year, but not because of disease. The north Montana prairie can be just as hot in the summer as it is cold in the winter and these two particular apple trees have had a rough time with these extremes, so we’ll send them south later this spring. But for now, we’ll prune them as well so they’re ready for the coming season.
Generally when pruning fruit trees, you’re going to cut back about twenty to thirty percent, but we’re not lopping off branches without careful consideration. The idea is to open them up so more of the branches, and eventually the fruit, can get as much sunlight as possible. Trees that are overcrowded tend to produce less. We’re also paying close attention to how we make each cut. It’s important that they are as perpendicular to the ground as possible; we don’t want moisture to settle where we cut because it increases the chance for disease.
Some trees grow chutes around the base of the trunk and we call these “suckers.” For some trees, like plums, this is natural, but they can be a stress indicator for others. A stress response from a tree can mean any number of things but it really all comes down to the tree’s survival instincts. Suckers are a tree’s way of either attempting to feed its roots or to start a new tree. We prune these as well so the tree is not expending unnecessary energy there instead of on the fruit.
And while the fruit is certainly a reward all its own, each tree produces a different kind of fruit and we’ve planted this variety as part of our continued pursuit of knowledge in organic farming. We are looking at things like disease resistance, the taste of the fruit as well as how and when they ripen. We keep a close eye on how long the fruit lasts after it’s been picked. But we are also looking at how these trees hold up in our particular climate.
Overall, our little prairie orchard has been extremely rewarding. We’ve learned a lot about these trees and how effective organic farming can be with the right mindset, knowledge and determination.