The Prairie Orchard: A Work in Progress

pruned apple trees

After an extremely mild winter, the days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and with spring just around the corner, my produce manager, Charley, and I are focusing on preparing our orchard for a new year.

We started our little experimental orchard on the prairie in 2006, so we’re celebrating ten years of learning experiences and successes this year. And we have learned a great deal over the last decade. Last year, in particular, was a rough year for our orchard; between extreme weather conditions and disease, we lost or had to remove several of our apple trees. But you can always find the silver lining in a storm and this spring it means we have fewer trees that need pruning.

Pruning is essential for a successful orchard; it allows us to shape a tree to reach the height of its productive potential. Pruning can be advantageous for the tree, as well as aesthetic. Here on the farm, we’re admittedly less concerned about looks and more concerned about productivity but sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.

For example, a large component of pruning is about “opening” up the tree to let more light into the middle of the tree. As with any plant, light is a key ingredient to healthy, plentiful production and over the course of a year, a tree is growing more than fruit. But the trick to pruning is to encourage the tree to focus more on the latter.

This year Charley invited his Master Gardener class from Fort Benton, Montana to the farm to visit the orchard and see how pruning is done firsthand. We also had a chance to share our experiences, goals and setbacks. So much of organic farming is about sharing knowledge with others in your area and learning from each other. No one farmer or gardener has all the answers but an extended community, in my experience, gets pretty close.

orchard tourOne thing we learned over this past year that we shared with our guests is our improved understanding of the types of trees that fare better in our climate. Northern Montana can be a harsh environment for any plant which means the heartier the better. What we didn’t know was semi-dwarf trees are always under a certain amount a stress because they are grafted to a type of root stock which restricts their growth. This stress can result in greater sensitivity to colder, harsher climates and this has been evident in our orchard here on the farm. Many of our apple trees were semi-dwarf trees and most of those were severely damaged or died during the two winters prior to this last, extremely mild one. So going forward we will plant only standard trees and hopefully have better luck.

We also noticed a couple of the trees we pruned last year produced an excessive number of straight-up chutes, called water spouts. This is often an indicator of stress which means we may have cut back too much last year, causing the tree to instinctively focus on rebuilding itself rather than on producing fruit. In this, pruning becomes a balancing act of what to cut, where and even when.

Unfortunately our group of willing guests was unable to help us with some more hands-on pruning due to the forecast of snow and rain the next morning. Timing and weather are important and trees should have a few dry days after pruning to allow the wounds to heal over a bit and thus avoid infection.

When the weather clears again, Charley and I will finish pruning in preparation for spring and I look forward to sharing all the plans and changes we have for our orchard’s tenth anniversary.