by J.F. Pirro
Since the advent of high-density planting in apple orchards, with young apple trees that are now typically spaced 2 to 4 feet apart, the training system has also had to change.
High-density dwarf variety planting has exploded in the last five years. It's simply more efficient, both in the economy of time invested and for the resulting harvest, but that's only going to be the case if more time is spent up front in training young branches, or "feathers," to grow downward.
Branch bending with wire ties has become a critical part of that initial investment in this technique that's become a staple in so-called tall spindle training.
"The apple market has been good," says Jon Clements, a University of Massachusetts Extension educator whose daily experience is with the UMass Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown, Mass., though he works with commercial tree fruit growers throughout the state. "It's resulting in an extensive planting of trees, because growers are profiting, and with that profit they can afford to reinvest in their orchards."
Density planting also benefits growers who are looking to capitalize by increasing popular varieties like Honeycrisp. To do that, growers need to get those new trees into the ground, and then train the young trees. Clements recommends planting 5 percent of the acreage of an existing orchard each year; for example, 5 percent of a 100-acre orchard would amount to 5 acres of new trees a year.
"Every year we plant more, including 1 acre this year," says Andre Tougas of Tougas Family Farm, a 120-acre pick-your-own operation in Northborough, Mass., with 30 acres dedicated to apples.
Half of the family's apple orchard acreage is in tall spindle production, which plants trees in rows spaced 10 feet apart along high-tensile wire strands. Four or five horizontal wires spaced 32 inches apart help structure tree growth. Four or five additional wire clips per tree are connected from wires to branches to train down side feathers (branches) at a 45-degree angle, in the reverse of their natural upward direction. This slows down lateral branching and spikes the formation of fruit buds while also increasing the vigor of the leader by reducing competition.
They begin training trees right after they're planted, installing the first wire, then another by the summer, and the rest are installed as the tree continues to grow. An orchard platform takes them to the top when needed.
When the Tougas family purchased the property in 1981, it inherited an old-style apple orchard, with plantings spaced 30 feet apart. It's been a slow and steady transition, first to semidwarf trees, and now to M.9 dwarfing rootstock, with tall spindle and even super spindle plantings.
"There's no question that the labor is easier with tall spindle, [and] so is pruning, spraying and for any use of mechanization," Tougas says.
You get much faster production, and a greater quantity of trees produces more apples. Tougas Family Farm fits 1,090 apple trees in an acre at 4 feet apart, and 2,175 trees with 2-foot spacing. Supply and demand is the issue: Planning ahead for plantings is more important than ever so the right trees are available. "Every year it seems the demand gets higher and higher," Tougas notes.
For training branches, growers once used string and even rubber bands to tie branches down--a time-consuming process. With more trees, there's a call to save time, and there's far less limb breakage with wire clips when compared to using rubber bands, according to Robert M. Crassweller, a professor of tree fruit at Penn State University.
Today, the standard is thin-gauge wire cut to needed lengths, say a foot or two, with a curved hook on the end, one side of which is used to tie down the branch. The other side is hooked to the tree/high-tensile wire. Either way, once down, ties are kept in place for about a month, and then can be removed and reused or just allowed to fall off.
"Any grower can make their own, or cut your own wire. It's really whatever works best for you," Clements says.
Finger Lakes Trellis Supply in Williamson, N.Y., sells 1,000-count 19-gauge soft wire (and other variations too) that can be held in a PVC holster on a belt while tying in an orchard. It is one of the first companies to begin mass-producing such a product.
The Tougas family has begun buying commercial wire clips in addition to using their own branch-bending clips, Tougas clips, a name Clements coined. The family has gone with a commercial product of late because they don't have enough of their own, and they don't have the time to make them. "We made a few thousand and we keep reusing them," Tougas says.
When they plant a new orchard, they cut off one or two feathers on each tree, then bend all the remaining feathers below horizontal so they do not grow any longer and instead put on fruit buds for next year. Some of the wire they use from Finger Lakes Trellis Supply is 14-gauge soft wire that's about 18 inches long before the ends are bent.
Handling the 14-gauge wire is tricky because the pieces tangle on each other, sort of like strands of lights while decorating a Christmas tree. When they collect the clips, they bundle 30 together with a hook elastic and wrap them in newspaper so they don't tangle with other bundles.
For upright-growing varieties like Macoun, the Tougas family moves the clips up to new branches as the tree grows.
"The take-home is to make sure the branches are bent down," Clements says.
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.
Photos courtesy of Andre Tougas.
For More Information:
A video featuring Jon Clements of UMass Extension:
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