We put the orchard to bed a few months back, and now, as sunlight returns for longer days, it’s time to prepare for blossoms, fruit set, pests, and dreams of harvest.
Releasing the Guards and Checking for Damages
The first project involves removing the trunk guards that prevent mice from winter chewing. One or two of those tiny critters can tunnel under the snow and girdle an unprotected tree, severing the cambium that delivers life-giving nutrients to the leaves.
Next we check for pocket gopher damage. These little varmints can chew an entire root system over one winter and leave only a small stub. The tree will leaf out, wither, then die.
I do my best to keep them at bay with castor oil powder scattered in select places, but, as long as my neighbors continue to shoot the coyotes and foxes that dig up and eat these pesky rodents, I think I’m fighting a losing battle.
Communing with Trees
Next comes one of my favorite jobs: pruning. This art is easy to master and was perfectly summed up by Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie, when he instructed his young protege to, “Look tree, close eyes, see tree, open eyes, make tree.”
I’m not a tall man, and a vital purpose of pruning is to control height, so I don’t have to get on too many ladders at picking time. I first cut branches growing straight up, called suckers. Branches that cross others require a decision. One of them needs to come out. The question, of course, is which one?
Mr. Miyagi has the answer. Commune with the tree for a moment, and it will give you the answer.
You should trim long, weak branches at the end. Notice how the buds rotate in a spiral. Find the place the tree wants the branch cut, locate a bud pointed in the direction you want it to go, and snip about a quarter of an inch past that.
Cuts over ½-inch in diameter should be painted with tree sealer, available at any local nursery or hardware store.
Keeping It Clean
One important detail is to sanitize your cutters between each tree, to prevent the spread of diseases. If you have a tree with fire blight, sanitize between cuts. A little isopropyl alcohol or bleach solution (about 5-percent bleach) works well—just dip the clipper and shake the excess off. Be sure to bag diseased branches immediately and dispose (or burn) soon after trimming.
Next comes the spraying. A dormant oil sprayed at least a month before the buds open will kill pests that overwinter in the bark and leaves. Your local store will have this type of product. Some include sulfur, which helps to prevent apple scab (brown spots on leaves and fruit). I use a pure oil because I spray with a copper-and-lime solution, called Bordeaux, just before the buds open.
This was a freak discovery in the French wine district, where they sprayed grapes to make them unattractive, so tourists wouldn’t munch the product and, oops and voilà, they found it cured diseases as well!
Be sure to spray any product at sunrise, or just before sunset, since any of these compounds can be detrimental to the bees that pollinate our food. Once the sprays dry, they’re safe. If you spray Bordeaux or sulfur, be sure to wait a month after applying the oil, to avoid a chemical reaction that can damage the trees.
A Little Space, Please
And, almost last, comes branch spacers. I take a 2×4, rip it in 3/8″ strips, cut them into lengths from 4″ to a couple feet, and slice a V-notch in each end. I prop these between trunk and branch, or branch to branch in strategic locations, to space them a la Mr. Miyagi. This is particularly important for my pear trees, which tend to grow straight up. I like them a bit wider, mostly so picking is easier.
Coming Back to Life
I still have a few other chores remaining: grafting shoots I cut from feral orchards, to spread the bloom season out, and tasting unusual, heirloom fruit. But, mostly, I sit, read a book, wait for the magic of spring blooms, and salivate from thinking of fall’s bounty.
While doing all this, be sure to occasionally look up to the sky, listen to the redtail hawk screech, ponder some chickadee chatter, and feel rejuvenated as life begins to pulse again, quickening toward bloom and harvest. We live in a marvelous world, and may the return of the sun bless you all. ISI