This winter, as usual, I’ve devoted many a chilly hour to orchard maintenance and, once again, come away from the exercise wondering just why.
Fate and Mother nature have together amassed such a formidable array of forces against my poor orchard, I never really expect to harvest much in the way of fruit. It’s more a learning experience. Otherwise, about all I get for my troubles is a handful of wormy apples in November.
But the very idea of oneself as an orchardist has tremendous psychological appeal. One pictures oneself strolling beneath sturdy old apple trees garlanded in Maytime blossoms, then gathered with rosy-cheeked children and good-hearted friends to pluck basketsful of ripe fruit in the shining afternoons of autumn. One thinks of great cauldrons of applesauce simmering on the woodstove and kegs of robust cider fermenting in the basement.
These fruity visions are important, for they sustain the star-crossed orchardist through what otherwise might be an entirely dispiriting round of chores. We have about eighteen fruit trees at our place, mostly semi-dwarf apples, with a few peaches, pears and plums. During the off-season they require several full work days for clean-up, winter pruning and three rounds of dormant oil/lime sulphur spraying.
I won’t dwell on the irregularities of spraying, except to wonder why it is that human ingenuity can hurl astronauts into outer space and bring them safely back, but cannot devise a simple hand sprayer that works for more than thirty seconds at a time. What with plugged nozzles, inadequate air pressure and cantankerous trigger mechanisms, my spraying days feature more work stoppages than a Polish ship yard.
After a long day struggling with the sprayer, at about the moment when the last tree is done, torrential rains begin washing off the spray before it can take effect.
Unchecked by ineffectual spraying, various blights, scales, scabs, rots, mites and aphids infest the trees. Thus the idle hours of spring and summer are whiled away in applying tanglefoot paste to the tree trunks and spraying insecticidal soap on burgeoning aphid populations.
I take particular delight in observing the ingenuity of ants in circumventing the tanglefot collars. After several days of initial bewilderment, and a few dozen sacrificial ants stuck to the paste, the ants devise some ingenious scheme or other -- perhaps just hop scotching across on the corpses of their dead companions -- and résumé tending their aphid ranches in the trees.
Our oldest tree, a gnarled sugar plum, features every year a magnificent display of scale, whose lumpy excresences on the twigs are bigger than the plums, along with a reliable infestation of smut. I used to think smut referred to naughty pictures and dirty talk, but its sooty contamination of our old plum is obscene enough to make Hugh Hefner blush.
Leaf rollers, peach leaf curl, coddling moths -- all of them have a go at our trees. When things get dull, the neighbourhood yellow-bellied sapsuckers set about drilling multiple holes in the trunks.
But it’s not really until harvest time that one gets a full appreciation of the forces arrayed against us. Two years ago, we had a marvellous crop of peaches ripening on the peach tree I keep meticulously clipped under the eaves of the house. Just to see the fuzzy fruits ripening to a succulent gold gave a thrill of satisfaction. Falso, of course, for when we went to test them for ripeness, we found the peaches had almost all been hollowed out from the back side by cunning mice who’d scrambled up the trellis against the house wall. We were left with bitter pits and hopes dashed.
Our meagre apple crop we divide fairly evenly between the deer and the woodpeckers. Before the late-ripening apples are fully grown, big pileated woodpeckers assemble in the trees and attack the fruit, usually chipping a sizeable hole in each apple.
Those that get knocked from the trees are quickly gobbled by the deer. Their appetites whetted, the deer devote themselves to reaching any remaining apples on the trees. A favourite ploy involves balancing on their hind legs while bracing themselves with forefeet on the tree trunk. Repeated over a couple of weeks, this succeeds in breaking and scraping chunks of bark off the trees and exposing them to additional insect and disease infestations. All this just in time for a new round of remedial pruning and spraying, and thus the year’s work is brought full circle.
The year just past was especially rewarding because the unseasonably cold spring resulted in very poor pollination and a scanty fruit set. This greatly reduced our losses from all other sources. We can only hope that the coming spring will offer even worse pollination weather, which could result in our most successful year ever in the orchard.