Monday, April 18, 2011

Taming the Kraken or Pruning Vintage Apples

Early spring means pruning for fruit trees.  Along rural highways, we saw acres of dwarf apples standing in rows like stationary octopi with neatly pruned umbrella-shaped branches. If that’s what well-pruned apples look like, than our vintage trees were the Kraken of the Deep.  Our trees tower 25 feet, twice as high as they should. Entangled branches of neighboring trees fight for space.  Sucker branches (that grow straight up from the arm branch, but rarely produce) were 10 inches thick. Trunks were rotted. And then, there was the poison ivy – strangling several trees like an evil serpent.
At first glance, bushy unpruned trees look healthy.  But, in reality, without pruning, the tree goes into survival mode and pushes out as many branches as possible.  From YouTube tutorials, like this one from MSU’s horticulturist, we learned that pruning apple trees into the umbrella shape allows sunlight to get into even the center branches. Every sprig should get light, rain and attention from pollinating insects and to have the chance to turn into fruit. A retired Niagara County Cornell Extension agent taught us the adage, ‘if you can throw the barn cat through the apple tree and it doesn’t hit a branch, then you’ve pruned enough.’ Pruning our big trees would be like turning a bush into a bonsai, if we were Smurfs.
The question was: Could we bring them back under control and, thus, get a better harvest? Could we test our pruning skills minus the barn cat?
Then, we met Johnny. He started working on the farm at age 12, pulling weeds for Rich’s great-grandmother Mother Jo, and became the farm manager for nearly 30 years.  On a chilly morning, he walked the property with us for a trip down memory lane. He had planted those trees over 20 years ago – 150 pear and 100 apple – and managed the farm. During its zenith, there had been an estimated 10,000 trees on the property – pears, apples, plums, cherries and peaches, along with non-tree crops, such as tomatoes, corn, cabbage, pumpkin and sunflowers. In my inventory, there remain 74 pear (Barlett and Bosc) and 75 apple (Northern Spy and Rome).
He told us great stories: of the deal with the local butcher who unloaded chicken remains to plow into the field.  That rich soil grew some of the biggest pumpkins he’d ever seen. Of the year he raised 12 turkeys in the tractor shed.  His kids wouldn’t eat the Thanksgiving turkey because they thought it was their pet. He showed where the underground drainage system ran to the old ice pond. He also said we could probably bring those apple and pear trees back from the brink. The institutional knowledge that Johnny shared was invaluable.  We’ve met more people who worked on the farm and remember hauling vegetables to Niagara Produce Market (read Yelp review here of this amazing market). Each story gave us a glimpse into what the farm meant in Lockport’s history and gave us inspiration for what it could become.
So we set to work. The task started as following instructions, but quickly became an art form of balancing priorities with time and need. First, we cut away deadwood and poison ivy. Rich found out the hard way that you can indeed get poison ivy even during winter. Then, we pruned the major suckers to let light into the center of the trees. New tools, such as gas-powered pole saws, made pruning easier than in the days of wooden ladders and hand saws.  Finally, we had to clean up our huge mess.   

At the end, our efforts got a nod of approval from Johnny.
A key to profitable farming is to not be attached to any tree or crop.  Many would have advised us to start anew with dwarf varieties. But we decided they deserved one more chance. These 149 trees link the present with the past and are the living example that the historic property has always been a farm and orchard.  If we didn’t shock the trees in the pruning process, we should get a good fall harvest.  If not, we’ll have a few thousand pounds of pear and apple wood chips – BBQ anyone?


  1. I love what you're both doing to preserve the rich heritage of this farm - and that you're doing it together and with gusto. I hope it's a big success.

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