Meet the Cherries
There are many questions surfacing relating to pruning and cherry varietals. I thought I would put together a brief post answering as many of those questions as I can. Also, blog readers will get the first opportunity to help us name a cherry block (more on what that is below).
First up: Pruning
I want to refer everyone back to the introduction of this adventure and remind you that Shane and I have not been orchardists at any point in our lives. You can catch up on those details and why we decided to leap into an adventure we are wholey unqualified for in previous posts. So, without diving into those specifics, I will cut right to what we are learning about pruning our 23,000 trees.
The pruning method we utilize is the Kym Green Bushing method. To read a bit more about the various pruning methods, check out the Cherry Training Systems report put out by the Pacific Northwest Extension service. It is also authored, in part, by Lynn Long who accompanied Kym Green on a trip that resulted in the bushing method baring her name. During a trip, the Australian orchardist was hoping to learn more about the Spanish bushing style. In short, she took down her notes wrong. The beginning of the process is much the same for both, but once the tree begins to establish it diverges quite a bit. In the Spanish bushing method, branches are allowed at certain points and you get a step stool orchard. Kym wrote down that none of these branches were ever left each year, thus creating a new adaptation for pruning.
The Kym Green bushing method is actually the only pruning style resulting in a truly pedestrian orchard. This means that the orchard can be constantly rejuvenated without ever requiring ladders or step stools for picking. As you might imagine, this is a really promising outcome as it increases safety and productivity during harvest. For our specific orchard, it has also allowed the tree count to go from less than 100 trees per acre to over 500 (some orchards even work this up to over 1000).
There is really no "wrong" time to prune fruit trees- you can get away with pruning in virtually any season, to a degree. We will prune in both late fall and late spring. For older trees that we are not worried about vigor (i.e. older trees; it's OK if they don't throw down some 4 foot shoots in a year), we can prune in the fall. Pruning right before dormancy will lead to some post-pruning growth prior to the winter and much less growth in the spring. It still maintains the focus on the right parts of the tree when it comes time for the spring energy burst- right into the growth of fruit. For the younger trees, the pruning is done in the late winter after fears of sustaining and deep freezes abate. This late winter pruning is still during the dormant phase of the trees. It will mean that all of the stored energy in the tree will surge in spring toward impressive new growth. It is just critical that the pruning is completed prior to spring forcing the bud burst and growth beginning. If you miss that window, you lose some of the potential for vigor in that year. This means that our window to prune the younger trees is from the first part of February to the end of March- we started this year on February 18 due to snow and severe cold. This pushed us about as far as we were willing as the orchard takes around 90 "man days" to prune- meaning 3 people would require 30 days. Pushing out much beyond means you would likely have trees out of dormancy, losing some focus of the vigor of spring.
The basic concept behind the KGB pruning method is that the tree is trained in the first three years to have between 11-14 vertical shoots (on our Geisla 6 root stock, if you had Geisla 3 you would do 20-30). In each year, both while training and after established, any new growth off these main shoots is clipped, and the tree is topped at 8'. Typically you want to make sure the clip is above visible buds as these buds will be where the new growth (and cherries) will grow that year. Some new vertical shoots stemming from the main structure may be left to grow to refresh the existing vertical shoots as they "age out" of the tree structure. You want to eliminate any suckers-- or branches that are significantly larger than others-- as you want the growth energy to be relatively evenly divided throughout the tree. You also want to remove any branches that have grown into the center of the tree- they tend to create too much shade or give too much shade- reducing the growth. As the vertical branches get older and thicker, and the new vertical shoots establish themselves (around 3 years), you remove the older branches to allow for the younger wood to thrive. This method keeps the tree constantly in a state of 5-8 year old wood which maintains prime production.
There are two thoughts that have regularly surfaced in learning this process that summarize it well:
You are growing cherries not wood
The tree should look like a wine glass- which is something I feel very equipped to understand
If you want to see this in action, go check out the save "story" called Pruning on our Instagram page. Maybe I'll get fancy and start a YouTube channel, but today is not that day. You can see in the picture that the cherries grow off these vertical branches. When you prune, it's incredible to see just how much they grow each year!
Next up: Cherry Varieties
Forest Cove Acres consists of 45 acres of plantable orchard ground. Currently, approximately 42 acres are planted. The orchard is divided into 10 blocks primarily to manage irrigation and track fertilization and spray treatments. Having the orchard divided into blocks also more easily allows for tracking and noting varieties and ages of the trees. This orchard hosts a handful of cherry varieties, primarily sweet red cherries (I am including links for those who want to read more about each cherry):
• Skeena- 23 acres
• Santina- 10 acres
• Benton- 2.5 acres
• Bing- 1.5 acres
• Sweetheart- 2.5 acres
The orchard also has one non-red variety:
• Rainier- 2.7 acres
The cherry varieties selected for the orchard are specific and intentional, for the most part. Rainiers and Bings are the oldest varieties. Rainiers are the ever-popular yellow and red cherries; they are a favorite cherry but have some quirks to picking and can be a bit finicky in our climate. Bings and Rainiers both require cross-pollination with another variety of cherry- it so happens they pollenate each other- so they live in adjacent blocks. The rest of the cherries are all self-pollinating. Bings are considered the "standard" in the cherry industry as most other cherry harvest dates are based off of being either before or after the Bing by day increments. You'll see cherry varieties listed as -7 or +3 (as examples) which would mean harvesting a week prior and 3 days after the typical Bing harvest, respectively.
Harvest of the cherries occurs in a short window- around two weeks for each variety. There is a specific size and time to pick Rainiers and a single tree may have multiple picking days as a result. The other sweet red cherry trees can and will be picked largely as a complete block. For our orchard, the Benton and Santina cherries are both about a week before Bing. While Skeenas are almost 2 full weeks after. The latest trees are the Sweethearts up on the Terraces which run almost three weeks past Bings. We are going to watch these trees a bit as they are also the least cold-hardy of our varieties and are more susceptible to various imperfections. Maybe the Sweethearts will be our You-Pick block?
There are so many other little details about each kind of cherry and the methods of growing. I'll leave it at this for now and add more about root stock and dwarfing and other points of interest in a later post. We are currently determining if/what trees to order for next planting season as well, and talking more about the trees themselves would fit a post about maintaining the orchard. As always, stay tuned.
This has been my longest post so far and is probably the least interesting to some readers, so bravo if you are still reading! I mentioned at the beginning that blog followers will have the first opportunity to submit their thoughts for naming one of our orchard blocks. When we purchased the orchard, the blocks came with the following names:
• Green Tank • Q • Willie • Outhouse • Terraces • 2009 A
• 2009 B • Machine Shed • Pinto • Comstock • Mill Creek
There is also the Cinch block which is currently unplanted and holding our horses- it seemed pretty fitting.
We have considered renaming many of these blocks to things that are more connected to our own story. Many of the names were dogs Brian (the prior owner) had in his life over the years. Some of the names are indicative of the landmark on the orchard within the block, so I'm quite curious about the Outhouse block in particular. Maybe one of the descendants of the orchard owners can shed some light on that one. It's also one of the names we are tempted to leave, for obvious reasons.
We have a few new names percolating, but now is your time, dedicated blog reader. Tell us a name you think would be just perfect to identify a portion of the orchard. If we pick your name, you'll get a summer, post-harvest goodie box straight off the orchard. Obviously, cherries! But, we will throw in other fun Forest Cove Acres swag and items we think you'll love. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment on this post or sending us a message on Facebook or Instagram.