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Fruits of Our Labor

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For the past year, I was part of the research and demonstration group here at the Foundation. One of my responsibilities was to oversee and take care of our demonstration orchard on the Headquarters Farm in Ardmore, Oklahoma. We can learn from our mistakes, and because I had no experience with fruit trees, I learned some valuable lessons. I"d like to share some highlights of the last season.

The majority of this orchard was planted in 1995 in a sandy loam soil on an ideal site. Some trees were added in 1996 and 1997. We have apple (22), Asian (8) and European (5) pear, peach (43), nectarine (9), plum (11), and cherry (9) trees, for a total of 107 trees on 1 acre. We selected varieties by their chilling requirements for this area. Most varieties are represented by two trees, but some by only one or as many as five. A few of the poorly adapted trees died. The purpose of this orchard is not to evaluate yield, per se, but to evaluate and demonstrate production potential and cultural practices.

My tasks actually began in January 2000. We spent several days pruning the trees and removing the trimmings. One thing I learned is that we should have mowed the grass short around the trees before pruning, which would have made cleanup easier. In February, we should have treated at least the pears with antibiotics to help control fire blight. On March 1 or at bud break, we should have begun spraying insecticide and fungicide: largely because of my inexperience, we actually started spraying April 17, well after bud break and bloom. Fruit yield and quality suffered especially in the early-maturing species and varieties because of plum curculio, an insect pest. We continued spraying roughly every two weeks until July or harvest, whichever came first. We thinned the peach and nectarine fruit around May 1 when they were about golf ball size. I know now that we did not thin the fruit enough, and fruit size and quality suffered. It is hard to be ruthless when thinning, but necessary. Fruit should be 6 to 8 inches apart, and if any fruit are touching, they are definitely too close because they will be smaller, and it will be easier for diseases, fungi, and rots to spread.

Weather, as always, played a role in this year's crop. We had an early spring with no late frosts to affect flowering. However, early in the morning of May 26 and 27, we had high winds and rain that blew over seventeen of the apple trees, some of them both mornings in a row. Almost all of the trees with a Malling 7 rootstock blew down, and those with MM 111 stood. June was unusually wet, which contributed to severe fruit-rot problems. I"m sure the varieties maturing in June would have fared much better in a normal year.

This year, we have been enjoying the fruits of our labor; it was the first time the trees had significant yields, the result of many people's work on the orchard in years past. Plums were the first to mature, and "Ozark Premier" yielded the most. The novel pluots, a cross between plum and apricot, had a unique flavor that fellow workers and I greatly preferred over that of other plums.

I was disappointed with our cherries, but the birds seemed to like them. They were small, sour, and poor quality (the cherries, not the birds). We discovered that plastic blow-up snakes, which can be found at your local gardening or hardware store, effectively keep the birds away if the snakes are moved from place to place in the trees every couple of days. On average, one snake per tree just before and during fruit harvest was sufficient.

Peach harvest began the first week of June and will continue until late September. "Candor" was the first variety ready. "Sentinel" followed in late June and yielded so much fruit that branches broke. Keep in mind that many of the varieties maturing in June and early July would have done much better with an average June rainfall. There were no harvestable nectarines, but I speculate there would have been had less rain fallen. Around the second week of August, "Cresthaven" produced a good quantity of peaches with outstanding flavor. Two more of my favorites include "Nectar" and "Indian Cling" peach. Both are white-fleshed with an unmatched flavor you must experience.

In spite of twice being blown down, stood up, and staked, the apples are doing well. "McLemore" started the season at the end of July, followed by "Gala", "Jonagold", and "Red Chief". I expect a continued good season. Many of the "Staybrite" apples have split, and I attribute this problem, like the others, to the wet weather in June.

Another novel fruit is the Asian pear. These fruit mature throughout August and resemble an apple in shape and texture. Although they are juicy, they are an acquired taste, and I do not care for them. I eagerly await the European pears, which I anticipate will ripen in late September.

Usually fruit harvest on any tree lasts about ten days. For yields, I can discuss only relative values. Within a variety, yield was two times higher for trees planted in 1995 versus 1996.

On a side note, I have some suggestions for watering your yard or garden during drought or normal conditions.

  1. Water thoroughly, applying the equivalent of 1 inch of rainfall, at each watering to encourage deep root development. Shallow watering encourages development of shallow roots that are more susceptible to drought.
  2. Avoid watering during the heat of the day.
  3. Consider using soaker hoses or another form of trickle irrigation rather than sprinklers, which lose efficiency on hot or windy days because of evaporation.
  4. Water a strip 3 feet wide around your house to prevent the ground from cracking around the foundation.