Get Growing, tips from Master Gardener Cheryl Wilson: Train your trees

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Training apple trees for maximum fruiting doesn’t have to be high tech, Wes Autio, fruit specialist at University of Massachusetts Amherst says.

Autio told members of the Gardeners Guild of the Renaissance Center last Saturday that he likes to do as little pruning as possible, relying instead on homemade training tools like clothespins, notched sticks and cement weights.

Autio helped plan and plant a small orchard of Renaissance apples at the UMass Center two years ago. Now the fledgling trees need a little bit of training. Autio likes to encourage a central leader or main branch of each tree along with branches as horizontal as possible. Upright growth produces abundant vegetation or leaves but isn’t great for flower and fruit production, he explained. So, it is important to coax side branches to grow in a horizontal position. Training is better than pruning for this purpose, he said.

One technique is using small weights to force the branches to be horizontal. He showed the audience a cement weight made in a Dixie cup with a wire embedded in it. “A little bit better” is a clothespin with a rock glued to it with Liquid Nail, he demonstrated.

A notched stick of wood with or without nails at each end can be used to train branches in a horizontal position. And kite string can tie down branches. Just be sure to make a large loop so the string doesn’t cut into the branch, he cautioned.

Pruning may also be necessary, he acknowledged. “Do not prune the leader — ever,” he said. But he recommended removing two or three side branches each year to provide air circulation. Cutting a branch back to the trunk is preferable to “heading back” each branch.

For the Renaissance orchard on East Pleasant Street, Autio and his assistants chose eight varieties of antique apples dating from Roman times to the late 17th century. They have charming names: Old Pearmain, Golden Reinette, Lady Apple, Devonshire Quarrenden. The dwarf tree rootstock, called Malling 9, came from Treco Nursery in Oregon. Onto this dwarf rootstock, at UMass, Autio grafted antique varieties of scion wood obtained from the USDA Plant Genetic Resource Unit in Geneva, New York. The process began in February 2012 and the trees were planted in May of that year.

In his talk at the orchard last Saturday, Autio included the history of the orchard, the history of apple-growing, pruning and training techniques (including recommendations on tools), cross-pollination needs and pest control. One of the most successful methods of controlling pests is the red sphere developed by the late Ron Prokopy at UMass. It is a trap for apple maggot flies. Another simple pest control is the use of Surround, white clay applied to the tree to deter plum curculio, a major apple pest that can cause deformed apples although most of its damage is considered superficial.

Visitors are welcome at the Renaissance orchard and the adjacent vegetable garden, now enclosed entirely by a hand-made wattle fence. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The address is 650 East Pleasant St., Amherst, and the phone number is 577-3600.

ORCHARD MYSTERIES: Sue Hugus at the Munson Memorial Library branch of the Jones Library in Amherst introduced me to the Orchard Mystery series written by area author Sheila Connolly. The heroine owns an orchard and, in the series, keeps finding dead bodies. You learn a great deal about the challenges of growing apples, romance and small town life. Yes, Amherst, Easthampton and Northampton all figure prominently as does our local UMass campus. Her latest book, written in 2013, is ‘Golden Malicious,” about a death related to the dread Asian Long-Horned Beetle. The beetle doesn’t attack apple trees nor did it kill the man, but the mystery involves a diabolical scheme involving the invasive insect that has already caused the destruction of thousands of trees in Worcester. If you are looking for a relaxing mostly non-violent mystery with a local angle and lots of horticulture, check out Connolly’s books at your local library.

WILD FOOD WALK IN HUNTINGTON: Acorn Kitchen offers a wild food walk and taste testing tomorrow, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Knightville Basin in Huntington. There will be a plant identification walk followed by a small feast. Fee is $10 to $20 on a sliding scale. RSVP at wearewildfood@gmail.com by tonight. There will also be a walk on Sunday, at Bug Hill Farm, led by Acorn Kitchen’s Felix Lufkin and UMass entomologist Jarrod Fowler along with illustrator Beverly Duncan. This event is free, but donations gladly accepted.

GARDEN TOOL MAINTENANCE: Buy good tools and maintain them in peak condition, is the advice of all experts. But how do you sharpen tools? Learn how at a workshop Sunday at the Bullitt Reservation, 332 Bullitt Road, in Ashfield. Hours are 2-5 p.m. The fee is $5 or free for members of the Trustees of Reservation. To reserve a space or get more information, call Emmett at 628-4485, ext. 1. Bring work gloves and a metal file if possible; oil and rags will be provided.

PLANT SWAP: The Belchertown Plant Swap is Tuesday at 6 p.m. at 253 Warren Wright Road in Belchertown. Fee is $2. Bring perennial divisions, annual flower and vegetable starts, seeds or bulbs and something to carry them home in, plus a lawn chair if desired.

EDIBLE WILD PLANTS: Naturalist John Root will lead a program on edible wild plants Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., at Meadowbrook Farm in East Longmeadow. Suggested donation is $5; call 961-9059 for more information. Root will also lead a program at Winter Moon Farm in Hadley on July 12 at 9:30 a.m.

BUTTERFLIES: Tom Gagnon, vice president of the Western Massachusetts Butterfly Club, will lead a program on butterflies Friday, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area in Florence. The program is sponsored by the Broad Brook Coalition. Meet at the North Farms Road entrance to the conservation area. Rain cancels the event. No nets allowed, but close focus binoculars will help.