We are pleased to share this 2022 EarthDance Orchard Report with you, written by Wink Davis, our sage orchard specialist. Wink came to EarthDance two growing seasons ago from Colorado, where he and his wife, Max, owned and operated an orchard and vineyard. With the help of another tree specialist, Steven Franz, and several dedicated volunteers, Wink has been tending the EarthDance orchard with great diligence. While there are some challenges facing the EarthDance orchard (described below), Wink’s knowledgeable care of this part of the agroecosystem at EarthDance is helping to revive and support it in thriving after several seasons’ worth of minimal tending.
Photos by Jess Coffin Garrett
Every year is different in the orchard; new challenges, new things to learn, and new hope for next year. This truism was well borne-out in 2022. The weather is always a leading factor: In ’22 we had a reasonably mild and open winter; a prolonged, wet spring without damaging late frost; a hot, dry summer; and a long, mild, autumn which continued dry.
This was the second year that Steven and I, with help from dedicated volunteers Jane Keating and Bob Case, continued our restorative pruning. The objective is to bring the trees back into balance after a few years of neglect in which they grew too tall and, in some cases, too wide. This necessitates eliminating a good deal of older limbs and stems, and we rely here on experience and judgment with an eye to the shape we want in the tree 2 or 3 years into the future.
Fairly aggressive restorative pruning requires the removal of many older limbs and stems – with caution to avoid shocking the trees by removing too much wood too quickly. It becomes a balancing act. Heavy pruning lends to abundant new growth. While new growth is desirable because younger wood is more productive and resilient, we don’t want to be required to do heavy pruning every year – either for our sake or for the trees. There is also the desired tree size and shape to keep in mind. Over time, appropriate pruning revives and restores balance to the orchard, making for a more robust and easier harvest, as well as ease in tending in the long run.
In the spring we saw a lot of new growth in the trees and a prolific bloom and fruit-set, portending a good harvest in all the fruit. We continued the Michael Phillips Holistic Orchard spray regime and performed two root-zone injections of microbes, mycorrhizal fungi, compost tea, and microbe foods within the drip line of the trees. There was no late frost to thin the blossoms and by May it was apparent that there was way too much fruit and that we were going to be challenged to hand-thin appropriately. Too much fruit on the tree can delay ripening, break branches, and encourage insect infestations. Jane, Steven, and Wink thinned as they had time. A group of volunteers from Armanino Accountants pitched in to thin at the end of May. Still, we didn’t manage to adequately thin the fruit and had consequences later in the season.
Summer brought on pests and diseases, along with consistently high temperatures, high humidity, and little rain. I am still learning about the pests and diseases to which we are susceptible in this region. Judging from the damage to the apples last year, I thought coddling moth was one likely suspect, so I put out pheromone traps – with negligible results. I also had reason to believe that another likely pest was plum curculio, so I deployed trichogramma wasps to predate on the larvae. Nevertheless, there was significant pest and disease damage and loss. Another likely suspect for damage to apples is apple maggot, which I intend to address in ‘23.
Pawpaws were the stars this summer. There were many flowers, and Farmer Will organized a crew to hand-pollinate. The effort paid off, as we had a bumper crop of pawpaws, harvesting 293 pounds! Without human intervention, pawpaws are pollinated solely by a fly that is attracted to the flowers by their putrid odor. The research group studying pollinators at EarthDance recorded a resident population of this fly at the farm, but the window for pollination is brief, and the count was after the main bloom had passed.
The Asian pears started out well, if too dense, and we continued thinning as fast as we could. We are pleased that we saw very little evidence of fire blight, which we removed when we saw it. I hope we can soon say that fire blight is no longer a problem.
This year we found cedar quince rust in a number of trees, a fungus which we had not previously seen, and quickly controlled it by removing the affected leaves, fruit, and wood. In early summer the pears began to show large dark areas on the fruit which quickly went soft and rotten. It seemed to appear in clusters but not exclusively. On close examination there appeared to be a pinprick penetration of the skin, indicating it was likely an infection carried by an insect. We removed affected fruit as we found it and sent it to the dump. This activity consumed much of our available time for the rest of the summer. Some trees were less affected than others. We saw nothing like this last year. Of those trees that were less affected, some had substantially loaded branches that had to be propped. Removing diseased fruit as it appeared continued right up to harvest and we picked 446 pounds of marketable fruit.
The peaches, similarly, had a promising bloom and fruit set, and they required significant thinning. The fruit sized well but at midsummer began to show a gray, fuzzy surface mold accompanied by rot. Again, we removed affected fruit as it showed signs but were unable to save the crop. I don’t believe we harvested any marketable peaches. We saw some of this last year but it was not as widespread. I have not definitively identified the disease vector or the culprit; it looks like a fungus and I have some possible candidates.
There was a moderate harvest of cherries, which occurs early in the season before the combination of high temperature and humidity combined to produce conditions conducive to disease and pests. The apples and plums had good bloom and fruit set but were a total loss due to insect damage.
One contributing factor to the pest and disease challenge is the density of the tree canopy resulting from our restorative pruning. The trees push out a lot of new water sprouts along the limbs creating congestion inside the canopy. This inhibits air flow and sunlight penetration. In the ideal world we would be able to ameliorate this somewhat by summer pruning to remove a proportion of this vegetation. But our available workforce was devoted to the more immediate task of fruit thinning, and later, to removing diseased fruit.
A healthy and diverse understory ecology in the berms is a critical component of the holistic orchard practices. Volunteer and Board Member, Jane Keating, spearheaded these efforts and made huge improvements by removing the landscape fabric, planting a diversity of native understory plants, and mulching with seasoned mycorrhizal wood chips, all of which complemented our soil inoculations and canopy sprays.
We should interpret disease and pests in our orchard as telling us that the ecology is out-of-balance. Our initial impulse is to deploy chemicals to try to kill the offenders. But, by killing our beneficial biology along with the pests, this strategy further destabilizes the ecology. Instead, we are called to nurture and enhance the biology, increasing and diversifying their numbers.
This we are doing through all the efforts described above: holistic sprays, biological soil infusions, diverse plantings in the berms. It is an ongoing effort; the health of the orchard can always be improved. And we need to be patient as we continually create the conditions conducive to a stable, balanced ecology. The fundamental tenet of our holistic approach is that, once we have established a sufficiently robust and balanced ecology, from microbes to beneficial insects and including birds and mammals, the biology itself will detect and respond to our pest and disease issues.
Despite this recitation of challenges, we are seeing improvements in EarthDance’s orchard. In closing, I would refer you to this message I received on October 8, 2022:
I was part of the group that picked the Asian pears a couple of weeks ago. We lived in Hong Kong for many years, and had many Asian pears. From a flavor and juice content, the Asian pears from EarthDance were just as good if not better since we were able to eat them the same day they were picked. They were very sweet and juicy. I believe the texture of the EarthDance pears was a little more “loose” than those we’ve had in HK (which come from either China or Taiwan), whose flesh tends to be a little more dense. We thoroughly enjoyed them and their appearance (rather bumpy) did not dissuade us at all. I actually prefer these pears to bosc pears because they are not as prone to mealiness.
Thank you very much for this opportunity.
We’d like to thank you for supporting the ongoing restorative work in the beautiful, organic orchard at EarthDance. Without you, none of this would be possible, and because of you, we are looking forward to another fruitful growing season in 2023.