Mar 30, 2012
Apples: How to know what to plant

If you’re not planting and replanting your orchards on a continual basis, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.

Terence Robinson, a professor at Cornell University, recommended a high-density planting system at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pa.

“Our team has determined that the most economical way to go is planting between 900 to 1,300 trees per acre in a tall-spindle, trellised system,” said Robinson, a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University. “If you want to get the most money per acre from your farm, that is what we suggest.”

He also said that for maximum viability and sustainability, growers want to be in a constant state of replanting. A minimum of 4 to 5 percent of your acreage should be replanted annually, with less than 15 percent of the land being non-bearing at any time, he said. This would result in your entire farm being completely replanted over the course of 20 to 25 years.

“This ensures that your orchards aren’t tied up completely with older varieties and that you’re maximizing the potential of your property,” Robinson said.

Now, what to plant

Selecting varieties is a critical step in the success of your orchard, Robinson said. The best way to ensure the longevity of your farm is to make new plantings a mix of the tried and true, and the new.

Half of any new planting should be in a variety that is well established and has a successful record in your area, Robinson said. For most, that would include Gala, Macintosh, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Empire, Cortland and others that have a strong following in the consumer market.

“These varieties have a solid history of selling well and are a staple of the industry,” he said. “Consumers know them and you know how to grow them. It is a safe bet.”

The next 40 percent should be a new variety that perhaps you don’t have much experience with or is relatively new to the consumers in your area, Robinson said. These varieties may also be a little more labor intensive to grow – think Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Golden Supreme, Fuji and others.

“Honeycrisp is a great apple, but it can be a challenge to grow,” he said. “It is better to hedge your bets and plant slightly less of these varieties, especially since the consumer is willing to pay a premium price for them in your market.”
As for the final 10 percent, take a gamble.

“Go with something new,” Robinson said. “This would be a good time to look at a club variety like Sweetango, or a variety that just came out on the market such as Zestar! or Blondee.”

Selecting the right variety depends on your market, location and availability of trees. It can be easy to make a mistake, said Paul Wooley, a tree sales specialist from Greenwich, N.Y. Wooley sells trees and owns, a tree and apples sales business.

“When the Honeycrisp apple started to take off, we told everyone to plant them,” Wooley said. “We learned very quickly, however, that that was not the right call. The apple is pretty finicky about the zone, climate and soil type it will succeed in.”

Work with your local Extension and tree sales person to make the right call on variety, Robinson said.

Picking the right rootstock is also vital to success, Robinson said. Questions here include: How well will the rootstock support the scion, will it have the proper vigor to grow fruit at an optimum level and will the rootstock work for your climate and soil type?

“You have to take into account the vigor of the scion when picking the rootstock,” Robinson said.

Disease resistance is also a factor. In some areas, fire blight is a major concern. There are some fire blight-resistant rootstocks, but will they provide the proper amount of vigor for the scion?

Irrigation and fertigation choices are also important, as are training techniques.

These decisions directly relate to the varieties you choose to plant, Robinson said. All of them together have a direct impact on your economic success.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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