Sunday, 14 November 2010

So much can go wrong with apples

Healthy Rome apples

When I first started helping with the apple farm, I was vaguely aware that apples can get worms and something called 'scab,' which I think I knew was a dark hard spot or spots on the apple that made it unattractive and unlikely to sell. Tom told me about cedar-apple rust, which I'd never heard of, this fungus that relies on both apple and cedar trees to exist and can ruin apples. We haven't had much of this at all because Tom sprays regularly for it. But in recent  years I've spent some time on my morning walks with the dogs pulling off the smooth brown rust clumps that are attached to the cedar trees near the orchard. Apparently they die without being on a living cedar, so I hope pulling them off and throwing them in the trash is a bit of additional help for the apples.

But I had no idea of all the ways apples can be damaged, or how to identify that they were damaged. Worms seem often to get into the apple from the flower end and go straight to the core, so you need to watch for little piles of digested apple coming out the flower end. They also sometimes go in through the stem end. And, of course, there are the clear little holes they can make in the side of the apple. Mostly these are the larva of coddling moths, and we're now planning to use traps to be sure we are spraying at the appropriate time to stop them.

Then some years we've had ladybugs setting up housekeeping in the worm- or bird-holes in the apples. They don't seem to initiate damagebut they do eat apples, so it's pretty creepy to find a bunch of them living in the apple you just picked. Speaking of finding insects, I've also had some years when the yellowjackets are a bit of a danger. Either they're on the opposite side of an apple you're about to pick and they sting, or they hang out in the apples that have fallen to the ground, and they get pretty irritated when you step on them. One year I accidentally weed whacked a yellowjacket nest under one of the trees and they chased me to the house. Then a few days later Rosie decided to explore their nest and they chased the dogs AND me to the house. Fortunately, they never nest in the same place twice.

Apple with Sooty Blotch

Same apple after washing with a brush
 The first year we harvested the goldblush apples (a type that doesn't seem to have flourished in the market, but we still love them, crisp and sweet and tart and long-lasting), they had these awful black spots. It looked like they had picked up ash from a fire nearby, but there hadn't been a fire. I figured out that we could scrub the spots off with a brush, but they left the color of the apple uneven. One of my friends suggested that we could market them as a new variety, "Dalmation apples," but we decided not to. So, one day I decided to Google "black spots on apples," and after a little wandering around, I found pictures of Sooty Blotch, a fungal disease that exactly matched our apples. It doesn't damage them, but sure disfigures them. So Tom found an antifungal spray and now we have almost none of it. I still think Sooty Blotch sounds exactly like a character from Dickens, an unscrupulous bookkeeper, or maybe a chimney sweep.

In that same research project, I discovered that "fly speck" is not fly eggs, as Tom had thought, but another type of fungus that can also be eliminated by spraying. Little tiny black spots on the apple, in clusters, usually in conjunction with Sooty Blotch. So those two are out of the way.

Then there are the rots. Mostly we get bitter rot, a dispiriting rotting that starts with a small brown spot and expands to take up the entire apple. This year one of the nearby orchards lost the whole crop to bitter rot. It results from too much warmth and moisture. It's possible to spray for it, but we have not been able to control it completely, and it takes a large percentage of our Fujis each year.

The Jonagolds and some of the goldblushes started showing greenish dents a couple of years ago. Instead of being smooth, the surface of the apple has these uneven spots that are green at the edges and denting the surface. When you peel them, the apple is brown and kind of tough just under the spots, not attractive at all. So last year I went again to Google and discovered cork spot, a phenomenon that is caused by inadequate calcium in the soil. You can either spray the apples or lay limestone down under the trees to eliminate that. Tom chose to spray this year, amused that the spray he used was calcium chloride, often used for snow melt. He had to be careful because the stuff can corrode the sprayer. But the spraying eliminated most of the cork spot, making the Jonagolds much prettier this year. But they still had a lot of bitter rot, so we still have work to do.

This year was particularly wet and then especially hot in summer, encouraging all kinds of fungus growth. Another one is called fire blight. The branches of the trees look like they've been burned. When the trees are in leaf, fire blight looks like the branch has suddenly died, with the leaves brown and drooping. It's been slowly advancing in the orchard and I'm pretty worried about it. The main way to control it, if you don't want to use antibiotics (and we don't), is to cut off the damaged branches and take them away, sterilizing your clippers each time you cut off a branch. It's really time-consuming, but seems important to do this year.

Once these things have "gotten" an apple, there's nothing to do but knock it off for the deer or pick it and use the good parts. You can't repair them; you just have to try again next year.

The McIntosh trees are another matter. They get all the diseases, but it hardly matters because in the heat of Kansas, most of them fall off the tree weeks before they get ripe. Every time we decide to chop them down and plant something else, we hear or read about someone who just loves McIntosh apples.

We're not completely safe during the winter either. Last winter the rabbits ate the bark all around the bottoms of several of our small trees, and they were dead by spring. We got protective shields for them and this year the remaining trees should be safe. The shields also protect the little trees against me with the weed whacker. The deer damage trees rubbing their horns on the branches. Our dogs and cats are supposed to chase the deer and eat the rabbits, but they don't range far enough to get them all. We also spotted voles last year, but we don't think they're getting the trees yet - they eat vegetation. And the cats might actually have an effect on them.

I think I imagined that apples grow easily with little attention from anyone, but every year another threat appears for them.

Baby mourning doves in a Rome apple tree, 2009

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