Spring came late this year to the Cider Coast of Southwest Michigan, but that bodes well for the apple harvest. A late spring means that apple blossoms were later - nearly two weeks later this year - and that in turn means there's less risk for any frost or cold temperature that could damage the delicate blossoms. After all, heathy blossoms means healthy fruit. We visited our farm partners at Heritage Orchards in Benton Harbor and Overhiser Orchards in South Haven to see how spring was treating them.
Heritage Orchards is a fourth-generation apple and peach orchard in Benton Harbor. The orchard is surrounded by vineyards on a slightly sloping 83-acre plot of land. Today Heritage grows 19 kinds of apples and 12 kinds of peaches This spring, owner Ed Baushke and his team have been grafting Golden Russet apple scions, or small branch with buds, onto existing apples trees. "We are right on a wine trail here, so that's why we got into the hard cider varieties business."
Grafting is a way of producing a desired apple variety on existing rootstock. For Heritage Orchards, they wanted to grow more Golden Russet apples. Golden Russets are sought after by cidermakers for its high starch content. The starches in the apples become fermentable sugars for yeast during the fermentation process.
Instead of planting new trees and waiting the nearly five years for them to mature and grow desirable fruit, grafting will grow the desired variety of apple in only a couple of years. First, they "topwork" the trees, which is removing most of the top of the tree with a chainsaw to clear away the tree's other branches, leaving one "nurse limb" to keep the trunk alive.
Ed's younger brother, Carl, trims scions from 3- and 4-year-old Golden Russet trees from another part of the orchard. The scions were removed in February, and left in a cooler so the buds stayed dormant until it was time to graft them onto trees.
Ed makes small slices on the top of the trunk with a pruning knife and inserts the scions in the cuts. Orchard assistant Woody tapes around the trunk with electrical tape to apply pressure around the trunk so the scions are stabilized, and then paints the entire exposed area with grafting wax to form a seal. The team can get through about 8 to 12 trees per hour.
If all goes well, the grafting sites will heal, the buds will bloom, and in about 2 to 3 years will produce Golden Russets in time for a fall harvest. Heritage also grows popular apple varieties well-known in the grocery markets, such as Pinata, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, and Swiss Gourmet.
Meanwhile at the 225-acre Overhiser Orchards in South Haven, owner Allan Overhiser's team was thinning branches on apple trees loaded with blossoms.
"At this time of year, the trees are operating on stored carbohydrates from the previous growing season. That's what's feeding the blossoms when you see them each spring," Allan says.
Removing some of the branches allows more nutrients to be diverted to remaining branches as well as promotes more fruiting from the trees. "If you trim in the winter, you promote vegetative growth, but this time of year, trimming promotes fruiting wood," he adds.
After the trees are thinned, the next step is to thin the blossoms themselves. Apple blossoms will sprout in bunches of about 6 or 7, with one blossom in the center. If left alone, all these blossoms will produce apples. For apple growers, especially those looking to produce larger, good-looking apples for U-pick or the fresh market, thinning all but one of these blossoms will allow for one apple to get all the energy and nutrients from the branch.
"The center blossom is sometimes call the king bloom. That's usually the strongest one in a group of blossoms, and the one we'll keep on when thinning," says Kim Overhiser, co-owner and Allan's wife.
"When the blossoms drop here, then we will chemically thin them," Allan adds. "We use an enzyme that will stop some of the baby fruit from growing and wither away. This will thin nearly 80% of the blossoms, so you get to develop more flavor and sugars in the apple." This method is less labor-intensive than hand-thinning. The king bloom, being the strongest, is generally the one that will remain on the branch and turn into an apple.
Overhiser grows many varieties of apples including Golden Supreme, Mutsu, Idared, and Honeycrisp. In addition to apples, Overhiser grows cherries, plums, pears, peaches, apricots, and a few blueberries. You can try our Orchard Series: Overhiser Orchards cider in our Tasting Room.
You can also read our previous installments of Our Neighbors' Orchard series here.