The Four Seasons In The Orchard

The majority of New England apple orchards are family-run businesses. An apple orchard is a busy place, a highly seasonal enterprise as varied as the days in a year, with each day bringing a new chance to test the orchardist’s skills against the measure of the eventual harvest.

In January while apple trees are dormant, growers begin pruning – they saw or clip off limbs to allow maximum sunlight into the growing structure. Pruning allows the tree to produce larger, better colored, higher quality, and more valuable fruit. Watch a grower apple pruning…

Equipment repairs and maintenance round out winter.

It is time to prepare for planting. The average apple tree bears fruit in three years, with full production in 8-10 years. Trees are often planted on dwarf stock, using less land and labor. Since apples do not grow true to their seeds, growers transplant nursery trees from cuttings. These trees have a desired apple variety grafted (attached by tissue splicing) onto a rootstock selected for size and vigor. Our video on shows how to do it.

In early May, apple buds swell. Growers pick up or mulch the brush from winter pruning. They mow to reduce competition for nutrients and habitat for pests. They use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to monitor the weather while hanging insect traps to collect data for their annual pest-control program. Records of temperature, humidity, and rainfall help them predict disease outbreaks and identify effective management tools. They count both beneficial and harmful insects to determine a spray schedule when needed to protect the tree and fruit. View our three-part video on IPM for more details.

With the opening of the “king” blossom, the largest and centermost of the five-blossom clusters, pollination begins. Growers rent bee colonies from beekeepers. They are moved in quickly, usually at night, so the bees are “home.” Sunny mild days are optimum for strong bee activity. Cross-pollination, that is, from more than one variety of pollen, ensures good fruit set. Watch our video for the buzz.

Fertilizing and tree training round out June. Limbs are either tied up or weighted down to spread the young tree into a perfect shape. Pomology, the science and art of growing apples, is a refined practice. Apple producers attend regional meetings to keep abreast of the latest information and technology.

During a dry July, irrigation ensures good fruit size and firmness. Shaping and pruning continues, allowing ripening sunlight into the tree. Red apples need cool nights during harvest to trigger an enzyme that increases color or “blush.”

Growers set out ladders and bulk storage boxes (bins) around the orchard. They plan harvest logistics, clean storage rooms, and test refrigeration systems. Most growers store part of their crop in huge controlled atmosphere (CA) rooms where the temperature is rapidly decreased to 32 degrees, and oxygen is replaced with nitrogen to slow ripening. Apples remain as fresh as the day they were picked. For apples to pass the “admissions test” to a CA room, they must have proper starch and hardness measurements (to determine ripeness).

Apples bruise easily and must be hand picked. Growers hire extra harvest workers to get the crop in on time. Farmers sell their fruit at their farm store and/or they have it packed and shipped fresh to supermarkets, restaurants, and schools throughout New England, the country, and the world. See this in action in our video.

During harvest, many farms open to the public for Pick-Your-Own (PYO). Learn proper PYO etiquette in our video.

Some apple varieties keep longer in storage than others, but to maximize an apple’s storage life, it is important to keep it very cold. For more tips on apple handling, view this video on proper storage…

Many apples are processed into sauce, pies, and jelly, or they are pressed into fresh cider and juice. Some varieties are used solely for these markets. For others, cider is a delightful byproduct of apples not “pretty” enough for the fresh apple market. Tour a cidery in our cider making video.

With the harvest in, New England growers prepare again for winter. If you look closely, you can see the promise of next year’s crop at the tip of each branch, a bud that might become the apple you eat next year!