Despite the blistering hot weather one August day at Scott Farm Orchard in Dummerston, Vermont, Zeke Goodband chose to walk up the hill into one of the orchards on the 571-acre farm.
“I guess if I was trying to impress someone I’d be driving around on the tractor more, making more noise or something like that, but I know I don’t have to do that,” Goodband said. He favors strolling among the 6,000 fruit trees, getting to know each one. In his 37 years as an orchard manager (the last 17 at Scott Farm), Goodband has established at least a few best practices. An ecologist by training, he also collaborated with researchers at University of Vermont and University of Massachusetts Amherst to develop ecological pest controls. Here, he shares his secrets to success in orchard management.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Scott Farm has been in active cultivation since 1791.
ORCHARD MANAGEMENT GLOSSARY
TOP-WORK: To cut the top off a tree, split the trunk and graft new material onto either side of it.
APICAL DOMINANCE: The tendency for all new growth to occur at the bud(s) on the top of the vertical stems of a tree. “It’s like having a CEO,” said Goodband. “All the resources of the corporation are going there, and all these other buds down below are only getting a pittance for their labor. This is probably where Karl Marx got the idea for his work. If you just cut the tip off or the top, it’s like getting rid of the CEO and the VP takes over; they’re going to oppress the workers underneath them.” The only way to circumvent apical dominance is to circumvent the gravity feed system by tying branches down.
Since assuming the role of orchard manager in 2001, Goodband has shifted production from McIntosh to over 120 heirloom and unusual varieties of apples. Goodband was the first orchard manager to top-work* the old McIntosh trees. He planted new trees immediately, introducing quince, plums, pears and medlars, as well as grapes and blueberries. Previously, most orchards in the Northeast were growing McIntosh and losing money.
“In the days when everyone was growing McIntosh, you show up at the store with McIntosh and there’s a line of people behind you with boxes of McIntosh. Everyone would be willing to sell it for a little bit less,” he said. “The last person in line got the worst price. When I was growing Ashmead’s Kernel or Esopus Spitzenburg, there was no one behind me with that variety, so I could tell them what the price would be.”
Goodband has grafted new varieties onto the tops of between 4,000 and 5,000 of those old McIntosh trees, leaving a few lower branches in place. He usually returns later to cut the lower branches off, but leaves some McIntosh branches in place because the variety still sells.
Watch Zeke Goodband conduct bud grafting in Scott Farm’s nursery at https://www.facebook.com/ScottFarmOrchard/.
One of his favorite varieties is Belle de Boskoop from Belgium. Goodband noted that each variety has particular growth characteristics.
“I love the way Belle de Boskoop grows. It’s sort of spreading; the leaves are bigger, fatter. We spend a lot of time pruning the trees, and this is such a pleasure to prune,” he said.
Like the other varieties Goodband has introduced over the years, Belle de Boskoop is a semi-dwarf tree. The height of the tree facilitates hand-harvesting. “We harvest all our trees by hand,” he said. “More and more orchards are going to the low trees, so you don’t have to climb ladders; you can pick from the ground. We’re moving in that direction.”
Every spring, Goodband plants new trees, usually new varieties that he cultivates in Scott Farm’s on-site nursery. In addition, Goodband plans to replace the old trees with semi-dwarf trees. (Conventional wisdom is to replace about 5 percent of the trees each year.) When he started top-working the trees in 2001, they were already up to 15 years old. Semi-dwarf trees will produce for 40 to 60 years. However, Goodband said to maintain production, it’s best to renew a certain part of the orchard every year. Thus, there are sections where he is replacing old trees with the same variety.
How to renew an orchard
To renew an orchard or plant a new one, you have to invest time and effort. “You can’t just put the trees in and expect them to thrive, no matter what inputs you use. The more care you put into them early on, the sooner you’ll start getting fruit,” said Goodband.
His best practices in orchard renewal include the following:
- Choose the right location: Sites can be drained, but that’s an added expense, so Goodband suggested finding an area where the soil has good natural drainage and a lot of sunlight.
- Plan: Before planting any new trees, Goodband recommended deciding whether you want huge trees, something in between, or trees that you can always harvest from the ground. That determines the rootstock to choose, as well as how close you’re going to plant the trees. “Once the trees are four or five years old, it’s very, very hard to dig them up and try to move them,” said Goodband.
- Clear: Remove older trees or other obstacles to planting new trees.
- Nourish the soil: On the cleared ground, plant pumpkins, squash or another plant that makes good mulch or green manure. Grow for one or two years.
- Till the soil.
- Plant new trees.
- Protect the cambium: Goodband puts “mouse guards” on the young trees as soon as possible to protect the bark from meadow voles that visit in winter.
- Tie down the branches: This circumvents apical dominance and encourages the trees to produce more fruit faster. By bending down the branches, the tree loses that gravity feed system, and then, as Goodband said, “It becomes a workers’ paradise for everybody, and they’ll tend to produce fruit buds sooner.”
Is it an old wives’ tale that apple trees only bear fruit every other year? “If trees were asked what they prefer to do, they’d say, ‘Yeah; it’s a lot of work producing this fruit. We’d like next year off.’ It’s like having teenagers: you don’t have to have your room spotless. At least get the dead stuff out; so you know by pruning and coddling them that there are some varieties that are just model citizens that will produce a crop every year. But most of them will produce heavy one year and light the next year. If they can just produce a reasonable amount, I’m happy.”
Nurturing apple saplings
Like young children, saplings require more attention than older trees if they are to thrive. Some best practices vary by fruit; our focus is on apples.
Water is key but irrigation is not required. Scott Farm does not have irrigation, so Goodband and his staff tend to the saplings with 50-gallon barrels that they fill and put on the tractor whenever it gets too dry. They also have a larger tank with hoses.
Food is necessary. Young trees need nitrogen in the first couple of years. Sometimes Goodband uses organic nitrate of soda. Sometimes, he uses calcium nitrate, which is more of a synthetic, if he thinks the trees need calcium.
Protection is important, but being overprotective with excessive sprays will lead to lower quality fruit and less healthy trees. Goodband uses Integrated Pest Management techniques. When storm winds from the south bring potato leaf hopper to the orchard, which causes burning around the edges of the leaf and can stunt growth of shoots, Goodband will spray the saplings. Some of the varieties at Scott Farm are naturally disease-resistant, and others aren’t dependent on their cosmetic appearance, so the farm thrives with a low spray regimen.
Weed selectively and keep soil covered: Goodband keeps morning glory and bindweed at bay under saplings with a string trimmer. Yet he encourages Queen Anne’s lace and other native flowers and grasses to grow around the trees. “In conventional orchards, they’ll either mechanically or with herbicides control the vegetation under the trees.” He mentions a study that suggested that when trees are grown in a vegetation-free zone, the roots tend to stay in that zone and not egress further. “I just don’t think that’s a good way,” he explained.
Train; don’t prune. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s better to train the trees, rather than prune them,” said Goodband. The reason to prune is to manage sunlight. As the tree gets older, pruning helps ensure that sunlight is getting to all parts of the tree.
Tending older trees
Pruning requirements vary when tending older versus younger trees. At four or five years of age, an apple tree needs less nitrogen. After that, Goodband does not apply nitrogen. Once the tree begins producing fruit, it needs potash. Goodband takes samples of the leaves to the local university to determine nutrients the trees may need, whether potash or manganese, calcium, etc. To demonstrate the health of his trees, he pointed out one apple tree that has almost 2 feet of growth this year, and vibrant-colored leaves and fruit.
Older trees have enough space under their low branches to accommodate some machinery, so Goodband mows weeds growing under the older trees using a tractor with a swing arm. Beyond that, he takes a hands-off approach to tending his older fruit trees.
Spraying herbicides around the orchard floor disrupts the orchard ecosystem. “It’s micromanaging,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the best way of growing. We try to keep the vegetation down on the young trees, but [with] the older trees, their root systems are doing what they need to do, which is rooting around. I think these apples grown in sod taste better than apples grown in an herbicided strip, where you’re bringing the food.”
Challenges and advantages to multiple varieties
“If you’re growing one variety, you can get pretty good at knowing that,” said Goodband. “If you have one child, maybe two, you can get a handle on their idiosyncrasies and know when they’re not feeling well. When you have Johann Sebastian Bach’s family it takes probably a little more work. But … I’ve been doing this 37 years … so I have a pretty good sense of these trees and what their idiosyncrasies are.”
Still, every so often the orchardist is surprised. Two years ago, Scott Farm had an exceptionally heavy crop of Lady Apples. After picking all that they could, Goodband “sort of forgot about them” for two weeks. When he realized he had forgotten them, he and his staff went back and picked the rest. To his delight, the flavor of the Lady Apples was significantly better.
“I thought we had been picking them at the right time for 35, 36 years, and this was as good as they would get. I found out that, no, we just have to wait a little longer and they’ll be fabulous! They’re one of the best tasting apples we grow, and they store so well,” he said. “If I were just growing one or two varieties, I would get bored out of my mind.”
Goodband wasn’t always an orchardist. He started his career growing vegetable crops for seed. There were some abandoned orchards where he lived, so he made deals with people to take care of the trees in exchange for whatever he could harvest.
“I found I could have a relationship with the trees that I couldn’t have with my seed crops,” he said. “I can come through every year and say, ‘Oh, when I get to this tree, I’ll remember what I was thinking when I pruned it last winter.’ There might be a branch or a side of the tree that I’m trying to get a new branch to take over. Or I gave one branch one more year to show me that it deserved to stay on the tree, and then I’ll decide whether they pulled it off or not.”
“When the seeds begin to turn brown, then I know I’m close,” said Goodband, who also measures sugar content with a refractometer to test for readiness. “The other thing is to taste it.”
Goodband cuts slices of a Chenango Strawberry apple to sample.
“It could be just a touch more sugar, but it’s pretty good. Keep chewing, and if it ends up like a wad of paper in your mouth, then you know there’s too much starch. Maybe if it doesn’t rain for another couple of days, we’ll start picking this one. I’m waiting for that little hint of strawberry.”
He noted that the personal relationship he develops with his trees is one of the greatest keys to the success of Scott Farm Orchard.
“Other than walking around and looking, just really knowing what’s going on, that’s the most important thing,” said Goodband as we descend the hill and head to the old farmhouse where he and his staff keep offices. “For new tree growers, the more time you spend – and this is the same with kids – the more time you spend watching, listening to them … then you know when there’s a problem or when something’s starting to go south.”