FALL APPLE AND PEAR FRUIT TREE CARE
By James Sagmiller
Now is the time to gather ripe apples and pears. Be sure to pick while weather is dry. As you harvest, discard/destroy any diseased fruit or “mummies” into a hot, active compost pile or burn them. Feed fallen fruits to cattle, horses, or pigs. Pick unripe winter pears before hard frosts so they will ripen in storage and keep better. (Frosted pears will rot in storage). To gather ripe fruit, gently twist one way or another; a ripe apple or pear comes off easily.
Before storing, dry the fruit in heaps in a shed for 10 to 14 days. Wipe each apple or pear dry with a clean, dry cloth and wrap each one in brown paper and store in wooden barrels or bins. As you wipe, inspect the fruit for bruises or decay and discard or use those immediately rather than storing them. Another good method is to store the fruit in completely dry sand, sawdust or straw in barrels or bins. The storage cellar needs to be cool and dry, with protection from frost. I like to store apples away from potatoes because apples seem to take on a potato flavor after a few months of storage, if they are stored next to each other.
September is a good time to paint the trunks of your fruit trees to prevent sunscald. Sunscald happens in spring when the sun hits frozen sap in the tree trunk. Painting the trunk white with interior latex paint will reflect the sun off the trunk and help prevent sunscald. Do this every year. Another important thing to do in fall is to rake up all fallen leaves, so as to prevent scab disease.
A serious disease of apples and pears is fireblight. The symptoms are blackened terminal shoots and leaves, with the ends of the branches often being bent over. The leaves and twigs will have a scorched look, as if they had been burned. If you encounter this, it is necessary to carefully prune the branches affected, cutting 6 inches to a foot below the scorched, blackened leaves and stem. Wipe your lopper/pruner before using and after each cut, with 70% isopropyl alcohol or a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach in 9 parts water). Also, prune for fireblight in dry weather. Wet weather means wet branch wood and a greater chance of spreading the disease. Seal the cuts with pruning paint.
Voles and gophers are serious cool season threats to fruit trees, especially young trees. A tree guard will help protect tender bark from being stripped by voles. Tree wrap alone will not prevent voles from chewing into bark. Plastic tree guards are good to use for young trees. Put them on in September, but be sure to remove them about the time the trees leaf out. They do not expand well as the tree grows, can become embedded in the growing bark and can cause moisture buildup underneath. A better tree guard is one of ¼” -1/2” hardware cloth, made at least 4” in diameter and 18”-24” high. Air can pass through, and the vole/rabbit guard can be left in place until the trunk grows larger.
Fall is an excellent time of year to apply organic fertilizers on established trees as soil is still warm. Organics activate best when soil temperatures are between 50 degrees and 80 degrees. Bone meal, alfalfa meal and kelp meal are good dry amendments. A spray of Neem oil with hydrolyzed fish when leaves are 50-60% fallen will feed the tree, and help prevent fungi and bacterial infestations. Spray over all branches and the trunk. Neem is a light, OMRI listed horticultural oil.
TRANSPLANTING AND PROTECTION
Fall is also a very good time to transplant fruit trees, especially the second half of October into November. Our weather is very unpredictable and some years we get a deep-freeze winter storm in early November, so really watch the weather to get trees in before winter. Test your soil pH. Most fruiting trees and shrubs prefer a soil pH of 6.5-6.9. Cottonseed Meal is a good organic amendment that will help acidify alkaline soil. Apples, pears, cherries and plums prefer sandy loam soil. Gypsum with compost will lighten and improve clay soils. Dig large holes for your trees and amend poor soils. Fruit trees need good drainage so avoid planting in swampy, heavy soils. Do not apply extra fertilizer to newly planted trees, especially chemical fertilizers.
A new product that protects the tree’s root ball from voles and gophers are Vole King planting baskets made from wire mesh. If a vole or gopher chews into the mesh, metal wires stick out and poke the vole in the face causing it to stop chewing. Several sizes of vole baskets are available, from a large fruit tree size down to one made for small bulbs and perennials. The edges of the baskets roll easily. A circle of metal hardware cloth will prevent voles from climbing over the edges of the wire basket and digging down into the root ball of the plant.
In our northern climate, standard apple and pear trees are often best. Dwarfing rootstocks are not as winter hardy as trees grown on their own roots or grafted onto a hardy standard rootstock. ‘Antanovka’ is a very winter hardy apple rootstock that produces a standard tree of 15 feet or so in our climate. The same tree can be pruned to be 10 to 12 feet tall. Purchased dwarf or semi-dwarf trees can be planted deeper so they will root from above the graft. This produces a hardy, long-lived tree. Keep in mind trees grow much larger in areas with longer growing seasons, such as in England, Oregon or California. Plant standard apple trees in Montana about 18-20 feet apart and standard pears about 20 feet apart. Good hardy rootstocks for pears are Pyrus communis and Pyrus ussuriensis.