Sunday, June 20

Summer Twilight

The past week I went up to West Haven Farm to help with thinning.  The farm has agreed to let me thin on my own schedule and keep track in the orchard log of the trees that have been thinned.  For my labors they have offered me an exchange of veggies and fruit from the farm, a more than fair exchange in my opinion.  The apples are sizing up nicely and many of the trees are showing a good crop.  The sun has already left a red blush on many of the small apples, helping them to stand out against the clay coated leaves.  I biked up late in the afternoon, the mile and half straight up the west hill of the Ithaca basin.  It is my favorite time to work; the late afternoon.  As I arrived the farm workers were finishing the last tasks for the day and heading home with a few quarts of fresh strawberries left over from the days labors.  Soon the tractor was parked and the gate closed and I found myself alone, with the crows and the trees, and  few evening peepers tuning up for their symphony.
My task was fairly simple; for each cluster of apples, (there are normally five blossoms in a cluster) I was to choose one apple that would remain and pick the others off.  Sometimes the choice had already been made for me, as a number of the blossoms never reach fruit set, or fall off naturally.  Other times there would be only two apples, one of which would show signs of infestations or deformity.  However many times I found myself in a position to choose between more than one perfect apple.  I felt grossly under-qualified to play god, choosing one apple to mature in the summer sun and dropping the others to the ground.  As the shadows grew longer I methodically rounded each tree, my eyes darting from branch to branch.  The first time round was always slow, yet no matter how thorough I felt I was being, a second and even a third walk around the tree would always yield new clusters, which I sometimes could swear were not there the first time. As I suspected, thinning apples is not unlike picking them.  Although the apples are smaller and much less willing to let go of the tree than they will be in a few months, the motions and the rhythm feel very much the same.  It was reassuring too realize that the feeling I get being in an orchard in the fall is as much a product of the trees themselves as it is the season. 

Thursday, June 10

Thinning Time

Good morning!  And a beautiful morning.  The weather has been cooler the past few days, giving almost an early May feel and allowing some of the brassicas and peas in the garden to catch their breath after the stunning heat of the past few weeks.  The long summer evenings have pulled me away from my computer and out into the garden (see photos) or onto the porch for a late supper. 
Thinning has likely already begun or will begin soon at most local orchards.  This morning I am headed up to West Haven Farm to meet the orchard manager and hopefully learn more about the art of thinning.  Thinning is needed in almost all orchards in order to allow the apples to reach a substantial size.  To over simplify, if too many apples remain on the tree, it does not have enough energy, nor the apples enough room to allow for mature fruit.  Instead, an unthinned tree will usually bare a large quantity of gulf ball size apples.  In some cases late freezes can do a bit of their own thinning, something many growers in New England experienced this past spring.  Unfortunately mother nature is not so meticulous, and even if a grower looses much of their crop to a late freeze, thinning is often needed for the remaining apples.  This sentiment was expressed recently in a posting I read by Michael Phillips on the growers forum of the Holistic Orchard Network
In larger orchards, thinning is often done by spraying hormones or other agents that "force" the trees to drop a somewhat predicable percentage of their crop.  However, in many organic or smaller orchards thinning is still done the old fashioned way; by hand.  
I am excited to learn more about this aspect of apple cultivation; immersing myself in parts of the apple growing cycle other than harvesting.  I wonder if it could almost feel like picking miniature apples a few months too early.