First Orchard Spray - March 22-24, 2016

I asked my partner Blase if he would hook up the sprayer to the tractor. That’s something I can’t do myself — the weight of the bars and jostling them into place. I need his hand strength and his way of banging with a hammer or whatever tool is nearby to coax the connection of the sprayer to the tractor’s power takeoff.

Blase wished me luck and then left me to go about my spraying. I filled the tank with 150 gallons of water and pulled the sprayer away from the house to test the workings. There are eight nozzles, four on each side, which each send out a fine mist of spray. Two of the eight sprayed water; the other six drizzled. I need all eight to work for good coverage. I started opening them up, removing the whorls, discs, and washers. Bits of black debris blocked their tiny holes. I cleaned them and flushed the nozzles out again, but they continued to clog. By this time it was almost 5pm.

I called my savior but he didn’t answer his phone. His name is Denis Wagner. He taught me how to prune the trees. He was my first consultant in the orchard and we have remained friends since.

Denis pruning in 2005

Denis pruning in 2005

Denis had been the orchard manager at Nashoba Winery in Bolton for many years: he knew about apple pests, but not about growing apples organically. Denis went with me the first time I attended the annual meeting of a group of holistic apple growers in western Massachusetts. (The men outnumbered the women thirty-five to two.) At that meeting we heard about Permaculture and Biodynamics, about the organic pesticide Entrust, the organic fungicide Serenade, the names so poetic.... It was far too much information for me to absorb in one sitting.

When I was about to call it a day, Denis called back and said he would come right over. A house call — doctors don’t make them anymore, but orchardists do. He first took off the two pump filters; they needed cleaning. I had forgotten all about them — I am so not a machine person. We then proceeded to clean all the nozzles again. Finally when all was done, the sun had long since gone down, the moon was rising, and Denis headed home. I put away the tools and went in to make dinner, leaving the sprayer lounging outside to enjoy the splendid full moon.  

Before I sat down to eat, I checked the hourly weather forecast. I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have freezing temperatures. I’d already been watching the weather for days, but I needed to be sure. Once we wake the sprayer from its winter slumber, it has to be covered with a king-sized blanket and tucked in with a light bulb for warmth if the temperature descends below 32 degrees.  

This first spray of the season is always a juggling act — warm enough to spray and yet not too warm that the buds have broken dormancy. I was planning on a couple of pounds of copper for fire blight — a bacterial infection that can travel through an orchard by way of open blossoms — and mineral oil to serve as a spreader. I thought the mineral oil might also help to control winter moth. This insect has recently moved westward from the coast and will easily defoliate a tree. In apples, the caterpillars crawl into the buds and destroy them.

To make this spray effective, the orchardist wants no rain for 24 hours following the spraying. The wind speed also needs to be low or the spray will go everywhere but where you want it. I checked the hourly weather again and watched the numbers. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day? There was wind and a low chance of rain both days, but spring had arrived, so I felt the pressure to get this spray on as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the sprayer sat connected to the tractor filled with water waiting like a patient dinosaur.

Two days later, I suited up, added the materials to the spray tank, and headed out into the orchard. The wind came up and was stronger than I liked, the sky clouded over, but I continued at my 2mph speed down and up each row and emptied the tank. In the middle of the night I woke to the sound of a good solid rain. And now there’s snow in the forecast. There’s always this unknown, and life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope. 

When I attended the holistic apple growers meeting again this year. I heard something new.

Calm the trees.

Many trees grow too many water sprouts, those upright shoots that can grow 3 feet long. Calm trees will have 6 -12” of new growth and have better fruit flavor. Calm trees need a calm orchardist. I decided not to worry about the first spray.