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By Shelly Paulocik

We tend to think of winter as a quiet time in the orchard. Once fall activities are completed, it is quite quiet. One important job though is to patrol the nursery. Even at this time of the year, the saying which goes "the best fertilizer is the foot of the farmer," still holds. Had I been vigilant two winters ago (it must have been the year of the rabbit in China), I would have been aware of damage in my own orchard and nursery before it was extensive. Frequent inspection not only keeps you aware of what's happening, but the frequent renewal of the human (and canine) scent tend to keep unwanted munchers wary, and at bay. (Some enthusiasts purposefully have lots to drink before doing their rounds, believing urine to leave a particularly strong message.)

Winter is also a good time to update notes and maps. If a tree has been removed, or more have been planted, keep your records updated - it serves better than your memory, believe me! Notes about things that stood out during the season will also prove valuable in the long run, i.e. varieties which were noticeably more diseased, varieties that bore well, varieties that tasted particularly great, insect pests that were bad, and when they were, and what you did about them.

The best time for doing most pruning is when the worst of winter is over; March is ideal. (One of the most poorly understood concepts is that the time of pruning determines its effect.) You'll find that pruning is an activity that varies with the individual, the fruit tree (i.e. apple versus pear), and even the variety (i.e. Northern Spy versus Empire). Pruning is a fairly complex subject; some excellent information is available from OMAF (see following note). In general, you are trying to remove unwanted material (i.e. too close, too upright, or simply too much) in an effort to balance the vigour and bearing ability of the tree.

If you have young trees, training can also be done in winter. By forcing main branches into horizontal positions (i.e. 60 degree angles or more), we make the branches stronger and trigger the flowering and fruiting phase. You can train branches by pushing them down (but not too hard, or you'll break them) and inserting spreaders. Metal spreaders are available; or you can make thin, wide wooden ones of the right length with `V' notches at each end. You can also pull the branches into place, tying them down to the lower trunk with special plastic tubing which won't injure the bark.

Remember, if you're spraying, the time for applying dormant oil and /or lime sulphur is just as spring is breaking.

OMAF INFORMATION: Pruning and Training of Fruit Trees Pub. 392: this is a large, thorough booklet that covers apple, cherry, peach, nectarine, pear, and plum. Pruning Fruit Trees Agdex 210/24: this fact sheet is a brief, excellent summary of pruning principles.

Copyright 1993 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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