Vegetable grower adding fruits to PYO operation

AFP Correspondent

MANSFIELD TOWNSHIP — Greg Donaldson is a vegetable grower. Primarily growing vegetable crops for his retail farm market and agritourism enterprise, Donaldson had previously added strawberries and raspberries, including PYO, to attract customers and expand his product line.
He recently expanded again to include tree fruit — apples and peaches.
“I really don’t know anything about growing apples,” Donaldson said, addressing the crowd of three dozen or more attendees at the recent North Jersey Twilight Fruit Meeting, held at Donaldson Farms in Warren County.
But despite that lack of knowledge, Donaldson began planting apple trees five years ago, using the tall spindle production method, in order to offer customers another PYO experience on the farm.
He chose this method for several reasons, including the relative ease of pruning, the ease of picking, and the rapid entry into production. Luckily, Win Cowgill, Rutgers Cooperative Extension agent and area fruit specialist, was on hand to lend assistance.
Tall Spindle Apples
Apple trees at Donaldson Farms are planted in rows, with about three and a half feet between trees. Horizontal wires are strung along each row, four to a row, with the top wire being strung at about 12 feet, the lowest about two feet. Trees are tied to these guide wires as they grow, preventing them from being blown around and keeping them straight, while discouraging trunk thickening, and encouraging the tree to put more energy into leader growth and fruit production. This is the tall spindle apple tree production method.
These trees produced 200 bushels of apples per acre two years after establishment.
Planted at a density of about 1,700 trees per acre, Donaldson was able to enter into the apple business rapidly.
The trees require hands-on care, particularly during the first few years, Cowgill said. In order to force the tree into establishing buds, branches are bent below horizontal, and clipped down using clothes pins, hooks or elastics, in early spring. This results in fruit production all along the bent branch. Diameter-based pruning prevents any large wood from being established. Large branches, more than one-half to three-quarters of the diameter of the leader, are removed. No branch is permanent: The tree’s production is renewed continually.
It’s important to plant well-feathered trees, grown on fully dwarfing stock, such as M.9. If a whip is planted, the first year is devoted to growing branches, and is counter-productive, Cowgill said. Feathering can be induced chemically at the nursery, and Cowgill and others have been working to educate nurseries to this practice. Additionally, some rootstocks are too big for tall spindle production. Soil fertility and characteristics will determine what rootstocks are best suited to the tall spindle system on any particular farm.
Stripping any buds off of the first several inches below the tip is also important, Cowgill said. Keeping a clear leader, which is encouraged to quickly grow and ultimately be attached to the top wire as rapidly as possible, is crucial. Once the leader is attached to the top wire, it needs to be managed to prevent shading the next row of trees. The crop load on the leader is managed by allowing it to bend below the wire. Once below horizontal, the leader is cut back to a new upright.
“You always have to leave a wick,” Cowgill said. If not, growth is stimulated, and the area about two feet below the cut will be thrown into vegetative mode, and fruit production will be severely compromised.
Donaldson Farms is also a participating farm in the ongoing Rutgers’ strawberry research trials. A blind taste test was set up at the meeting, and participants were encouraged to rate taste and appeal of numerous berry varieties, including those being developed through the Rutgers’ NJAES Strawberry Breeding Program.
Out in the field, Donaldson is growing Rutgers selections, and feels that they may be in the running to compete with the commercial standard variety, Chandler, which is commonly grown for taste, yield and vigor.
“I really like the flavor. The berries are large,” Donaldson said of the trial variety. The berries don’t look too good, he said, but neither do the Chandlers this season.
Morris County agricultural agent Peter Nitzsche agrees with Donaldson’s taste assessment. “We have some really good prospects in terms of flavor,” he said. And they may be “more vigorous, in some cases, than the Chandler,” and well-suited to Eastern growing conditions.
The Rutgers researchers are studying whether Chandler requires increased fertility over Rutgers-bred varieties, which would give their varieties an edge, as they would have decreased fertilizer costs, Nitzsche said. The researchers will be rating plots, which are growing on ten conventional farms, as well as several organic farms, this season.
Commercial release of trial varieties is expected in 2015-16, with nursery propagation being licensed.
Donaldson grows on plastic, with straw between the rows. He rotates strawberries with a clover/grass mix, and keeps fields out of berries for two full years. His berries are in production for two years, mowing them down the first year after harvest, although he has had concerns about mowing too low. He plants using the Nourse farms dormant planting system in July, as well as planting some strawberries in September.
He is hesitant to use overhead sprinklers for frost protection, due to the increase in disease issues he has seen with increased water applications to prevent frost. He’s used row covers, but they left “white hairs” on the berries, and customers thought it was human hair, causing problems.
Donaldson monitors fertility levels with regular tissue sampling, as well as soil sampling. He makes recommended product applications, and retests the tissues several weeks after application to monitor the results.
“I look at the recommendations, but I make my own calls,” Donaldson said.
Dr. Brad Majek, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Specialist in Fruit Weed Control, discussed common weed issues in strawberries. When planting on plastic, the only opportunity to control weeds is before the plastic is laid down, he said.
You can not spray across the top of plastic, as the rate of application can not be controlled, and doing so can result in up to 50 times the allowed rate being applied.
In addition, some weed control products need soil contact, so using them in a plasticulture environment won’t work, and can kill the plants when chemicals left on the plastic are ultimately washed into the soil — through the planting holes — when it rains or the crop is irrigated.
“Do not plant in fields with perennial weeds, particularly nutsedge,” he advised.
In spring, there isn’t time for dormant spraying in plasticulture strawberries,  Majek said. In fall, after the plastic is removed, fields can be treated for weed prevention.
Donaldson also grows peaches. Dean Polk, Rutgers Cooperative Extension tree fruit IPM agent, gave a brief update on disease control and sprayer calibration issues. Sprayers must be able to reach the top and bottom of leaves, to cover them completely. Using water-sensitive spray paper, and hanging it in various locations at differing heights on the trees, can indicate whether the spray application provided full coverage.
Polk showed participants trees in the orchard with San Jose Scale, and how the disease will begin killing the branches in the trees, and spread through the orchard. It differs from White Peach Scale. Some trees have both diseases, he said. The first year, scale can look like a “bad twig,” but will rapidly spread if not controlled.
Participants also received pesticide applicator credits, and updates on Department of Environmental Protection inspections, which are occurring throughout the state at this time. As always, the Twilight Meeting provided area growers with the opportunity to learn from the experts, from other farmers, and to socialize.