The ManyTracks Orchard
with Sue Robishaw
Organic - Healthy - Happy - Fun
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Almost the first thing we did when we got our future homestead property was to put up a fence for the garden and orchard, before we had even moved there. The next summer we tilled up an area for the garden and planted some fruit trees in the farmed out sandy-loam soil. 1978, more than forty years ago, and we are still putting up fence and planting trees! But now we are enjoying the fruit as well as the labor. It's been, and continues to be, a great adventure, a great amount of learning, and a whole lot of fun.
My notes are a little sketchy from those first years; we were busy with working out, building the cabin and house, creating our homestead. We planted those first trees with love but little knowledge. Thankfully some of the trees had strong inclinations to not only survive but grow and produce, and they did, eventually, more in spite of us than because of. The only record I have of that first momentous occasion of the "First Fruit" was a note in my canning notebook, 1987, "70 apples, mostly spys but some macs, good." I assume we were more excited and appreciative than that sounds!
Only a few of those original trees are still with us (the "spys" that we were told were Prairie Spys but turned out not to be, the rootstock pear) but they have been, and continue to be, joined by many more now. The orchard has become my great passion, with Steve's support, help and encouragement. The additions were sporadic and occasional through the years until 2012 when we discovered grafting, and had more time to spend in the orchard. In the summer of 2016 we had 36 trees, and many rootstocks waiting for grafts, plus a nice contingent of small fruits, happily surrounding the vegetable garden. [In 2022 I counted 90 trees!] Many of the trees are not bearing yet but the anticipation is there.
The photo above is how the orchard looked in the fall of 2016; map below is two years later, with the much appreciated new fencing in place and many new plantings added. In 2022 it has filled even more with not much more room for additions. But there is still some grafting to do, moves to make, plants to fit in. It continues to be a very enjoyable and creative adventure for me.
2022 - What a year, and though I know the warming seasons are now common it is still taking some getting used to. The entire year was full of record this, record that, seldom historically normal or average. I started pruning early March with just a foot of snow and mild temps. April started with temps near 50, and by mid-April it was more than warm well into the 70s and most of the pruning done. We celebrated by putting up 6 new Steve-built birdhouses. It would turn out to be a very hard year for all the birds with very few birds and even fewer insects. Not counting mosquitoes which were abundant, but you can't raise many babies on mosquitoes.
That was what I remember most of this year - hot and dry and quiet - 1/4" rain in May, less than 3/4" in June, temps into the 80's. I watered - bucket upon bucket upon bucket - morning and evening - almost every day, hoping our well would stay wet (it did!). I couldn't do anything for the older large bearing trees but I hoped to get enough moisture to the younger trees and bushes (and the garden) to keep things alive. I didn't figure we'd have much of a crop. Tree leaves were often curling due to the drought.
Finally it rained in July (3 1/2" - hurray!!) and temps were more normal. August and September managed to come up with about 2" each, low but so appreciated. The earth made use of every drop. So we had the unusual experience of dry, brown vegetation in the spring, finally greening up in late summer!
And the harvest? The apples outdid themselves! Just about every tree that could put out fruit in abundance. I had to remove blossoms from trees too young to bear more than one or two apples, and I thinned and thinned the older trees. Was it because they were stressed or because they loved the warmer weather? I don't know. It will be interesting to see what they do next year. There were very few pears due to the usual late spring freezes (yes, in spite of the unusual heat!) at the "wrong" time during bloom. But for the first time in decades we had plums! There was fireblight and tip-blight in some of the apples, but kept in check by pruning off when noticed and did fine.
Overall the orchard did well, fed us very well. The trees reminded me that they know how to handle the ups and downs of the weather trust them to do what they do and quit worrying about it. I appreciated every one.
2022 - A good year in the orchard, with the now usual weather extremes, though ours aren't as extreme as in many parts of the County. A cool beginning, hot middle, and about average fall. Enough moisture. Every year brings new surprises. There was more scab in the apple trees but not overwhelming, a few new insects, happy birds, no fireblight (yah!), some blossom blight but seemed manageable, many berries, and plenty of apples for fresh eating, drying, sauce and cider. It was the first year with a significant Aronia crop, which added color and nutrition to the applesauce, and first apples and pear, which is always fun. Had to remove all the planted gooseberries due to signs of White Pine Blister Rust (sad) but added some new hazelnuts (fun). The orchard (and surrounding woods and fields) is such an ever changing and interesting world. The growing season seems to go by fast, and then I start dreaming and planning for next year.
August 19 - The Growing Orchard - The younger trees in the orchard have had a good growing season this year and are finally showing up stronger amongst the vegetation. I mow either side of the tree line which helps, leaving patches unmown to let the wildflowers bloom for the pollinators and other insects, as well as cover for the snakes and toads.
It's never a cut and dry pattern as I also prefer to discourage voles and anything that wants to send seed into the garden area. The older half has vegetation that grows thick and lush while the newer half is mostly thin and working on building up its soil. So some sections get mowed often, others seldom, and it all depends on what I'm thinking or feeling when I get out there with the mower! But thankfully the trees seem to do just fine no matter what I do so it's a happy world in the orchard.
2021 - A very mild and light snow winter, not much more than a foot. The first "big" snowfall didn't happen until Feb.12. Winter continued into an early, warm spring. Except for a few small, and short lived, snowfalls the orchard was bare before the end of March. Most came through winter fine, except Norkent. Pruned through April.
It continued unusually warm and dry into later June with no rain. Watered small trees. Trees bloomed early. Everything grew early. Grafted May 17, 20 total, 70° day. Hit with four freeze nights end of May, 22°-28° while apples and pear in full bloom, plums & cherries finishing. Looks like it will be a "rest" year for fruit.
Record heat all summer with minimal rain, but enough after June 18. Very good growth. Most everything did fine except for fireblight continued in Stacey pear and Chokepear. Very mild fall; no frost until Oct. 18. Then more usual weather so all appeared to go dormant in good time. Ended up with light harvest of apples, especially Black Oxford which was a nice surprise. Mowed orchard floor mid summer then late fall to help discourage voles.
A brisk but beautiful day today allowed me to finish pruning the large apple trees inside the orchard/garden fence. It's been a lot of reshaping these past years but they are now all looking good so the pruning isn't as difficult which is nice. They still love to grow branches where I don't want them to be so it's an every year event but enjoyable. I admit, I like getting up close and personal with my trees! While I was making (relatively) smaller cuts with hand pruners, loppers and pruning saw Steve was making big cuts taking out some vigorous white pines near the path to the hangar and cutting back blackberry canes so we can walk by without getting snagged. They do love to grow which is fine, but we like to have some space, too.
And it is a very growing time of year, everything moving and so amazing. The leeks in the woods haven't minded at all the colder weather as they spread their so cheery carpet of green. They go well with the fresh green of the fir trees interspersed in the hardwoods. So many things are coming along - the first Spring Beauties flowering, the Trout Lillies coming up under the protection of the leeks and growing grass, rhubarb making headway in the garden.
The sky is active, too, and not just with clouds. The Cranes are on the move and we had a large flock, maybe 75-100, stop over the night west of here, maybe visiting the locals who have been around for several weeks now. This morning as the day warmed and the thermals began the group took to the sky, vigorously calling to each other, group after group finding a thermal to circle higher, joining others, higher and higher, moving north. I stop and watch until I can't see them any more. Underneath the Cranes, much closer to the ground, soar several large Vultures and as they moved off south one stayed behind off to the north and I realized it was an immature Bald Eagle. The hawks are on the move, too. As I was up on the ladder pruning a shadow went over and I looked up to see a beautiful large white (male) Marsh Hawk* swoop over my head, low over the garden, up and over large apple trees then off east over the woods. You can be sure it was very quiet in the orchard as everyone kept very still. I went back to work, then the Phoebe started with its two note song, the Chickadee pair headed back to check out what they could glean from the compost pile, and the Bluebird flew back up onto the tail of the windmill, hanging on tight as it turned in the wind. It was a great day to be outside on the homestead.
* Since I didn't remember which Marsh Hawk, male or female, was white (the other is brown) I looked it up, only to find that they changed the name -- our impressive Marsh Hawks are more properly to be called Northern Harriers. Since they did this almost 40 years ago and we've been calling them Marsh Hawks all this time with no problems I guess it won't be of any concern if we continue to call them Marsh Hawks for another 30 or 40 years. They are a beautiful bird/hawk, easily identified with that bright white patch on their rump, and one we enjoy even more now when we don't have chickens.
February 20 -- Orchard Chores
There isn't much work to be done in the orchard this time of year except to gaze at the trees and imagine great things this coming growing season. But there are a few timely chores to be done in spite of, or because of, the snow. The first happens as the snow gets deeper. Mostly snow is welcome as insulation and future moisture when it melts. But when it gets higher than the hardware cage vole-deterrents that I have around tender young trees, most are 20"-24" tall, then I've found, through experience, that it's a good idea to pack that snow down around the cages so the voles can't just walk on the snow right over the top edge to nibble away at the bark. I used to go around each small tree on snowshoes packing down the snow, but this got to be not much fun as the number of trees expanded. Plus they tended to have these things called branches sticking out and getting in the way. And I would invariably stomp on a few of the cages, mashing them against the trees. When the snow was heavy it got to be quite a chore. But there was a solution, right at hand and readily available - our snow removal "squeegee". A long handled tool with a cross piece made of a piece of sturdy foam sandwiched between two boards, it is what we use to pull the snow off our solar panels and the greenhouse windows. Turned out it was just the thing to pull snow away from the tree cages and was much easier than awkwardly stomping the snow down around the little trees. So that's what I did a few days ago in this nice weather stretch.
The other job to get done about now is the fun one of cutting/collecting scions from my trees. I know it just looks like a bucket full of small sticks, which I guess it is. But each "stick" (or scion to the orchardist) is a potential new fruit tree, if all goes well in the grafting. More than half of the scions I cut are for grafting in our own orchard come spring, either to add a variety to a different tree or seedling or to expand a variety that has already been grafted to get it growing on more branches on that tree. The rest of the scions will be sent to other backyard orchardists to graft on their own trees. A lot of the varieties in my own orchard came from exchanges like this with others. It's a fun way to build an orchard. But for now the scions are stored safely in the root cellar until grafting time comes the end of May. Right now that feels, and looks, like a long way away!
2020 - What a year...
Cold cloudy fall, mild winter ('19-'20), plenty of snow starting early December with a very heavy storm, then another, the 2-3 feet of snow lasting to the end of March. Grafts and trees made it through winter OK except for some broken limbs/branches from the heavy wet snow, especially low ones. Crazy record cold 1st half May - directly to record HOT 2nd half right through till the end of August (with some freezes here and there in June). Often in the 80's. This is not our usual summer weather! We had a mild fall, a lot of sun, and a late winter onset (no real snow until Feb. 12, 2021!).
I cut scions Feb. 20, did some pruning Feb. 24, then the rest starting April 10, with the snow mostly gone. Pruned off all low branches on small trees and bushes (to avoid snow breakage in the future). Grafted May 20 (when it finally warmed up), 70 total, our biggest year yet. The county road crew had chipped stuff along our road into convenient (for us) piles. We picked up 2 truckloads, making the neighbors happy to have them out of their yards and me happy to have them. I spread around many trees. It was OK but it still got grassy and was hard to mow. Probably won't do that again. I added metal tags to last year's grafts.
Except for pears the orchard did well overall. I had the first 'whole tree' graft to bear fruit - Norkent - 20 apples and they were delicious. Mowed the entire orchard late summer/early fall to discourage voles. Our focus on work on house this year left the orchard pretty much to itself. It did fine. The only bummer was massive fireblight in Chokepear and Stacey, and some in usser5. Young pears and Summercrisp not touched. Just a few strikes in apples. Had never had anything like that before, but we'd never had weather like this before. I hope it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
2019 - Winter was very long, cold and snowy (4 ft in February). Long, cold spring, dry summer, record wet September. So overall the usual unusual unpredictable weather. We all survived quite well. It was an incredible blooming year, both apples and plums filled their trees so full of blossoms they hardly looked real. We did our largest grafting yet - 50 grafts - and not much more room for any more. Planting is more shrubs and perennials now; filling the the spaces. A busy, fun, year ended with a record apple harvest! And only a small portion of our trees are producing. We ate apples, gifted apples, sauced and dried apples and made a nice large amount of cider. We also finally got to taste new apples from three grafts, the first apple grafts to fruit. Only a few apples each but exciting, having not had those varieties before. The main orchard is settling into a pattern; those young trees finally showing as other than little sticks hidden in the vegetation. It's work, yes, but I do love being out there and often walk through and around for no other reason than to enjoy it.
The North Orchard grew as well, gaining new trees, developing its patterns. Not too much to be added now; just letting them all grow, each as they will. The area exploded in growth with the new-found sunlight and air, and growing on the good soil and needle/leaf mulch left by the removed trees. The young trees are well protected by the vigorous vegetation, securing their own spots in the mix with the help of generous mulch. It's a community in the making, and so interesting to watch.
2018 - There was not much "usual" about this season's weather. December jarred the orchard with sudden large temperature drops, close to record lack of snow and a record population of voles didn't help, then record cold in April into a very sudden jump to summer temps in May - the start of an unusually long, hot summer. It's a wonder that anything survived, but most of them did. Between the weather and the voles the orchard sustained more damage and loss than usual (which is usually minimal) but we all kept on trucking, and overall it was a decent year. More rolls of hardware cloth were purchased to make sure everything was protected before winter, and I marveled at the regrowth during the season of those that lost bark to the hungry voles.
It was a busy, active year in the main orchard starting with more than 40 grafts the end of May and planting many new bushes and trees spring and fall. It's exciting to see the orchard grow in its many different ways.
While I do love this orchard, including the many "wild" apples around the homestead outside of the fence, I missed the grandeur of our original planted apples, left to grow to their full size (see photo at top of page), slowly cut back these past years to a size I can more easily manage (12-14 ft), and a size that fits in our expanding inside orchard. It's good, there will be better harvests, but none of these trees will be allowed their full range. The exception being our "chokepear" - an early planted Bartlett pear that died its first winter or two, the rootstock (likely a seedling) being left to grow as it would, and it did. It blooms in great beautiful glory almost every year, producing hundreds (thousands) of inedible (to us) little pears. Though I've been grafting over lower branches to more edible varieties we won't be cutting this star of the orchard back (it's maybe 35 ft tall).
So, what to do but find a spot where I could plant free ranging trees, and there happened to be an area just right for that on the north edge of our property. There was a once open bay in the woods, now quite grown in with white pine and wild black cherries that would be great for this new orchard area. About a half acre, it was well protected north, northwest and east by woods; fronting on open field to the south and southwest. Perfect. Well, once the many large white pines and cherries were removed! Early spring Steve went to work, and work it was, making large brush pile "hedges" along the woods to the delight of birds and critters, making an opening for the new North Orchard. And I started transplanting trees and bushes, having spent the winter planning.
This is a many year project but the idea is to plant (mostly) fruit tree seedlings of many types, on their own roots (not grafted) that can grow to their full potential, for the wildlife and our enjoyment and interest. It's a satisfying addition to my orchard passion.
A Growing Organic Orchard - September 27, 2017
My orchard certainly would be considered “organic” since I don’t use any chemical sprays or synthetic fertilizers, but I also consider it organic in its layout. Although I’m happy to have more or less straight rows in the garden, which is laid out in a rectangular form, the orchard has grown into a much more flexible, winding shape which I’m finding we both enjoy a lot. Some of it happened by chance, some by purpose, some I’m working now to fit into a flowing form that will be easier to manage. The orchard is small enough to easily walk to any part (about one acre inside the fence) (though it is already growing beyond the fence!). But my method of management is to have mown paths along either side of the fruiting/flowering corridors of trees, bushes, and plants, leaving areas of natural vegetation between. It’s been an interesting challenge fitting the haphazard parts into a practical mowing pattern, in, out, and around in a pleasing manner without going over the same ground twice. I think I’ve spent more time figuring this out than I have deciding what to plant or graft next! But it’s been a fun puzzle which will change as the trees and bushes grow, hopefully into an even more pleasing meander. It’s certainly not what one would call a landscaped area; it is definitely more casual, but with purpose. And even though many of the trees and bushes are small yet, it is a pleasure to walk along the roughly mown paths imagining what it will be like when they are full grown. I like this much better than mowing the entire orchard floor, and I think it is healthier for all.
Decoy Apples - August 21, 2017
Awhile ago I read about someone who painted small stone red and put them among his ripening strawberries with the idea that birds would peck the stones, find them inedible, and go elsewhere, leaving his strawberries alone. It worked for him. So last year when a flock of bluejays made significant inroads into my apple crop, that idea came to mind and I decided to do that on a larger apple-size scale the next year. Meantime I kept an eye out for plastic fruit at the thrift stores, stocking up for the coming season.
Summer came and I painted any of those of my plastic fruit, or round apple
like objects, that weren’t already red and attached wire hangers. When my
real apples started ripening I hung plenty of red decoys in the trees (all
thse “red apples” in the photo). I really didn’t want to share my good
apples with the birds. They have plenty of crab apples to eat.
Spring Pruning - April 14, 2017
We have four
producing “tame” apples and one pear. These are all trees we planted. There
are also a half dozen wild apples with varied fruit quality but I usually
make use of the apples in sauce or cider. Some of the trees I’ve been
working on for many years to get them to a manageable size and they are all
now finally coming into shape, each in their own way. But all can now be
reached standing on the top of my 8 ft ladder for pruning and harvesting.
Though not as impressive as the 30 ft standard trees we used to have they
are much easier to care for and give us better fruit. I’m happy with the new
11-12 foot heights, and I hope the trees are, too.
Odd Year in the Orchard - March 7, 2017
Or is it MAY 7? Nature is doing her best to shake up our pre-conceived notions of what the weather should be doing based on our calendar dates. It's almost like having a different month every week, or every day! It was close to 40 degrees today, with a forecast for temps near zero later this week. I don't think I'll start planting yet. And I'm trusting the trees and plants to know that it is indeed still hibernation time and not nearly time to think about growing. Though I certainly never thought we'd have bare ground in February and early March I've always considered hardiness when choosing varieties to plant. I'm hoping all will come through this rare winter of lack of snow. [Later update: Almost everything was alive and well come spring, losing only a young Garfield Plantation cherry. I was sorry about that but sure appreciated the success of all the rest in spite of their having to fare winter without the usual protective deep layer of snow.]
ORCHARD - Expanded - December 16, 2016
It feels like we went from two months of Octobers right into January, skipping November and December this year. I think Nature just gets bored and enjoys having a little fun with us. But lows of zero with highs barely into the teens means many cheery sunny days, and a happy solar homestead. The snow cover is a bit light for those low temps but it’s snowing this evening with promise of several more inches. That will be good, not only for insulation on the house but for the orchard and garden. All of the younger fruit trees, berries, shrubs, plants are well mulched but I always feel more comfortable when they have that extra blanket of natural insulation to get them through the winter. And this year there are a group of seedlings that were transplanted late (because I could, thanks to the very mild November) who will especially appreciate that comfort as they go into winter in their new homes in the “new” orchard. On paper there isn’t much distinction between old and new but for that all important item -- the fence.
A couple of fruit trees had already settled beyond the
current fenced half acre of land where about 30 fruit trees plus various
shrubs, berries and large garden are nicely protected from deer and
raccoons. But there just wasn’t room for all the plantings of my dreams to
fit in there. We have already grafted onto a number of wild crab/apple
seedlings out and about but they will require individual fences for many
years to come to keep the deer from “pruning” them to stubs. Then they’ll
need to be grown tall enough to keep at least some of the fruit out of their
reach if I want to harvest any for us. That’s fine for a handful of trees
but not for the number I’m planning. Plus I want to grow my trees shorter
than “above deer reach”. It was obvious -- the fenced in orchard needs to
expand. Happily, just east of our current set-up makes sense. We roughly
outlined where the new fence could go, given the terrain and the existing
white pines, wild black cherries and other wild growth. The fairly open area
was full of dewberry brambles and rough field so we mowed it with sickle bar
and hardy, overworked gas “lawn” mower, and Steve cut down a few trees. I
spent many a happy hour with PhotoShop moving little circles around and
imagining what might go where. Then back and forth to the “real” plot to
re-organize and re-arrange based on what felt and looked right in person. I
wanted groups of fruit trees with room for lower growing shrubs and plants.
Copyright © Susan Robishaw
appreciate links to our site www.ManyTracks.com from appropriate sites, and we thank you for
Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.