Montgomery: apple tree 'feeding is timed for early spring'

If you have an apple tree and have not been spraying, or feeding it, your tree qualifies as “organic.” Seriously.

On the other hand, if you would like to grow “mostly” organically tended apple trees, like I do, payoff for the effort comes at harvest.

That effort takes the form of feeding fruit trees from root to crown.

Feeding is timed for early spring, when new roots are seeking nutrients and buds are forming; early-summer, when fruitlettes are growing; and fall as sugars and carbohydrates are being stored before winter dormancy.

In order for apple trees to receive the best balance of nutrients, the soil under the drip-line should test 6.5 to 6.8 pH.

The drip-line is where new roots grow spring and late summer, then die off until the next root flush.

The soil here in Warren has tested at 5.2 pH, so, the soil is regularly treated with pulverized dolomitic limestone, which also replaces the missing magnesium.

The amount used varies by soil pH and trunk size. A couple of 8-ounce soup cans suffices.

Soil testing — maybe $20 — is performed by Crop Protection Services in Amenia, N.Y.

The soil will never be at the best pH level for the trees, but the additional lime has raised pH readings, provided calcium for cell, foliage and fruit development and improved nutrient uptake.

The product to use for organic fertilizing is Espoma Fruit Tree Fertilizer, which is found in most local Northwest Connecticut nurseries.

Rain breaks down the fertilizer, which leaches through top soil reaching new roots.

The fertilizer is not yet in a form the roots can grab. Small symbiotic forms of white threaded roots break the fertilizer down to organic compounds and sugars, tap into the tree roots and feed the host, which is the apple tree.

The benefit to these white roots, technically called hyphae, is that the tree provides carbohydrates generated by photosynthesis, sunlight, which the hyphae are never exposed to directly.

It takes time for nutrients to travel up through the inner bar, the cambium, to the branch tip, so spring liming and fertilizing starts now.

And, since spring seems to be arriving early this year, it is time to spray in anticipation of typical four inch a month rainfall, which results in spring fungal infections in warmer weather.

This is where there is a slight deviation for the organic purist, using copper fungicide, which some argue is not an organic compound as has no carbon molecules.

Developing buds are exposed to fungal infection even before opening. Fungal infections and may not appear until later in the season.

All trees here have been sprayed once and will be treated several more times before the buds open April 25 through May 10.

Since a 4-gallon backpack sprayer is used here, the trees are sprayed with several organic elements simultaneously to improve tree health.

The mix: one gallon water to one ounce each of copper fungicide, to reduce fungal infections; Neem Oil, a natural insecticide, appetite suppressant and insect growth regulator; and Thuricide, a naturally occurring soil present bacillus, which is deadly to sucking and chewing insects.

Spray either every two weeks, or when the trees receive more than two inches of rain between spraying.

Do this until the trees begin blooming. All products are available under the Bonide, which is labeled for “organic gardening.”

Spraying is also a highly effective nutrient delivery strategy.

When sprayed directly onto the tree nutrients are absorbed directly by fruiting spurs and developing foliage.

Neptune’s Harvest Fish and Seaweed Fertilizer delivers a full complement of nutrients and organic compounds need for healthy tree growth and improved fruit production.

As for when to spray, there are a few rules.

Pick a calm day with light winds and soak trunk, branch, bud and base of the tree; don’t spray while the blossoms are open; and spray the mix with copper fungicide once after blossom fall, without the copper, until the end of June for best results.

Peter Montgomery, owner of Montgomery Gardens Heirloom Apples and Orchards in Warren promotes home orcharding, speaks publicly, designs and installs heirloom cider orchards and consults with Spoke and Spy Ciderworks in Middletown. He will speak at “A Seminar on Fruit Trees” at the Litchfield facilities of EdAdvance, April 20 and 22 6 to 8 p.m.