Managing an Apple Orchard

Take a close-up look at the process of managing an apple orchard and tips on apples that make quality homemade cider.

Apple quality

Figure 4.1. Cultural practice effects on apple quality.

Photo courtesy Chelsea Green

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The New Cider Maker's Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2013), shows you how to make the very best cider-whether for yourself, your family, and friends or for market-you first need a deep understanding of the processes involved, and the art and science behind them. Fortunately, The New Cider Maker's Handbook is here to help. Author Claude Jolicoeur is an internationally known, award-winning cider maker with an inquiring, scientific mind. His book combines the best of traditional knowledge and techniques with up-to-date, scientifically based practices to provide today's cider makers with all the tools they need to produce high-quality ciders. The following excerpt from chapter 4 provides important information on managing an apple orchard and producing high-quality homemade apple cider.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The New Cider Maker's Handbook

THE CIDER ORCHARD

I present here my personal views on how to manage an orchard to produce high-quality apples for cider. These views correspond to the way I manage my own small orchard. In particular, you will see that I believe the best apples for cider come from low-productivity orchards.

As mentioned above, the first principle to always bear in mind is that cider-apple growing is different. If you permit me an analogy with wine: could you imagine that a wine maker would make his wine from table grapes? Worse, could you imagine that a law would require a wine maker to be a commercial producer of table grapes in order to sell his wine? Table grapes and wine grapes are two different things; they are not grown in the same way or by the same people. Why should it be different for apples and cider? Well, even if the answer seems obvious, the reality isn’t always so simple.

For example, in Quebec in the 1970s, a law was voted to rule the commercial production of cider. This new legislation stipulated that only commercial apple producers could become cider makers and obtain the right to sell their products. The underlying intent was to find a market for surplus apples. Naturally, what had to happen did happen: the law provoked a boom in industrial cider production. But the quality wasn’t there because the cider wasn’t being produced from appropriate apples, and soon production decreased, as no one wanted to drink the cider, even if was very inexpensive.

Also, many commercially produced ciders come from cideries that are first and foremost commercial orchards that grow apples to eat. For them, cider production is often a way to increase the value of the lower-grade apples they can’t sell at a good price. So the apples they use for their cider are the same varieties as their mainstream table apples: they are grown on a large scale using techniques aimed at increasing the productivity and maximizing the attractiveness of the fruit. This is far from ideal for cider making, as I show below; if you seek quality—and I am talking here about the quality of a grand cru cider, which may be compared with a great wine or a Champagne—then you must find other ways to obtain the fruit quality required for such great ciders.

We may now look at some more specific issues relative to cider orchards. In particular, there are two fundamental aspects that we need to consider: the cultural practices, which I discuss just below, and the varietal selection, which will be the object of the following chapter.

The Cultural Practices

The cultural practices you employ will have a great influence on the quality of the cider produced. We may classify the different options into a few groups:

The extensive, or traditional, old-style orchard. This type of orchard corresponds to the way apples were grown in the past. Among its main features are large-size trees grafted on standard (nondwarfing) rootstocks, with ample spacing between trees. Typical planting density varies between fifty to eighty trees per acre. The orchard floor is grass with other diverse flora (wild herbs and flowers), the soil is generally not fertilized, and there is minimal pest and disease control. The productivity of an extensive orchard such as this is relatively low: when well maintained, it may yield an annual production of 2 to 5 tons of apples per acre (5 to 12 per hectare), depending on the climatic conditions; the health, age, and alternating fruiting habit of the trees; and the fertility of the soil. On the other hand, it needs only minimal maintenance and input from the grower. Traditional cider-apple growers of the Old World often let livestock graze in such orchards, and these are a common sight in the countryside of Normandy, northern Spain, or the southwest of England.

The intensive orchard. Intensive orcharding was developed during the twentieth century to increase productivity. To achieve this goal, intensive orchards rely on dwarf rootstocks planted at a high density, which may be from four hundred to over one thousand trees per acre. With these small trees, different training, floor management, fertilization, thinning, and pest control strategies are used, making this cultural system a fairly complex one. The production costs are high, but the productivity may be four to six times higher than that of a traditional orchard. In addition, the fruit produced is generally larger, more uniform, and more marketable. Intensive orcharding may be done organically or conventionally. This will change the strategies and products applied, but the end result as far as cider production is concerned isn’t changed much. Large-scale commercial apple production is nowadays always done in such intensive orchards.

The cider-bush orchard. The intensive orcharding techniques are often judged as too costly for cider-apple production because such perfect and handsome fruit isn’t needed. Thus research was done during the twentieth century to develop higher-productivity orchards but at a lower production cost. A good part of this work was conducted at the Long Ashton Research Station (LARS) in Bristol, England, and is best described in the small book by Ray Williams and coauthors: Cider and Juice Apples: Growing and Processing (1988). Essentially, the techniques are inspired by the intensive cultural techniques for commercial apples but adapted for the special crop of cider apples. In particular, the pest control is reduced, and the trees are slightly larger (i.e., semidwarf or semistandard) and more robust to permit mechanical harvesting by shaking the tree. In England, where this model is mostly used, the tree densities vary between two hundred to four hundred trees per acre. For an example of a North American adaptation of this model, see section 4.4 on Steve Wood’s orchard.

In addition to these, there are a number of intermediate models that we may call semi-intensive orchards, where trees are planted at intermediate densities between the traditional model and the intensive orchard, with varying management strategies. In particular I would like to mention here the holistic orcharding approach led by my friend Michael Phillips and described in his two books, The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard. This approach is much softer than the intensive methods mentioned above in the sense that the apple grower does not systematically use poisons (either conventional chemical or organic) to protect the crop but instead works on the health of the tree, from the premise that a healthy tree will defend itself against the pest that may attack it. Holistic orchardists make use of diverse flora on the orchard floor, and improve the soil with the use of compost and ramial wood chips (a mulch made from small-diameter hardwood branches, sometimes including clippings from apple tree pruning). Foliar sprays and compost teas are used to create a microorganism-rich environment that will provide balanced nutrition and enhance the tree’s natural defenses. It is, however, an approach that is fairly demanding of the grower hoping to produce commercial-quality fruit for sale. It becomes much easier and less intensive if cider-quality fruit is being grown. Michael has told me that a good orchard, planted at a density of 120 trees per acre on semistandard rootstocks such as the MM-111 variety, and maintained following the holistic approach, will yield two to three times that of a traditional model—so about 7 to 10 tons per acre.

INFLUENCE OF CULTURAL PRACTICES ON APPLE AND CIDER QUALITY

Intensive apple growing requires the use of dwarfing rootstocks, as these are far more productive than standard trees and start production sooner. These small trees also produce larger and more handsome fruit, but essentially such beautiful fruits contain more water, which dilutes the sugar and flavor. Nitrogenous fertilization is required with the use of dwarfing rootstocks and contributes to producing a large quantity of beautiful fruit. Unfortunately, such fertilization also increases the amount of nitrogenous substances in the apples. Nitrogen is an important component in fertilizers, whether they are synthetic or natural, like compost. So this nitrogen migrates into the fruit, where it forms compounds, which act as yeast nutrients, with the consequence that a nitrogen-rich juice ferments much more rapidly than a juice low in nitrogen.

During the 1970s, British cider expert Andrew Lea did some experiments with pot-cultivated Dabinett apple trees. He fed some of the trees with a fertilizer and left other trees unfed. He then analyzed the fruit, juice, and cider from the two groups of trees, and he obtained the following interesting results:

• Fertilized trees yielded a 50 percent greater weight of crop. • The content of nitrogenous substances was double in apples from fertilized trees. • The fermentation time was reduced by half with the juice from fertilized trees. • Fertilization caused a 15 percent reduction of tannins.

Such observations are not recent: already in 1890, Georges Power was writing, “Un sol très riche en azote produit des fruits volumineux, mais relativement pauvres en sucre et en tanin” (which I may translate as, “A soil very rich in nitrogen produces voluminous fruits, but they are relatively poor in sugar and tannins.”)

Orchard floor management is a fairly similar issue. In intensive orchards this is an important element in the overall orchard management strategy. Often herbicides or some other method to control grass and weeds are employed. The important point is to reduce the competition that could come from other plants growing near the apple tree. This is because dwarf apple trees have a superficial root system, and thus the competition from other plants growing nearby reduces their productivity. In contrast, with full-sized trees the root system goes much deeper in the soil, and it then becomes useful to let a diverse flora grow in the orchard to attract beneficial insects and improve the soil health.

To summarize, most large, attractive commercially grown apples taste somewhat bland. Their substance is reduced or, rather, diluted: from tests I have done with the same variety grown in my orchard and bought at the market, the commercially grown apples had from 20 to 40 percent less sugar and acids. It is a bit as if I were to extract some great juice, high in sugar and flavor, and then dilute it with a third of the volume of water before fermenting it to make cider. And this is just as true for organically grown commercial apples: I have done tests on juice produced from certified organic apples and found it also very low in sugar. Furthermore, commercially grown apples will contain more nitrogen, which, as I have noted, encourages a fast fermentation, whereas a quality cider should be obtained by a slow fermentation. So modern intensive orcharding practices used for commercial apple production are detrimental to the quality of the apples for cider making. A much better quality of apples will be obtained from a more traditional but less productive orcharding approach or simply from wild or untended trees.

As for the cider-bush orchards, I have not yet seen a research paper that compared the quality of the apples produced in these orchards with that of traditional, old-style orchards, nor have I done such tests myself, but I would suspect the sugar level and overall quality of the apples from these orchards to be somewhat intermediate between the traditional and the intensive orchards. A last point of interest on this topic on cultural practices concerns apple scab, a fungus (Venturia inaequalis) that does cosmetic damage to the fruit. Scab has to be fully controlled for the apples to have any commercial value, but scab damage is of no concern if the apples are to be pressed for cider. And I have noticed that scabby apples yield less juice, but this juice is richer in flavor and sugar. So actually, some scab may improve the quality of the cider, though decreasing the yield. But scab control will nonetheless be required when the health of the trees is threatened.

Figure 4.1 illustrates my point. On the top are two commercially grown Cortland apples that I bought at the market. They are big, nice-looking, and without any visible blemishes. On the other hand, they contain a lot of water, relatively little sugar and flavor, and a lot of nitrogenous compounds. The three smaller apples below are also Cortland apples, but from my orchard, which is described below. They come from old, unfertilized trees, and we can see some scab lesions and insect damage. Their sugar concentration is much higher, producing a juice with an SG of approximately 1.060 (i.e., 15 percent sugar by weight) while the big ones are at about 1.045 (11 percent sugar by weight). They also contain much less nitrogen, will ferment slowly, and will produce a cider of much higher quality.

An Extensive Cider Orchard Example

As an example of a cider orchard that produces high-quality apples for cider, let’s have a look at my own orchard, which is managed according to the traditional or extensive orcharding approach.

This orchard is quite old. From my estimates, the trees were planted during the 1940s. The rootstocks are without a doubt seedlings, and tree spacing is 25 feet (7.5 m). The original orchard was approximately 5 acres in area and included many of the traditional varieties grown in eastern Canada at the time: Cortland, McIntosh, Lobo, Wealthy, Fameuse, Yellow Transparent, and Duchess. When I bought this piece of land in 1982, I acquired the first four rows of the old orchard, with twenty-one trees, and these were mainly of the Cortland variety. The orchard had been abandoned for about ten years, and there was a lot of rejuvenation work to do on the trees. You can see in the slideshow a row of these old Cortland trees in bloom.

I made my first cider in 1988, almost exclusively from Cortland apples. It was quite sharp tasting but very well flavored and certainly good enough to give me the desire to continue. I soon started to introduce some true cider-apple varieties, mostly by top-grafting the existing trees to different varieties but also by planting new trees. Today this has become a mixed orchard for varietal selection, where true cider apples account for about 25 percent of the total production. (See chapter 5 for an explanation of mixed orchard.) Not all the production is used for cider, though; a part is used for fresh consumption and cooking/preserving.

As far as cultural practices are concerned, I like to call this the minimum intervention approach. In effect, since the orchard is located an hour’s drive from my residence, I go there only on weekends, and it is impossible to maintain an intensive or even a semi-intensive management approach. I do some pruning during winter and spring and then practically no spraying, with the exception of occasional local interventions when really required. I mow the grass twice a year, spread around some ramial wood chips from the clippings of the pruning, and that is about it—no fertilization and no scab control sprays. The productivity has been quite close to what might be expected from a traditional orchard, but it has been decreasing these last few years because the old Cortland trees are getting close to the end of their life. I have planted many young trees that are starting to take the baton as the old trees get older. I must say it took quite a few years before I understood that the mostly small and unappealing apples produced by those trees (although there is a portion of the crop that is very nice, but this is not used for cider) were of very special quality for cider. I first noticed that the sugar concentration of these apples was much greater than that of other apples. Then, by talking with other cider makers, I became known as “the guy who makes the slowest cider”: my fermentations, I discovered, were always slower than the others. And when I started regularly to attend the Cider Days in Massachusetts, I brought along some of my cider, which was always considered one of the best. It took some time, but I was finally able to link all of these qualities with the slowness of the fermentation, the cultural practices, the fertilization (or, rather, the absence of it), the age and size of the trees, and the terroir of my orchard.


Reprinted with permission from The New Cider Maker's Handbook by Claude Jolicoeur and published by Chelsea Green, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The New Cider Maker's Handbook.