Re­ju­ve­nat­ing an or­chard

A rad­i­cal prun­ing ap­proach is work­ing.

The Orchardist - - Avocado Conference - By Denise Landow

The best fer­tiliser for your or­chard is your foot­prints, is a say­ing Omoko­roa-based av­o­cado grow­ers, Maria and An­drew Watchorn live by.

Their new­est or­chard on Walker Road East, Katikati was bought three years ago when it was the worse for wear and needed ex­ten­sive in­put from them, phys­i­cally and men­tally. Maria told vis­it­ing New Zealand Av­o­cado In­ter­na­tional In­dus­try Con­fer­ence del­e­gates of walk­ing through the trees with con­sul­tant, Colin Par­tridge, and ask­ing if there was any hope.

“As an in­sur­ance pol­icy we or­dered a few hun­dred trees, know­ing there was a two-year wait, so that gave us time to see how things went.”

Re­ju­ve­nat­ing the or­chard didn’t fo­cus solely on canopy man­age­ment. The whole or­chard was in­jected un­der a fer­til­i­sa­tion pro­gramme and full frost pro­tec­tion was put in place. Tem­per­a­tures were mon­i­tored, and in cer­tain ar­eas where they found read­ings of 1 – 2 de­grees C and lower, over­head sprin­klers were in­stalled.

The en­tire ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem was over­hauled, with the in­tro­duc­tion of 400 me­tres of three-phase power to run an up­dated high-tech frost pro­tec­tion and wa­ter sys­tem.

Self-con­fessed fusspot, Maria, pointed out the dif­fer­ent coloured rib­bons tied to var­i­ous trees. Green rib­bons de­note the sick­est spec­i­mens, de­lib­er­ately held back from fruit­ing to en­sure they re­cover to good con­di­tion be­fore they face the ex­tra pres­sure of pro­duc­ing fruit. Last year, some of these trees had re­place­ments planted nearby but now they’re show­ing good signs of get­ting health­ier.

Maria said close work­ing re­la­tion­ships are one of the pil­lars of their suc­cess. Colin has been with them for over 10 years and is in­valu­able.

“We dis­cuss most things and de­bate the odd thing,” she said.

“Colin has guided us through­out this whole prun­ing jour­ney.”

The Watchorns were some of the first grow­ers to make big cuts and many saw this as rad­i­cal, how­ever, they stuck to their guns and con­tin­ued to be­lieve that sun­light for gen­er­at­ing growth and en­cour­ag­ing new bud­wood is vi­tal to keep consistent crops and achieve yields ev­ery year. Their or­chards have a va­ri­ety of spac­ings with some 7me­tres x 7m, while oth­ers are 9m x 9m plant­ings. She en­cour­ages other or­chardists to spend time with their pruners to make sure they un­der­stand what’s be­ing aimed for.

“Our prun­ing philoso­phies have never re­ally changed but we love learn­ing new tech­niques,” she said.

“I en­joy at­tend­ing prun­ing talks and know oth­ers have smart strate­gies. We’re not per­fect but what we do has worked for us. It’s rare for us not to get fruit around whole of the cylin­der be­cause sun­light hits the trees ev­ery­where.”

They prune to bal­ance, mak­ing sure the trees stay healthy and highly pro­duc­tive as a bal­ance of veg­e­ta­tive and flow­er­ing growth saves them from over-fruit­ing. “We’re not scared of flower prun­ing,” she said.

This will hap­pen af­ter or dur­ing the main spring prune, but a fruit prune will fol­low if re­quired, es­pe­cially if there are any wor­ries about tree health or fruit vol­umes of in­di­vid­ual trees.

“We used to prune once in the spring, but now we prune twice a year, both in spring and au­tumn,” she said.

“We need to meet ex­port mar­ket re­quire­ments to get the best re­turns we can, so now we pick over a pe­riod of time, and this lim­its the prun­ing we can do as fruit is still hang­ing.

“In au­tumn, our de­ci­sions are based on as­sess­ing the trees and mark­ing what needs to be re­duced ei­ther in width or height as well as any limbs with dead wood.”

Af­ter try­ing many meth­ods, they stick to the for­mula of any ver­ti­cal growth be­ing cut out, any­thing hor­i­zon­tal be­ing thinned and only the health­i­est most promis­ing-look­ing spring growth be­ing kept.

Maria said it’s al­most like prun­ing grapes. The au­tumn prune re­moves much of the spring growth which en­sures sun­light pen­e­trates through the trees dur­ing win­ter, and gen­er­ates

new bud­wood for the fol­low­ing spring. The la­tent buds start to push through in late Septem­ber, and she said it’s rare not to have fruit form on those buds in the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Cre­at­ing win­dows or lay­ers within the canopy utilises the in­side space and achieves beau­ti­ful flo­ral growth. The aim is to get sun­light pen­e­trat­ing, not just over the top but also stream­ing in through the sides. This helps light all an­gles of the tree, par­tic­u­larly in close plant­ings, as well as neigh­bour­ing trees.

“We don’t prune trees,” Maria said.

“We prune the canopy within our tree rows.”

Prun­ing to im­prove cost ef­fi­cien­cies is an­other im­por­tant phi­los­o­phy. Be­cause pick­ing is the or­chards’ largest cost, pick­ers need quick and safe ac­cess so bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity helps them see fruit more eas­ily.

Spray pen­e­tra­tion is also im­proved with the right prun­ing, Maria said.

“It’s not only ben­e­fi­cial that we’re hit­ting the sur­faces where needed but it takes less time.”

Canopies are opened up to avoid a cylin­der-shaped tree as max­imis­ing that canopy sur­face helps to pro­duce fruit.

“If you can get that sur­face area rolling through the canopy, there’s so much more po­ten­tial for fruit and your trees will be bet­ter bal­anced,” she said.

Open­ing up the canopy al­lows veg­e­ta­tive growth to reach down the limbs, which pro­vides the op­tion to cut the width or height of a limb back and not lose too much pro­duc­tion.

“We prune to har­vest as much sun­light as pos­si­ble and al­ways look to achieve dap­pled light through­out the canopy,” she said.

“No mat­ter where we walk in the or­chard, we want it to be warm. Spots of sun­light should move right across the ground, around and un­der your trees.Then you’re get­ting sun­light into the canopy and that will pro­duce new growth.”

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