And Now for Something Completely Ugly

Saturday, April 19, 2014

BOC Apple Orchard-Bird Back 40
Mother Nature can be viciously cruel at times, especially for those of us who yearn to dig in the dirt and plant good things to eat. Pictured to your right, my friends, is the Bird Back 40 Apple Orchard. It consists of three trees: Granny Smith, Fuji and Honey Crisp. I know this photo doesn't necessarily look all that ugly, but a closer inspection reveals the kinds of troubles that drive backyard growers crazy.

Short and sweet? Although those trees look healthy, they're not. In fact, the wife that is Venus and I will be lucky if we get a single apple this year. That's right! Three trees! One apple -- and we'll be lucky to get it. Worse yet -- there will no Honeycrisp Apple harvest this fall. That's worse than bad. It's tragic. The Honey Crisp is the best dang apple on the planet -- offering a taste explosion that cannot be missed.

Granny Smith Apple Tree-Bird Back 40
Yet -- I will miss it this year. And the photo to your left explains why. Those drooping leaves coming out at the end of one branch of the Granny Smith spell big time trouble. I first noticed this problem last week. It has since spread, slowly, to other parts of the Granny Smith and to the Honey Crisp.

This trouble is called Fire Blight. It's the first time its reared its ugly head in the Bird Back 40. I had this mistaken belief, perhaps call it a prayer, that backyard growers like myself would be spared from this scourge. Hah! Fat chance kid! The Blight is here and it's here to stay. Fire Blight means big trouble. Not only do the apple trees have it -- but the pear orchard I installed earlier this year has it as well.

Bartlett Pear-Bitten by Blight
I know what you're thinking. Why didn't you spray your trees to protect them from this bad boy over the winter? Oh, but I did. You see -- although Fire Blight has been around for a very long time -- there's still no active control for it. There is no spray, no dust, no treatment, organic or otherwise, that fights the dreaded blight. There is only one, proven method of control. And that method can result in a total crop loss, which is exactly what I'm facing.

This disease is called Fire Blight because it looks like leaves and fruit have been hit with a blow torch. The first sign of a problem is wilt. The leaves then turn a none-too-pleasant shade of brown, before fading to black. Fire Blight also spreads like wildfire.

Blackened Leaves-Granny Smith Apple Tree
I bet that you didn't know that, at one time in our not so distant past, pears and apples were kind of a big deal in Sacramento, Placer and the surrounding counties. Long before Sacramento adopted the nickname of SackofTomatoes, this was prime pear country. It still is in the southern part of Sacramento County, near the Sacramento River, but at one time tens of thousands of pear trees covered Sacramento fields from one of the county to the other.

And then, one day without warning, Fire Blight showed up. The damage was minimal at first -- but it spread like an out-of-control wildfire. Numerous controls were attempted. They all failed. Entire orchards were snuffed out in the space of a year or three. The main crop that powered the economic engine of Sacramento and the surrounding counties was dying a slow death, and nobody knew how it got here, how it spread from tree to tree and worse yet, how to stop it.

Dying Honey Crisp Apple-Bird Back 40
The answer of how the disease spread would come from horticulturists sent from UC Berkeley. It was believed that field workers were spreading the disease as they used pruning tools again and again as they moved from tree to tree, without washing them first. Today, that thinking has changed somewhat, at least in the opinion of some horticulturists who I contacted regarding my little problem. While the cleaning of pruning tools is still recommended, the belief is pollinators are spreading the pathogen as they move from tree to tree and flower to flower.

That's right -- the ordinary bee. This is where the infection starts -- when pear or apple tree bursts into bloom after a long winter's nap.

Fire Blight Strikes the Granny Smith Apple Tree
The good news? If there is any good news out of this, the "window of infection" is a short one. Once spring moves into summer, it's done. If there is any fruit on the tree that didn't get infected during the "window of infection," it's safe. But as for the branches, apples and pears that are infected? There is only one answer. That answer is pruning the infected branch back to a point where the dreaded blight can spread no further. It means the trees I've dutifully tended to a height of seven feet are about to get a rather severe haircut.

But that is my only option. Do nothing in the face of this scourge and the blight will show up again next year, stronger than the first year and left uncontrolled, will spread into the root system, killing the tree.

Honey Crisp Apple Blight Damage
I can't let that happen. I don't care how severe the cutting will have to be -- it's my only option. Do it, and I might save the tree. Do nothing, and that prized Honey Crisp will never deliver another tasty apple.

And so, those dreams I had over the winter of apple crisps, apple pie, apple juice and applesauce using our own home-grown apples will remain just that -- a dream. For this year -- Bill and the wife that is Venus are singing the farmer's lament: "There's Always Next Year."



We'll that simply stinks. Hope you're successful in saving your trees so you can enjoy many, many future harvests.

Sandy Bressler said...

Sorry to hear that the local bees decided to share a nasty pollen dish to your Back 40! However, thank you for posting info and photos so that the rest of us could keep an eye out. Although my trees were not hit, I'm curious how yours are doing now a couple weeks later?

Bill Bird said...

Sandy -- the fire blight pretty much tore through the yard and infected all the apple and pear plantings, as well as the apple plantings in a neighbor's yard. He wasn't hit quite as badly as I was, but it was still pretty ugly. We got about four or five apples total from three trees and ONE pear from three trees. I'm going to have to find some sort of control next season because I haven't found anything organic that will work just yet...