If you ever wonder where apples come from forget the notion they are produced in some lazy looking orchard, with grand, sprawling shady trees that have been growing for centuries under which you can spread a blanket for a picnic lunch before picking the next basket. Get ready for the Super Spindle.
That was the I eye opener I had on my last trip to B.C.’s apple capital, Kelowna on a tour guided by Hank Markgraf, grower services manager with the B.C. Tree Fruits Co-operative.
There are still some of the old style orchards around, but more apples are being produced today on these almost broom-stick size trees known as Super Spindles. I don’t have much contact with the fruit grower industry, and I knew that probably 15 or 20 years ago that orchardists had gone to dwarf trees. But on this recent trip I was introduced to the Super Spindle. The apple tree trunk is about two inches in diameter, the trees grow about 12 feet tall, rows are spaced about 10 feet apart and you can comfortably fit about 2,000 trees per acre, producing fruit within two to three years with about a 30-year productive lifespan. They start with a root stalk known as an M-9 root and then graft varieties to the stalk. The tree rows are supported with a trellis type-fence to keep the trees erect. Ideally they aimed to harvest 100 bins (about 4,200 bushels) per acre. Talk about production.
The lazy orchard
I am old. And I grew up on a small dairy farm in Eastern Ontario, where apple trees grew like milkweed. We had a small orchard on our farm and it was probably 100 years old by the time I came along. And it did have these sprawling trees with a 12 inch diameter stumps that did their best to produce fruit. There were probably about 50 trees on this two to three acre orchard, and I am not really sure what we did with all the apples. I imagine a lot of them went to waste.
For a while, when I was a kid my dad use to spray the trees to kill caterpillars. It was a pretty rough operation as I recall. Dad outfitted the Allis Chalmers 45 tractor with a small platform at the back. He’d put a 45 gallon drum on the platform and attach some sort of sprayer. My grandpa would drive the tractor, and dad would stand on the platform and operate a sprayer wand to apply an insecticide on these trees. No safety gear in those days, except wear a jacket to keep from getting too wet.
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There might have been a bit a pruning once in a while, but other than a quick spray it was just a matter of waiting until apples were ready and then we would pick. There were some early and some late varieties. Some good for eating and some better for cooking. There were always apples in the cellar over winter and we never went without apple pie. I also well remember a one-day bee every fall to make apple cider. We’d collect burlap bags full of fallen apple, bring them to the yard, and my dad or my brother would operate a hand crank cider press to make what I remember was the best tasting apple cider in the world.
Fast forward about 55 years. The Ambrosia apples in this Kelowna orchard were a thing of beauty.
Apples were first introduced to the Okanagan Valley in the 1870s and although the industry has had its production ups and downs over the years, today produces about four million boxes of apples (a box is 42 bushels). Sounds like a lot, until you look at nearby Washington State which produces about 125 million boxes a year.
Markgraf, who works with growers, explains it is a real science to schedule the production of apples over the season. There is in-season pruning, growth regulators are used, pesticides are applied as needed, and you end up with these perfect looking apples. Hand picking is an art too. Every marketable apple must have that bit of stem at the top and of course no bruising is permitted. From the orchards all apples go to the co-operative processing and packing plant for washing, grading and packing.
So grab a bag of B.C. apples next time you’re at the store. Apparently those little individual stickers on each apple are a real pain in the packing process, but it makes the consumer happy knowing each one has a name.