After work on Tuesday, I sat at Ike and Lisa’s wooden kitchen table, pen and notebook in hand. Ike sat across from me, his hair in its usual mad scientist frenzy and a cell phone pressed to his ear. He was saying, “We did better than a lot of areas did, I mean, Michigan is getting virtually no crop at all…” He was referring to the late frost we had in April, which destroyed a lot of the buds on trees throughout the Eastern US region. The frost did some damage to our pears, but everything else seems intact.
Lisa and Ike met in college over twenty-five years ago, and started North Star Orchard not long after they graduated. While Lisa is basically the manager of the entire farm operation, Ike is the brains behind the growing practices. Luckily for me, he’s really interested in sharing his thoughts and experiences from a lifetime of farming. So on Tuesday after work, I got to ask him some questions about growing fruit… I left several hours later, having filled pages and pages of notebook paper with his answers. I plan to share some of the wealth of information in Ike’s invaluable brain in many future blog posts. For now, I want to talk about tree hormones.
Yes, trees have hormones. Generally, they do the same thing in trees as they do in animals– that is, send messages that induce changes. Plants don’t have glands that secrete hormones; the cells themselves are in charge of that. Scientists have identified 5 classes of hormones that occur in plants, which do everything from regulating root growth to telling the buds when to bloom.
For the past month, we’ve been “training trees,” or tying tree branches down– attaching them with string to clips in the ground. If all of the branches were left to their own devices, they would naturally grow upwards, towards the sun. They would keep growing and growing, instead of stopping their growth to produce fruit. By tying the branches down and changing the shape of the tree, the tree’s hormones signal to stop growing and start producing. Cool, right?
For the rest of the summer, we’ll spend tons of time “thinning” the trees, or snipping off the majority of baby fruit on the trees so that enough of the trees’ energy goes to producing incredible fruit on a moderate scale. Most orchards use chemical thinners– sprays that cause the tree’s hormones to basically abort many of its blooms. That saves tons of time and money, as workers aren’t needed to thin if chemicals can do it.
Ike uses the safest, mildest thinners on the apples, but they are ineffective on the pears; so we’ll thin hundreds of trees by hand. I spent 16 hours in the pear trees this week, a pair of clippers in my hand, often balanced on a ladder high up in the trees to reach as many of the buds as I could. The work is meditative and really lovely. I love being on a ladder in a tree while the sun shines through the bright green leaves, and the sounds of the leaves rustling and the birds singing is all around me.
I can’t wait to try this fruit… it sure takes a lot of effort! My mouth is already watering for a crunchy, sweet, juicy Asian pear…….