Coming Right Along

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June at the orchard means growth. Growth of trees, of the young fruit on the trees and of the little baby whips that were grafted a couple of months ago and are now starting to really thrive.

This year, Peri grafted more than 3,000 trees, most of them destined for backyards and orchards all over British Columbia's south coast. Our 2018 grafts included some 170 varieties, including a handful of new-to-us additions (we don't really have room for any more, but it's an addiction) plus many, many cider varieties to help satisfy the appetite of hobbyists and professionals alike who are craving cider apples like never before.

When fall comes, we'll be selling these trees. Some are already spoken for and others will be scooped up by folks looking for Chisel Jersey and Dabinett, Kingston Black and Bulmer's Norman, plus others and all the non-cider varieties we've also got on the go.

We've got a new irrigation system that Orchard Manager Adam Morris has just installed to keep the potted young trees thriving. And it's none too soon for that, as the forecast is calling for temperatures approaching 30 degrees by next week.

Bring it on! Here at Salt Spring Apple Company, we're ready for summer.

Thinning Time

As always, the season is unfolding quickly. In the winter, when we think of the growing season, it seems as it is: a six month progression of stages that proceed in a mostly predictable - if weather dependent - way. But when you're in the middle of it, it feels different from that. It feels like it's all happening at hyper-speed. A little tree that was a barren stick seemingly yesterday is now a tree covered with foliage, often with new branches sprouting here and there, crying out for our attention.

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And then there's thinning. Here's where an organic orchard may be dramatically different from a conventional one. For many conventional orchardists, this is simply a time to add a new chemical to the regular weekly spray routine. It's a chemical that causes the trees to drop much - but not all - of their fruit. Voila! You have thinned. For us, thinning is very different. It's a time-consuming job that we do by hand, snipping off much of the fruit in order to get better quality apples and an amount that will lead the tree to produce well next year too, rather than slipping into biennialism, where the tree produces a huge crop one year and virtually none the next, alternating.

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Here's a small-scale version of what we do. The top picture shows a very small tree set to produce a few apples. Look closely and you'll see three clusters of them. Apple blossoms generally come in clusters of five and when there are pollinators around doing their job (which thankfully has been the case this year), as many as all five will become apples. Some varieties will naturally drop most of these little apples; others try to make five apples from each cluster. Which will result in awfully small apples (and a high risk of biennialism) if we don't intervene.

So intervene we do. The second photo shows the same little tree moments later, after I've gone at it with my shears, removing all but one apple from each cluster and then taking even that one in the case of the middle cluster, as this small tree needs to produce minimal fruit until it reaches full size. We've gone from about ten apples to two.

Multiply this task by 3,389 trees - a few with this much or even less fruit to thin and many with dozens of times as much - and you've got an idea of what thinning is all about.

To have maximum positive benefits, thinning needs to happen within a few weeks of the little apples forming. So it's a big job that needs to happen in a rush. Part of what makes the growing season feel like it's passing at breakneck speed!

Ahead of Schedule?

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It all depends what you consider to be on schedule, of course, but I'd like to think our orchard is coming into bloom a little earlier than we had expected -- given the cool, damp spring we were experiencing until ... oh, about two days ago.

It's certainly nothing like 2016, when we had a tree in full bloom at the end of the first week of April. But it's also a far cry from 2017, when we didn't have a tree in full bloom until the end of the first week in May. So maybe this is the 'sweet spot,' somewhere in between.

Any way you look at it, there isn't an orchardist anywhere worth her or his salt who isn't thrilled to see those first blooms open. It's going to be a great season!

 

Mission Accomplished

Since mid-March, we've been preoccupied with grafting apple trees. It's a practice that's centuries old and the only way to make an exact copy of a particular apple variety. No, you can't just plant a seed from a King of Tompkins County apple to make another King of Tompkins County tree. You need to graft it.

Peri is our grafting guru. She's made something more than 10,000 trees since we embarked on this adventure, with about a third of them going into our orchard and the rest going to orchards and backyards all over the place. We never expected to be in the nursery business when we started working on our orchard, but it turned out that way and we're pretty proud to see more and more of our weird and wonderfully obscure apple varieties spreading around our region and beyond.

Now that we're wrapping up our spring grafting for 2018, we can report that there are 3,285 new little trees in our nursery. They won't all make it to adulthood, but we'll do our best to make sure as many as possible do. A few of them will end up in our orchard as replacements for dead, diseased, damaged or non-performing trees. The rest will be offered for sale.

If you want a sense of what varieties people are asking us about most, you might find it interesting to review our top 25 varieties from this year's grafting. While we grafted some 170 different varieties this year, almost two-thirds of the trees Peri has made have been of these 25 varieties:

 Chisel Jersey

Chisel Jersey

155 grafts -- Chisel Jersey

144 grafts -- Yarlington Mill

142 grafts -- Dabinett

142 grafts -- Kingston Black

121 grafts -- Wickson

108 grafts -- King of Tompkins County

102 grafts -- Tremlett's Bitter

97 grafts -- Belle de Boskoop

92 grafts -- Stoke Red

89 grafts -- Bulmer's Norman

87 grafts -- Ashmead's Kernel

76 grafts -- GoldRush

76 grafts -- Sweet Sixteen

75 grafts -- Muscadet de Dieppe

66 grafts -- Golden Russet

63 grafts -- Winter Banana

56 grafts -- Gravenstein

52 grafts -- Airlie Red Flesh

52 grafts -- Calville Blanc d'Hiver

51 grafts -- Cox's Orange Pippin

51 grafts -- Liberty

49 grafts -- Bramley's Seedling

46 grafts -- Pristine

43 grafts -- Melrose

42 grafts -- Wolf River

 

Turning the Page

With our sixth full growing season behind us, our orchard fully planted and no shortage of exciting ideas bubbling away in our minds, we're thrilled that Salt Spring Apple Company is moving into the next stage of our development.

 Our new cidery building, with manufacturing below and the tasting room and shop above.

Our new cidery building, with manufacturing below and the tasting room and shop above.

The photo may give you an idea of where we're headed. We spent a good part of 2017 preparing for - and then implementing - plans for a new cidermaking, commercial kitchen and sales facility on our property. This involved the transformation of our old B&B and workshop building into a lean, mean cidery machine. That's what you see in the picture.

First up is a proper sales area. Ultimately, most of the upper level will be a cider tasting room and shop, opening onto a deck with a panoramic view of the orchard, ocean, islands and mountains beyond. In the short term, it's where we will welcome visitors and sell apple items such as apple butter, apple jelly, apple chips and more.

Behind the scenes on the same level is a tiny but super-functional commercial kitchen, where we have begun producing those same apple items. It's a huge relief to no longer be using our home kitchen for this stuff. When we move back into regular apple fritter production, the benefits will be even greater.

Third, we now have improved facilities for our farm workers, both volunteer and paid. With their very own bathroom and separate shower room, the pressure will be much reduced on the facilities in our house (think of sharing one shower among eight or nine people and you'll understand). These spaces may not be high profile, but they're sure important to us.

Last - and most exciting of all - is our new cidermaking facility. As with everything else in this project, it's modest in scale, but it's going to allow us to become the only 100 per cent estate grown and certified organic cidery on B.C.'s west coast. We expect to get final approval for this facility in spring of 2018 and will make our first (small) batch of cider for the commercial market starting in the fall, with its release expected in spring 2019.

We've got a lot going on. And we hope you'll come and check it all out!