The Budding Orchardist: Training and Scouting

By Jeff Kanters, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” –Socrates

Spring arrived in central North Carolina in an unusually wet and cool fashion. The young orchard trees, after several months’ dormancy and given ample spring rains, began waking up quickly in February. The pear trees started blooming first in early March, followed in April by the plum, peach, apple, and Asian persimmon trees and the service berry shrubs. Then, surprise! An unexpected March freeze scalded most pear flowers resulting in lost or misshapen developing pear fruit.

Training the shape of the young trees began in earnest: As buds broke and new growth was observed sprouting from trunks and branches of the trees, we pinched off growth that was oriented upward or inside the limbs to reduce future growth of unwanted developing branches, which will keep the plums and peaches open in the center and keep the tree canopy open for the apples and pears. As always, our goal was to increase air circulation to reduce fungal diseases as well as enhance sunlight penetration into the tree for optimal future fruit production.

As new limbs rapidly grew in April and May, we initiated the placement of spreaders on new limbs and clothes pins on the tips of the green growth of pears and apples specifically to orient new branches outward from the main trunk at a 45-to-60-degree angle to form a stronger crotch angle that better supports future fruit, minimizes limb breakage, and opens the canopy. We plan on leaving the spreaders and clothespins in place until the respective branches have hardened by early fall. Another tool for training trees is the use of weights to pull down a growing branch. There are many types of weights one can construct for this purpose. One of our Durham Master Gardeners assisting in the orchard, Eric Wiebe, created small limb weights that he gifted to the orchard. He has blogged a terrific DIY for making these weights for training tree limbs, which will be posted here in July.

First came spring, then came flowering, and then came fruit!  The orchard trees bore their first fruit since being planted in 2021. Given the youth of the orchard trees – about 3 years old – and the smaller stature of the apple and pear trees, we chose to thin any developing fruit to about two to three fruit per tree to observe the development and keep energy directed at tree growth and vigor. We had fruit development on one pear, three apples, and two peach trees that we then thinned of developing fruit.

This spring into early summer we faced numerous disease and insect pest challenges: In April we discovered Fire Blight infection on two apples [Malus sp.], ‘Arkansas Black’ and ‘Black Twig.’ Fire blight is a bacterial disease [Erwinia amylovora] that attacks susceptible apples and pears and some related genera. It favors the cool wet spring conditions that we had in central North Carolina this spring. Fire blight starts by affecting the newest growth on the tips of branches, causing a terminal wilting, and a drooping and eventual blackening of the tip’s leaves and stem that takes the shape of what is termed ‘shepherds hook.’ It moves down the stem and branch quickly.

Fire Blight on apple. Photo: Jeff Kanters

When blight is observed at this stage, the best and only means of control is to prune off the affected tip down 8-10 inches from tip to clean tissue using a sterilized [70% alcohol or Lysol] hand pruning shears as soon as possible. We pruned out developing fire blight as quickly as we could, bagging the limbs and removing them offsite from the orchard. Our fear was that if the disease progresses, it can spread to the trunk and throughout the tree and eventually kill it – and these were young trees. Some higher production orchards may use an Erythromycin dormant spray on susceptible trees at early spring bud swelling to prevent or minimize the development of this blight. However, this is an expensive option and if used too frequently the bacteria may develop resistance to the antibacterial. Although there are notable resistant varieties marketed to consider, no variety is immune from this disease in the Carolinas if the conditions are right!

Sadly, for those wondering, the efforts to curtail the blight on the small ‘Arkansas Black’ apple were not successful.  With over half of the tree quickly succumbing to the disease and as the trunk appearing affected, we lifted and bagged the tree, and removed it offsite from the orchard. The other ‘Black Twig’ apple appears to have overcome the disease after pruning out the blight and is putting out healthy new growth. More good news, none of the other orchard pears or other apples displayed fire blight this season.

Rusts make their debut in the orchard: In April, to our dismay we discovered rust infections of developing fruit on one pear [Pyrus, sp.] tree and on all the developing berries of the two serviceberry [Amelanchier, sp.] shrubs. The rust on the serviceberry and pear fruit is fungal, and like other trees in the Rosaceae family, such as apples, requires an alternate host such as Eastern Red Cedar [Juniperus virginiana, sp.] and other junipers, and/or Flowering Quince [Chaenomeles, speciosa] to complete its life cycle.  The infected berries and fruit from the service berry shrubs and pear tree were all removed, bagged, and discarded away from the orchard. The leaves of both plants appeared untouched. The orchard area where the rust seemed prevalent is next to a forested area that may harbor numerous Eastern Red Cedar trees as well as block air flow next to the orchard trees infected with the rust. This creates an environment that may be fostering fungal infection. There is a greater plan to open up the forest understory away from the orchard to increase air flow and to remove any eastern red cedar in the vicinity. Dormant spraying of the fruit trees is planned in late winter to help reduce fungal infections in general.

San Jose Scale makes an appearance in the orchard: As some of the apples started producing fruit, in early May we observed that the two apples developing on the ‘Black Twig’ apple displayed a grouping of small, rounded, purplish haloed spots, primarily at the bottom of each young apple. After further research we believe the apples were infected with San Jose Scale. The scale, typical of many scales, has a crawling stage and sedentary stage. Please refer to the link on this specific scale, its life cycle, and how to best manage it below. We promptly removed the two young apples, bagged them, and discarded them away from the orchard. We are monitoring the leaves, stems and twigs for signs of potential scales, but have not noticed any yet. One way that this tiny scale might be transmitted from one tree to another is by wind during its crawling stage, as the females never crawl far before attaching and creating a scale like cover. 

San Jose Scale on apple. Photo: Jeff Kanters

Yet again, it is Japanese beetle [Popillia japonica] time: Like last year, we experienced our first infestation of Japanese beetles of a biblical proportion! We hand picked off over 3,000 beetles over the course of six weeks. To our horror, they had quickly skeletonized about 60% of the leaf canopy of several plums during that infestation. Fortunately, all the trees put out new growth and recovered. Whew!

Japanese Beetles. Photo: Jeff Kanters

This season, we were prepared, at least psychologically, for their arrival. They began arriving the week of May 22nd, about the same time as last year. We set up a schedule each week to have someone at the orchard in the morning as many days as possible to manually pop off the beetles into a cup of soapy water. We had found that early morning removal was the most effective, as the beetles were still sluggish and could be swept into the soapy water more easily. We are thrilled to report that the numbers through June were significantly less than last season. Five weeks into their arrival, we have removed roughly 850 beetles overall, a 70% drop in numbers compared to last year.

Persimmon Psyllids infest the Asian persimmon trees: This spring as the persimmon trees began their growth cycle, the growing tips of most branches of all persimmon trees displayed a curling, distorted and stunting of the new leaves not seen before. My first reaction was to panic and fear the trees were all suffering from a systemic disease of some sort. Affected leaves from all the trees were collected and submitted to the North Carolina State University State Agricultural Laboratory for inspection and analysis. To our amazement, the culprit identified was the Persimmon psyllid [Baeoalitriozus diospyri]. Try pronouncing that scientific name!

Apparently, these tiny insects function much like aphids, sucking plant juices. Their populations in cool rainy springs, again like we had here, can explode. The good news is that they do not like warm, hot weather and as summer kicks in their populations decline and the trees typically recover, no spraying needed. Lesson to the wise, I now always carry a pocket magnifying glass in the orchard. Refer to the below link on this pest from the NC State Extension.

Psyllids on persimmon. Photo: Jeff Kanters

As the weather has warmed up heading into summer, we have begun monitoring moisture levels on all orchard tree berms. When needed, we manually water all trees once or twice weekly. We give each tree a good five minutes of watering out to the drip line. Watering all the trees takes approximately 2-3 hours for one person. An irrigation system is being planned for installation in 2024.

On the agenda for this summer is completing soil testing of all the orchard berms. While most fruit trees prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5, we have identified a smaller bermed area for potential blueberry shrubs. In that case, blueberries prefer a more acidic soil of 4.5 to 5.0 so a higher soil pH test may require amendments to lower the pH. Anyone’s guess what that amendment may be? Stay tuned.

Also, summer pruning is ahead for applicable trees. Our goal is to complete this pruning process no later than mid-July. We will conduct this mostly to remove upright, inward, and crossing new branches of the current season’s growth back to a side shoot branch. This is termed a thinning cut and does not invigorate the tree near the cut, which is what we want.

Much more ahead on:

  • How summer pruning the trees is done
  • Our ongoing efforts at recognition and management of disease and pest control
  • The application of milky spore to kill those dreaded Japanese beetle grubs that newly hatched this early summer in the soil
  • New dwarf fruit and berry trees and shrubs being considered for a growing orchard that do well in central North Carolina

Additional Resources

Fruit Trees General:

Texas A&M Extension Field Guide to San Jose Scale:

Persimmon psyllids Description and Biology:

Service Berry Rust Description and Biology:

Fruit Tree Pruning Basics:

Our Straw Bale Gardening Experiment

by Marty Fisher, EMGV

After three painful years of crop-destroying diseases on our beloved heirloom tomatoes, my husband and I decided to give straw bale gardening a try.

I had tried grafting—attaching an heirloom scion onto a hardy root stock—for two years with some success, but it was a long, painstaking process, and we still weren’t getting the yields we enjoyed in the days before the dreaded fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases took over in our garden. We also tried disease-resistant tomatoes like Early Girl, Better Boy, Celebrity, Sweet 100, etc., but we missed the complexity of flavors and variety of colors of our favorite heirlooms like Carbon, Amana Orange, Green Zebra, Pineapple, Lucky Tiger, and more. We also tried removing the lower branches of our plants to keep them away from disease spores in the soil as well as spraying with copper sulfate—it all seemed a lot of work for a limited return on investment!

I started researching straw bale gardening in January, thinking it offered the advantage of a sterile environment for the tomato plants as well as the effect of a raised be d. I found a book written by the man who pioneered the concept, Joel Karsten. He came up with the idea after observing healthy, vigorous weeds sprouting in old straw bales on his family farm. He began experimenting with vegetables, and over decades, developed the techniques for gardening with straw bales. Since then, he has published two editions of his book, Straw Bale Gardens, and has spoken all over the world about what is touted on the book jacket as “the hottest new method of veggie growing.” The book contains a wealth of useful information, plans, diagrams, and more.

Our first task was to find straw bales—they must be wheat straw bales, not hay. They are not cheap, especially given the size of our garden. The best price we found was about $6 a bale. We inquired about delivery and were told by several farm supply stores that they sell the bales at a loss or break-even and were not interested in delivering them. So, several pick-up truck trips later, we had lots of bales on our garden site. 

The next step was placing and conditioning the bales, a process that takes 10-12 days. Conditioning should be started two weeks before the average last frost date. 

Although I had reservations about the fertilizer recipe given in the book, we decided to just follow the instructions and evaluate the results. Over the conditioning period, fertilizer and water are applied to the bales according to a day-by-day schedule. My reservation concerned the recommendation of nitrogen-rich “traditional refined lawn fertilizer.” Instructions are also given for organic nitrogen sources, but this seemed more complex, and we followed the conventional method. Fertilizer is sprinkled over the top of each bale, and water carries it deep into the bale, starting the bacterial process of breaking down the bales to release nitrogen.

On Day 10, the instructions call for one cup per bale of 10-10-10 general garden fertilizer, watered in. 

Planting can begin on Day 12. A little sterile potting soil can be used to anchor the plant in the straw bale, but all the nutrients and growing medium the plants will need are contained within the conditioned bales. Adding garden soil or compost could introduce fungal spores to the sterile bales.


Our concerns about using lawn fertilizer were confirmed over the spring and early summer: TOO MUCH NITROGEN! Our plants quickly became enormous, with fewer blooms than normal. They also began to shade out the eggplants and herbs that we had planted beside the tomato plants. We added a phosphorous- and potassium-rich fertilizer and gradually the plants started to have more blossoms and bear fruit. We also noticed that plants growing in straw bales require more diligent watering. Karsten recommends placing soaker hoses on top of the bales, controlled by a timer. 

In researching this article, I found an N.C. Cooperative Extension Service article (see “Hay” Bale Gardening link below) that recommends a different conditioning method. It calls for simply watering the bales for three days. On Day 4, you add 2 cups of dolomitic limestone and a half cup of ammonium sulfate, and water it in. On Days 5-9, you add more ammonium sulfate, followed by a cup of 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 on Day 10. Planting commences on Day 11.

This year we did lose a few plants to “the *%#* fungus,” our common term for fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases including early blight, late blight, fusarium wilt, tomato spotted wilt, various cankers—you name it. My husband also sprayed the plants with copper sulfate as a preventative. 

Overall, we deemed the straw bale gardening experiment a success. We canned, made salsa, roasted, sliced, and froze plenty of colorful tomatoes to get us through the winter. We plan to try it again next year using the Extension Service-recommended fertilizer recipe.

I also plan to graft tomatoes again next year after taking this year off. And, I’ll give some of the newer disease-resistant varieties a try. Some I’m particularly interested in include Iron Lady, described as “super resistant,” and Mountain Magic, which was developed by Dr. Randy Gardiner, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. Apparently, some breeders are also developing disease-resistant heirlooms, including two old favorites of mine, Lemon Drop and Mr. Stripey.

This was our first harvest this year–it got better after we adjusted the fertilizer.
Good old fashioned canned tomatoes! Heirlooms make the jars so colorful.
Tomatoes growing in straw bales in our garden. In addition to diseases, we also battle squirrels, hence the large cage under construction.

All photos taken by Marty Fisher.


Straw Bale Gardens Complete, by Joel Karsten

Understanding Tomato Varieties:

How to Grow Better Tomatoes

Grafting for Disease Resistance

Blight Resistant Tomato Varieties Worth Growing

“Hay” Bale Gardening