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:

Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’ – Spectacular Orange Autumn Color – Southern Style

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

One of things I miss after moving to the south, is the brilliant orange fall color of the sugar maples (Acer saccharum) ubiquitous to Southern Ontario in Canada where I grew up. Which is why, I was pleasantly surprised last November by the similarly brilliant color of my recently planted Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ cultivar. Although not a tree, this shrub is well known in the south for its gorgeous fall color among its other attributes.

Fall orange color of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken November 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Basics

Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ is a deciduous shrub native to Southeastern United States[1]. It is a member of the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) and its common names are dwarf fothergilla and Mt. Airy fothergilla[2]. ‘Mt. Airy’ is a hybrid fothergilla cultivar and was discovered by Michael A. Dirr at the Mt. Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio–not in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It may be a cross between two natives Fothergilla gardenia and Fothergilla major. The shrub prefers acidic organically rich, well-drained soils with medium moisture in both full sun and part shade conditions. The shrub grows to three to five feet in height and with a similar spread. There are no serious insect or disease problems with this cultivar but recently, in 2019, leaf spots resulting in defoliation were observed in South Carolina caused by Pseudocercospora fothergillae[3]. Avoiding plant stress and practicing good plant hygiene by collecting up the diseased leaves should control this problem. It has showy white flowers that bloom in April, deep green foliage in the summer, excellent late fall color and an upright branching habit that is attractive in the winter. It definitely has appeal in the garden landscape during all four seasons.

Below: Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ shrub through the seasons: Spring (April 2020), summer (2020), fall (November, 2019) and winter (photo taken December, 2018 shortly after it was planted.)

Gorgeous Fall Color

The fall leaves range in color from yellow to orange and red. They are frost resistant resulting in a late November show of intense color in the Piedmont area. Of course, the color depends on the weather of the previous growing season but Mt. Airy Fothergilla has better fall color than other cultivars like ‘Blue Shadow’[4].

Below: Close up photographs taken on November 28, 2019 of the beautiful orange and yellow foliage of the shrub one year after it was planted in an area that receives afternoon sun.

Other Attributes: Spring Flowers, Summer Foliage and Attractive Branching Habit in Winter

The shrub is most easily identified by its distinctive flowers that are like ‘bottlebrush-like spikes’, one to three inches long that start out globular and then stretch out to become columnar at the ends of the stems. An interesting fact is the flowers have no petals and are comprised only of stamens. The flowers are fragrant and have a faint honey-like sweet scent which attract bees and butterflies.

Spring flowers of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken April 8, 2020 by Wendy Diaz
Closeup of flower of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken April 8, 2020 by Wendy Diaz

The leathery deep green leaf is ovate-shaped and bluish gray underneath. The margins of the leaf are serrated at the top and smooth at its base. Birds love the thick leaves of this understory shrub as it provides them cover and shelter at midlevels in the vertical landscape. The rounded shape of the mature shrub lends itself to a low maintenance hedge. Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ is also deer and rabbit resistant. The zigzag branching habit is particularly noticeable in the winter and adds interest in an otherwise dormant garden landscape4. My young shrub has a unique branch habit that reminds me of up stretched arms.

If you need a shrub for a border, hedge or foundation planting consider the cultivar Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy. It will improve the aesthetic value and ornamental interest in your garden landscape year round while also providing support for wildlife. I have to wait another few weeks for my Mt. Airy Fothergilla leaves to turn from green to that familiar orange color but it will be worth the wait as my dull garden landscape this time of year needs a splash of color even though it is on a smaller scale than a maple tree.

November 28, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

I also hope you had a chance to enjoy the bright fall colors in our beautiful state of North Carolina this fall but in the future I highly recommend a trip to see the brilliant orange colors of the Sugar Maples of Southern, Ontario when you can travel again.

Below: The brilliant orange color of Sugar Maple trees is beautiful next to a clear blue sky, the deep green of pines or the gray limestone buildings of Kingston, Ontario on a crisp fall day in October 19, 2016. Photos by Wendy Diaz