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Sustainable Table: Giving Tree

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MEDFORD, Ore. — On a day full of sunshine, perhaps you were tempted to do a little yard work. For most places in Southern Oregon it’s a good time to start pruning your fruit trees, and while you’re at it, find out the do’s and don’ts of creating a “giving tree.”

If you were lucky enough to inherit an old fruit tree, you might consider your self unlucky. You also might consider taking it down, replacing it with something a little more manageable. But this apple tree, lovingly referred to by orchardists as a rescue tree, can in fact be rescued and provide your family with fruit all year long.

This knotted, narly old tree can be intimidating and annoying, dropping fruit that’s not as edible as one might hope. But 40-year-orchardist, Terry Helfrich, says with a few snips, okay maybe a lot of snips, a rescue tree can become the giving tree.

“Try to get layers of cross hangers out, dead branches out, branches that come down onto other branches; you want to cut those branches off,” she says.

When pruning any fruit tree, apple or otherwise, there are some pretty basic rules to follow.

“That big fat bud by my thumb, that’s a fruit bud. That’s the first thing you should identify when you’re in your back yard.”

Once you know what to save, figure out what to get rid of or change. Most of the time that means anything growing upward.

“Now that it’s horizontal it’s going to have fruit wood on it. If you leave it vertical it’s going to be vegetative, so there is always this balance going between vegetative and fruiting.”

However, cutting off the vertical growing branches isn’t the only option. You can also train them using a nail and kite string or a spreader.

“Once you tie them down then you set fruit for the following year.”

Helfrich says ultimately you need to get more light into the tree, spacing the horizontal branches about a foot and a half apart.

The same basic rules apply if you’re planting a new fruit tree. Four Seasons Nursery will prune your new fruit tree right before you take it home so you can see how to do it. A good nursery will also help you pick the tree that’s best for you.

Tim Elbert from the Nursery says, “We have a whole series of trees called easy pick. And, the easy pick fruit trees are a variety that are dwarfed with a low branching pattern so it makes them easier to pick. You can keep them very, very small so you’re not having to climb ladders to harvest, yet they do get kind of wide.”

Picking from up high or down low, a well pruned 10 foot tree can produce 60 to 80 pounds of fruit.

Terry suggests picking fruit early, “In October you can go out and pick a couple of boxes of fruit, put ‘em in your cellar and you’ll have fruit all winter. How ever you preserve the fruit it’s going to save you at the super market plus the satisfaction of knowing that you grew it.”

And like the words from Shel Silverstein’s beloved book, The Giving Tree, “and the boy loved the tree…very much. And the tree was happy.”

A happy tree will lead to a more sustainable table.

“I mean, wouldn’t anybody love to have a tree like this in their backyard?”

For more information on taking care of the tree in your backyard check out the fruit tree pruning class Helfrich is teaching at the Jackson County OSU Extension Office on Saturday, February 16th.