Dwarfing rootstocks planted high density for cider purpose
February 23, 2022 04:17PM
I'm interested in any thoughts folks have about high-density planting of dwarf stock apple trees at 3 foot spacing. This weekend, got my first up-close look at this system at a large commercial orchard near Columbus. They were using a pretty substantial trellis system on rows into the hundreds of feet long, but the yield increase compared to their older trees planted free-standing at standard spacing was impressive.

I need to decide this year what to plant in spring 2023, and my biggest hesitation with planting dwarf trees despite the promise of more apples in my limited space is the effect on cider quality. I read somewhere that bigger trees make for a better fermented drink. So just thought I'd mention it, in case someone has more experience in this realm than anyone around my region who I've had a chance to ask does.

Craig Bickle
Hap Woods
Zone 6a
East-Central Ohio



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 02/23/2022 05:05PM by Michael Phillips.
Dwarfing rootstocks planted high density for cider purpose
February 23, 2022 06:53PM
Michael: you might consider moving this topic to the newly-created cider-centric forum...

So, for high density cider orchard, it is probably in my book that you read these might yield apples that aren't as good quality for cider making. For the following reasons:
- Dilution of the sugars and flavors, as high density apple growing normally requires fertilizer inputs and irrigation, the apples are larger and contain more water.
- More nitrogen in the juice, coming from the fertilization. This nitrogen goes in the juice and acts as yeast nutrient. Because of this, the traditional slow fermentation approach is a lot more difficult to implement and the cider maker normally will need to use a more modern approach to fermentation (yeast inoculation, and a good regime of yeast nutrition).
- Less tannins, as the flesh to skin ratio is increased.

But... I have also met a few great cider makers who also grew their apples in high density orchards, but very few of them honestly. It is then possible to grow high quality cider apples in high density, but the orcharding practices need to be adapted in order to minimize the above-mentioned inconvenients.

I sometimes use the Formula 1 car analogy...
If you want to reach a certain destination quickly, a Formula 1 car is very fast for this - IF:
- you have a lot of money to buy the car, maintain it and put gas.
- you are a very competent driver.
- you have a very good road, without bumps, nor ice or snow.
But if those conditions are not met, you might crash the car, and then you'd reach destination faster with a bicycle or a Volkswagon...

So if you consider high density cider orchard, you need a first class agricultural land, with fertile soil and flat ground, and not too harsh climatic conditions. The small trees don't have a root system that permits them to get their water and nutrients deep. They also have low branches that might break under heavy snow load. They are not as winter hardy as larger trees.
Installation of the orchard is a lot more expensive, as you need more trees, a structure to support them, an irrigation system.
You need to be a good orchardist, as these small trees are much less resilient than big trees. Excellent IPM practives are mandatory. You also need to eliminate grass around trees and competition to the roots.

In summary, most often cider makers are not ready or inclined to acquire the expertise needed for successul high density orcharding. But it is possible.

Claude

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Author, The New Cider Maker's Handbook
Re: Dwarfing rootstocks planted high density for cider purpose
February 23, 2022 06:58PM
Craig, I would think about two things separately. Firstly, don't think about the fruit itself as varying only due to the vigor or tree size as a completely controlling factor. I do not have data in front of me, but my experience with different rootstocks is that it is possible to obtain similar fruit qualities with all types. However, in practice you will have large differences. This is due to the labor and attention LIKELY given to each system. For instance, a larger tree sure as heck will not me thinned as well as a smaller one in most cases. If the product is to be cider fruit, you may neglect thinning purposely to influence flavor. What I am getting at is that the largest factor in fruit is often the fruit size, the larger unit having more water volume. Smaller fruit with more skin, core and fractured seed will be denser in soluble solids, tannins, etc. That said, fruit finish, flavor and flavor/aromatics development needs a certain amount of attention and tree/fruit balance. So, a high density orchard will in practice give you more control over each fruit. What I see in my orchard and client orchards is that larger trees give great results for cider, and poorer results for dessert quality packout for obvious reasons surrounding management. Larger trees right up to majestic often give nice cider quality (if ripened properly) simply because the unmanaged balance leads to small, flavor dense fruit. The second thing to consider is really just everything else- labor, aesthetics, longevity, precocity, options for cultivar change down the road, hardiness issues and the like. I would also add that there is no reason an operation cannot have several system types in place. We have 35 foot trees here down to 3.5. Twenty five foot spacing and 4. It all works in one way or another. If anyone has found some research papers about fruit (constituent levels data on varied systems ideally) please contribute.
Re: Dwarfing rootstocks planted high density for cider purpose
February 23, 2022 07:40PM
It was in your book, Claude! Now I remember..

Lots of great info here. Maybe other beginners like me will see it too. I had previously decided to stick with semi-dwarf stock exclusively. I think I simply forgot the reasons for having already made this decision.

The limiting factor on my farm is space. We call it "Hap Woods" because it's mostly woods! Maple, poplar, cherry, etc. So no matter what system I go with, attention to each tree will be required. My plan was to prune the semi-dwarf's regularly (though as lightly as possible) to control for size somewhat. Eventually, I think we'll have about 120 trees. I can manage the 40 in the ground now. Maybe for quite awhile, at least until the orchard is established, I can devote time every season to tending every tree. But it's reassuring to hear your explanations for why some neglect is actually beneficial when it comes to cider-making.

Cheers!

Craig
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