'Good-by and Keep Cold'​

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The snow did not fall this time, it simply spilled out of heaven, like thousands of featherbeds being emptied. 

Willa Cather, My Antonia '

Here in the Fruitbelt, we have mighty winters.

And the orchards are haunted with glassy apples...

The sharper the cold, the better the fruit.

"How often already you've had to be told,

Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.

Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”

Robert Frost, 'Good-by and Keep Cold'

Save the mention of plastic, this prescription for tending a fruit orchard in winter could have been written a century ago. C.J. Walke, a Maine farmer and organic fruit grower, tells how to let mice and bees nest in a winter orchard while staving off voles from the young tree trunks. The purists can grab a couple of snowshoes and tamp down the snow into an ice barrier.

After harvest – by the end of October – I set rectangular hay bales throughout the orchard where field mice can nest in the winter. The mice depart come spring, leaving an excellent place for bumblebee queens to nest. Bumblebee queens key in on the scent of mouse urine, and bumblebees are very efficient pollinators come spring bloom time...

The most important orchard chore to prepare for winter is protecting the tender trunk bark on young trees from hungry meadow voles. Voles can seriously damage or girdle and kill young trees by eating the bark and cambium layer at the base of the tree. Once the tree is girdled, water and nutrients can no longer move up and down the trunk, and the tree will die. A girdled tree will usually leaf out in the spring, and you’ll think it survived the gnawing, but it is using energy stored in buds and bark to leaf out. Once that energy is consumed, the leaves will turn brown and the tree will die. Bridge grafting in April is the best – but not guaranteed – way to try to save the girdled tree.

To avoid losing a young tree, place vole guards around trunks before the first snowfall. This barrier prevents voles from eating the bark. Spiral plastic guards wrap around the tree trunk but must be removed in spring, since they can harbor insects and diseases if left. Plastic or metal mesh guards are loose fitting and can stay on year-round as long as you can enlarge them as the tree grows. Another trick is to compact the snow around trees with snowshoes so that it freezes into a hard ice pack. Voles cannot tunnel through this to get to the trees.

Once the snow starts to fly, sit by the fire and start planning for the following orchard season.

C.J. Walke, Maine Organic Farmer's and Gardener's Association

—Michele Gazzolo

Meg FaibischComment