As winter’s snow begins to recede and the tractors come out of winter storage, apple trees come to life in a breathtaking display of blossoms. Did I mention I love the seasons here in North Central Washington? Clusters of delicate flowers emerge, creating a dazzling view of white and pink hues against the backdrop of verdant leaves. Apple blossom time is the apple tree’s way of announcing the commencement of a symphony conducted by the farmer to produce the apples we love.
Stage 1: Bud Break
The blossom symphony commences with a bud break, a moment of awakening when dormant buds burst forth with the promise of life. Warmed by the gentle touch of spring sunlight, the buds swell and unfurl, revealing tiny petals tightly wrapped within.
As buds swell, our farm team monitors progress using our WSU chart, “Critical Temperatures for Blossom Bud.” WSU researchers developed a set of temperature values based on data collected at the Washington State University Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. The Apple Bud Chart shows the average low temperatures resulting in a kill of 10% and 90% of the buds, respectively. The chart and thermometers placed in the orchard help us determine the need for frost control based on the development stage of the bud. When talking to horticulturalists this time of year, they often refer to timing in terms of bud stage. For instance, rather than referencing the beginning of May when planning, they might say First Pink, if that is the current stage. All the farm work planning revolves around the Apple Bud Chart in the spring.
Stage 2: Bloom
The focus on blossoms in the spring hopefully leads to an impressive bloom stage, a spectacle to behold in orchards with many buds. Each tree becomes a canvas painted with blossoms, attracting a legion of pollinators with their sweet fragrance. Apple blossoms boast five delicate petals surrounding the reproductive organs of the flower. These flowers are aesthetically pleasing and crucial to the apple tree’s life cycle. The orchard symphony, bustling with bees, farm workers, tractors, helicopters, and sprayers, reaches a crescendo during the Full Bloom stage of the bloom stage of apple development. During this crescendo, I like to stand still in the middle of the orchard, distancing myself from the crazy activity to focus on the simple, quiet activity of bees visiting blossoms.
Stage 3: Pollination
In this pivotal stage, pollinators such as bees play a starring role. We hire bee contractors to bring in bee hives and strategically place them throughout the orchard. As bees move from blossom to blossom in search of nectar, they inadvertently transfer pollen from the male reproductive parts of one flower to the female parts of another. This pollination dance is the key to fertilization, setting the stage for the formation of apples. However, bees are our fair-weather friends since they prefer temperatures above 65° without wind or rain to leave the hive to forage.
The Blossom’s Transformation
Once successfully pollinated, the apple blossom undergoes a remarkable transformation. The petals fall away, leaving behind the swelling ovary that will develop into the fruit. This tiny apple, often called the “fruitlet,” marks the beginning of the apple’s journey. Sometimes it’s hard to see the fruitlets. Many times, we have thought mistakenly that the orchard was a blank canvas at this stage, only to discover in a month our fruit set is adequate.
Stage 4: Fruit Development
As summer unfolds, the fruitlet grows and evolves. The ovary thickens, and the core of the future apple takes shape. During this period, the apple tree requires care and attention from our team at the ranch – adequate water, nutrients, weed management, and protection from pests. Our organic cultural practices and Mother Nature’s cooperation ensure the optimal development of the fruit as we prioritize sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.
Stage 5: Thinning
In its wisdom, nature often produces more fruit than the tree can effectively nurture to maturity. In this stage, thinning becomes necessary. We carefully remove excess fruit, allowing the tree to channel its energy into developing fewer but more robust apples. Early thinning also promotes the development of fruit buds for the following spring’s bloom. As our team assesses what fruit to remove, they look for smaller fruit, fruit with disease spots, hail damage, or other defects. At the end of the job, the goal is to have evenly spaced-apples throughout the tree.
Stage 6: Maturation
The maturation process is a culmination of the apple’s growth. As the summer sun bathes the orchard, the apples transform from vibrant green to their characteristic red, yellow, or green hues, depending on the variety. The apple accumulates sugars, acids, and complex flavors during this stage, contributing to its unique taste profile. Our fruit flavor is exceptional at Chelan Ranch Organics because of our nutrient-rich soil. The higher levels of organic matter and essential nutrients come from our organic farming since 1991. By abstaining from synthetic inputs, we create a more natural and balanced ecosystem in the soil, positively influencing fruit flavor.
Stage 7: Harvesting
Apple harvest is a critical and exciting time for the ranch. Vibrant colors of ripe apples adorn the orchard with the arrival of fall and imminent harvest. We approach harvest as a delicate task, requiring precision to ensure that apple picking occurs when the fruit is at its ripeness peak and handled carefully to maintain its quality. We know that different apple varieties have specific color changes that indicate ripeness and a balance of sweetness and acidity. We pick all our apples by hand and offer the experience of U-pick for families that can come to Chelan Ranch and choose their own.
Stage 8: Post-Harvest Handling
Once harvested, our apples undergo post-harvest handling, which includes sorting, cleaning, and packaging. The process ensures that only the finest specimens are for sale at Chelan Ranch Organics, ready to be enjoyed by apple enthusiasts worldwide, including me. My daughter recently informed me that I need to work on eating my apples like a lady rather than a horse. It’s true. I like to bite a more significant chunk of apple than the radius of my mouth so it fills my mouth and beyond, then savor all that delicious flavor with that big mouthful. Since the feedback, I’ve been working on savoring my apples with ladybites!
The journey of an apple from blossom to fruit is a captivating narrative woven by the intricate dance of nature. From the delicate emergence of buds to the bustling pollination process and the eventual maturation of the fruit, each stage is a testament to the apple tree’s resilience and the collaborative effort between the tree, pollinators, cultural practices, and the environment. When you bite a crisp apple from Chelan Ranch Organics like a horse or a lady, think of its magical journey, starting as a humble blossom, dancing in the breeze, evolving into the delicious fruit in your hand. This transformation reminds us of the wonders of nature and the interconnectedness that sustains life on our planet.