Orchard Grass


The trees in this photo are fairly young ones — with good pruning that provides “V” shaped limbs that are much more able to support heavy apples. However, this orchard is exceptionally well pruned unlike the run of the mill trees in early 1900s. Of course there are many different types of trees. Early trees had often been allowed to grow too tall, and the limbs were often horizontally from the trunk. These limbs whether made that way by weight of apples or grown that way forced the grower to prop them with 2 x 2s or have the entire limb break off.

That would often tear a big section of bark off the trunk and pretty much ruin the tree as well as ruin any of the apples on the broken limb. The least damage would be the tree would be minus 10-15% of its future production — and the damage would allow disease into the tree trunk. The best insurance against this catastrophic damage would be props. This photo is a light to average crop. Heavy crops would be double or more of this many apples. And trees might be 5-10′ higher and four times the volume of this one. Looking at this photo, it would be picked with 8-10′ ladders. In the 30s-40s most ladders would be 12-18′–so you can get an idea of the relative size of this photo’s trees. Also, older trees back then would be grown completely across the aisles. That would require cultivation tractors to use fenders to allow branches to be pushed aside.

Missing from this photo — which looks like a prepared promo it is so impossibly clean and nice — or perfect — is the usual 3′ tall orchard grass that covered every orchard without fail.

Plain old orchard grass is the most prevalent grass in Payette Valley in barrow pits, along roads and ditches — in fact anywhere foxtail or cheat grass is not. It is one or the other.  Orchard grass loves water.  My biggest job growing up was scything the orchard grass along all our irrigation ditches — where it would grow so rank it would impede the flow of water.  This grass growing heavily along canals would droop over the canal — collect sediment on the stems trailing into the water — eventually trapping so much silt build up to many feet wide and out into the stream.

Eventually the weight of the acquired silt became heavy enough to cause the entire bank and build up to sluff off the bank, and sliding into the canal — where it would impede the water.  This provided forced cleaning by canal and drain ditch companies to clean it all out and dump it on one side of canal — this built up into significant piles throughout the years.  I have seen the piles 20′ and 20′ wide high for miles.  This was major opportunity for my dad — hired to drag this silt out over the farmer’s fields spreading it out. Both a blessing for the fertility of the field and clearing the canal bank so it could be used again as an access road to the farm.

Orchard grass, extremely lush and 3′ high provided endless playgrounds for us kids growing up. You could hide and seek, tread down playhouses and hidden play areas completely out of sight of others.  It was a problem for orchardists because, of course, it sucked up much more irrigation water than the trees got.  The farmer could pasture it off — however, then the cattle would eat all the lower fruit and destroy 25-40% of the fruit production on the trees.  If you tried to mow it down, the team or tractor, would also ruin a lot of fruit and break limbs.  Damned if you do or damned if you don’t. (Later on when modern tractors made their appearance, then they could use offset discs, bush hogs, or even weedicides—but back then we had none of those.)

Growers at beginning of season could get down the rows with a lister — a large furrowing ditcher. It was necessary to place ditches in order to get water to flow sufficient to irrigate through the year. These ditches needed to carry enough water to get thru the thick grass as well over the land. These ditches often were done by a tool called a “boxer” aka lots of other names. This produced a box like set of furrows, with a closed off end, this allowed the water to flow in two ditches down each side of the aisle, the end box, would dam up the water under the tree holding it, making a pond 2-4″ deep allowing the water to seep deep before it escaped out the lower end of the box and into the next box. These boxes were sized widthwise to put water as far out as the “drip line,” i.e. the line around the tree that defines the outer limit of rain being shed. Trees roots pretty much occupy the same area under the ground as its canopy does. So in this photo the ditches would pretty much keep the irrigation water between the tree and the equipment track.

Growers ability to make irrigation go well was dependent upon their skill and equipment. Tractors coming into orchards beginning in 30s and later were a major improvement akin to the difference in riding a bike or flying! But, later in spite of having tractors available, orchard grass held the field. Some growers did not disc nor cultivate under their trees, relying entirely upon flood irrigation to get water as needed.

Growers could not really get into the orchards with equipment later in the year as any cultivation would damage the hanging fruit, break limbs, and disturb spray on the trees, or the limbs would be propped completely preventing anything done underneath the trees. So the early furrowing had to do for that growing cycle. Also the grower had to get spray rigs thru the rows as it was essential to spray with lead arsenate. (Lead arsenate spraying ended in 1948 with advent of DDT.)

Idaho seemed to be the capital of “orchard grass” so called because of the 3′ high grass endemic to every orchard I ever saw back then. Now days, thru weedicide spray and easier cultivation you can keep weeds and grass down. However, back then that would be impossible. I was able to keep the ground under my orange trees completely bare by spraying with heavy “bunker oil” — the very lowest grade diesel. This oil clogs the pores of the weeds suffocating them. The oil will evaporate over a few weeks. But, back in early 1900s every orchard had the 3′ high orchard grass.

Each time we would go into the orchards to pick, this tall grass would get rolled flat. First the grower had to bring in the boxes/ladders. Most used “slips”; to haul and distribute empty boxes. Slips were just boards, i.e. 1 x 12″ laid down in size needed directly on the ground, then a cross strap was nailed crosswise to hold them all together, then a chain attached at the front to a team or tractor let the slip be “slipped” across the ground. This flattened the orchard grass which then acted like a frictionless slip plate. They used the same contrivance to pick up full boxes and haul to collection points and trucks to take to the packing houses. In my own case I was less than two years old in my first apple experience, and the grass was much higher than I was. It was a veritable jungle to me. As one picked the tree this grass pretty much impeded every effort moving about, placing the boxes to fill from picking sack, moving the ladder to pick from, and even moving to place your “ticket” (your name and number to get credit for picking.)

In the late 40s after WWII as tractors became more common, some orchardists would use the tractors with discs to knock down all the orchard grass, and use small flat bed trailers to distribute and pick up boxes. The horse era being over at that point.

In my day (1930s-1940s) families picked the apple or other crops. This was very efficient, because the skirt (the lower person – high part of tree) could easily be picked by women and kids. So most families, including my own, had the man pick the tops and upper half, because it took strength and heft to muscle tall ladders around. And most women professed to be afraid of heights — whether or not it was true. Kids could also climb up inside the tree picking the inside.

Fruit, of any kind, depends upon sunlight to enable the conversion of sunlight into energy/food. So an essential pruning guide is that you must get sunlight anywhere in the tree that you want fruit to grow — this will cause the tree to grow the small fruit producing limbs fruit production is dependent upon. In pruning vernacular, to “open the tree up.”

A fruit tree that is allowed to grow too tall penalizes the grower in a number of ways. The top branches may shade out the lower — lowering overall yield. If the tree is too dense then sunlight cannot get into the interior of tree or to lower outside fruit — no sunlight = no fruit. Then you would see nice fruit easily reached all around the tree but a bare interior with loss of 50% of possible fruit growing. Too high meant you must use long ladders — much more difficult, costly, and time consuming — as well as dangerous. Most pickers will not pick the really tall fruit or leave too much of it on the tree. You will often see growers who cut all the lower hanging branches of the skirts so they can use tractor implements — or allow stock to graze — this costs 20% of the fruit that would otherwise grow there. A grower must maximize his production with the correct size of tree to meet many conditions. Every portion of the tree in production is an economic exercise and necessity.

Leave a Reply