MONMOUTH — Maine’s prolonged three-year drought followed by a long, wet winter have not been kind to the state’s apple trees and ornamental fruit trees, including flowering crabapples.

But farmers at apple orchards large and small have made the best of the situation by aggressively pruning dead branches and damaged trunks.

“The weather has been pretty good so far. We came through the November cold snap and did more fungicide spraying than usual,” said Harry Ricker, owner of the 200-year-old Ricker Farm Orchards in Turner.

“It was really dry the first part of the year. It hurt the crabapple trees, but the apple trees did quite fine,” Ricker said.

For the past three years, much of Maine was trapped in drought. That ended this year with a longer-than-usual winter season filled with rainy days mixed in with the snowfall.

C. J. Walke, organic orchards educator for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said small farms with just a few fruit trees were probably hit much harder by the damaging weather than big orchards that can more easily change their growing practices and are more intensely managed.

“I can safely say that the damage is more widespread across the Northeast,” Walke said.

Ornamental trees like flowering crabapples are subject to conditions such as southwest tree injury that damages the bark on the trunks, opening the door for insects and other pests to get inside the trees and kill them.

Southwest tree injury gets its name from the south and west sides of the trees, which get more winter sun than the east and north sides. Cracks can open in the bark and below-freezing temperatures at night can open holes in the trunks.  The condition is also known as sun scald and bark crack.

“The tree cannot gather nutrients and spread them through the trunk,” Walke said. “Trees are weakened and made susceptible to other diseases. If a small grower loses one tree it’s a problem, whereas the large farmer is looking at the bigger picture.”

Caragh Fitzgerald, a staff member of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, said sometimes the damage is from freezing and thawing on a cold winter day. “That can damage basically the plumbing of the plant.”

Fitzgerald said home gardeners who want to protect their ornamental fruit trees from winter burn should paint the bottom 3 to 4 feet of the trunk up to the first set of branches with white latex paint.  That will cause the sun’s rays to reflect off the tree trunk rather than penetrating the bark and damaging the tree.

Another technique for protecting the trunk of vulnerable trees is to wrap the trunk in white paper or white plastic.

Fitzgerald said bark diseases in apple trees and other thin-barked trees are sometimes caused by a dry summer followed by a wet fall.

“Trees have a life cycle of their own,” she said. “Eventually, they will age out and die.”

Renae Moran, of Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, which is the agricultural experiment station of the University of Maine, said, “Now it’s too wet, it’s humid and I’m seeing a lot of disease every time I go out into the orchard.”

Renae Moran of Highmoor Farm in Monmouth said she’s seeing branch die-back on apple, cherry and peach trees in their orchard. This image shows damage to a cherry tree. Renae Moran photo

And, she’s seeing branch die-back on apple, cherry and peach trees.

Warm, humid weather makes it easier for a bacterium called fire blight to spread in apple and pear trees, Moran said.

“Farmers are accustomed to being kicked in the teeth by the weather,” Moran said. And despite the branch and trunk damage, “the apple crop looks good this year. I think we’ll have a good harvest.”

Moran said aggressive pruning of dead and dying branches in the winter and early spring is the best way to fight the spread of disease in fruit trees.

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