The fruit harvest will be low in home orchards across the Key Peninsula this year. Many trees, particularly apples, pears and plums, are barren of fruit, leaving homeowners scratching their heads.
Jim Watts, owner of Watts Solitary Bees, said 2021 was the best production year in company history but this spring delivered the opposite and 2022 will go down as the worst.
“It was terrible,” Watts said. We lost a lot of production from British Columbia south to Eugene, Oregon. Bainbridge Island was a complete disaster for us production-wise and yet in Longbranch, it was by far our best ever,” he said. “It’s just a strange year.”
Alan Lowe, president of the Peninsula Fruit Club, could sense this spring that there would be problems. He put out mason bee boxes around March 1, just before the earliest fruit trees begin to flower, and watched for the next two months as week after week of cold, damp weather kept the pollinators at bay.
By May 15, when most of the trees were done blooming, only a handful of the tubes that serve as mason bee nests had been filled. “Fifty-five degrees is a tipping point,” said Lowe, above which pollinators become active. This spring? “It wasn’t happening.”
Not only does the temperature need to be right, it must also be maintained for several days, long enough to dry out the flowers and circulate pollen. Wind also hampers the proceedings of springtime.
“Unusual, but has happened before,” said apple guru Steve Butler of Butler’s Farm in Gig Harbor, The phenomenon stretches from Portland to Vancouver, BC, largely on the west side of the Cascades, though even in eastern Washington the apple crop is down 12%.
That said, there were stretches of sufficiently good weather for pollination this spring. Different varieties of fruit trees bloom during slightly different windows, which explains why a fair number of Key Peninsula trees are as laden with apples or plums as ever. Plus, our area is loaded with microclimates, Lowe said. On a spring morning you can drive a few hundred yards up a hill and go from 50-degree fog to 58-degree sun, which is all the difference in the world when it comes to pollinators. Homes near Puget Sound warm in spring faster than inland.
“There’s so many factors that come into play,” said Lowe. “Maybe the native bees have been killed off by backyard folks spraying the previous summer for yellow jackets.”
He added that pollination problems are often exacerbated by the home fruit grower’s hands-off approach. “We seem to have the strange idea that all you have to do is plant these things.” A particular issue is the region’s widespread sandy soil, which dries out quickly and is seldom watered as much as the trees could use — not to mention the grass surrounding most backyard trees, which captures the lion’s share of the water before the trees’ roots can get it — meaning the trees come into late summer in survival mode rather than ready to pump out big, juicy fruit.
Last year’s extreme heat wave likely also had an impact. In most fruit trees, the fruit comes on two-year-old wood, meaning the sun-scalding and stunted growth of last summer are the basis of this year’s fruit crop.
“Everything is like a set of dominoes lined up,” Lowe said. “Everything is cascading. It’s not a fresh start every year.”
This year he noticed strong vegetative growth on local trees, with many adding three feet of new growth this summer. He is worried that homeowners will see such long new branches without any apples and conclude that their tree has grown unruly and prune back all the new growth, thus sabotaging the foundation for next year’s fruit crop.
As for this year, cider might be a more precious commodity than ever.
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