Apples and Rangers Unite
by Hank Vincent, Park Ranger
For many centuries people have used ingenuity and hard work to shape the domestic apple tree. This courtship has allowed the continuation of many marvelous apple varieties. The apple orchard at Slide Rock State Park has graced the property since 1912, when Frank Pendley established his first plantings. Apples were the primary cash crop of the Pendley family homestead. The homestead property became Slide Rock State Park in 1987.
For over a decade orchard maintenance has been contracted out. In the spring of 2007 State Parks reacquired responsibility. The longevity of the historic trees and the quality of up coming harvests greatly depend upon ranger interaction. There are just over three hundred apple trees that require unwavering care and attention.
Winter in Oak Creek Canyon has brought freezing temperatures and taken the leaves from deciduous trees. With the apple trees entering dormancy pruning has begun. Important objectives in pruning are: remove dead wood, admit sunlight and allow aeration, promote quality fruit, and shaping the trees for easier harvest and to allow passage. Cutting is done with loppers, handsaws and chainsaw. Three legged aluminum ladders are used to access high sections of tree. Each cut leads to the completion of a tree. Completion of each tree leads to a well-trained orchard.
The days will soon grow longer. Early spring brings blossoms and bud growth. Apple flowers are small, white with pink high lights and have an exquisite sweet aroma. With assistance from bees, other insects and wind the flowers are cross-pollinated. After fertilization, the petals will drop and apples will begin to take shape.
Spring is a fragile time for apples. A late freeze can kill the blossoms. This is also when the codling moth lays its eggs in the tree. The eggs hatch and become worms. The worms will eat the fruit and seeds. The codling moth needs to be monitored using pheromone traps. The trees must be sprayed with insecticide when moths are in greater numbers to prevent further infestation. As the apples grow thinning needs to occur. Thinning is the removal of excess fruit to improve size and quality of what is left on the tree.
During the long hot days of Arizona summer fruit trees need irrigating. Electric pumps bring water from Oak Creek. Long aluminum pipe with sprinklers are set up to deliver water to each section of the orchard.
With the trees well watered and thinned the apples will continue to mature. Branches sagging under the weight of fruit need to be propped up with cull lumber. Harvest is both a laborious and rewarding time in an orchard. Picking usually starts in late August or early September. Indications of maturity are size, color, firmness and of course taste. Prematurely picked apples are chalky and bland. The familiar crisp crunch and classic sweetness of an apple is a most pleasing suggestion to pick. Caution must be taken while picking. Apples bruise easily. The fruit is sorted and boxed then taken to cold storage.
Slide Rock still employs the “Apple Packing Shed” built by Frank Pendley. The Pendley family used the shed to sort, polish, package and store their harvests.
Harvest is celebrated with the Slide Rock Apple Festival. Activities include a pick your own apple program, games, entertainment, vendors and display booths. With a sigh of relief orchard clean up and preparations for next years crop begin. As ranger efforts continue, experience and training will expand the relationship between apple and human. These efforts enhance visitors' experience and preserve historic integrity.