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Drought, drainage and the Apple Tree: Managing water shortage in the apple farming industry

16 Feb 2018

Everybody loves an apple. Shiny, solid and juicy. Hardly the root of all evil as some might have us believe. One of the most widely grown fruit in the world, apples, find their way into popular juices, pies, puddings, legends and various remedies for stomach ailments. There’s even a tech company that thought so highly of the humble apple, they used its name.

The Cape Elgin apple orchards are some of the most valuable and successful fruit growing areas in the country. However, the serious drought that has gripped the Western Cape these last two years has had a negative effect on both current and future production prospects and has presented farmers with significant challenges.

Drought, drainage and the Apple Tree: Managing water shortage in the apple farming industry

Producing healthy apples

While apples usually do not necessarily require great amounts of water, they do need watering at least twice a week whilst young trees require a regular presentation around every 7 to 10 days thereafter. In a drought situation, ensuring enough water for every tree in large orchards can be problematic.

This is the facts of the matter…

  • Although young apple trees obviously need a fair amount of water to grow well, you can reduce watering needs by keeping the ground clear of vegetation for 3 feet around the tree trunk, and applying a 3- to 6-inchdeep mulch, such as wood chips, making sure to leave a few inches clear around the trunk to discourage rotting.
  • Slight stress from drought when your tree is forming flower buds might actually increase bud production. However, if the drought continues, and the tree begins to drop its flowers, you have clear warning that the tree is suffering.
  • It is vital at this time, when the tree is in full bloom, that the tree does not suffer from lack of water for at least four weeks, as this is the time when the fruit sets. Drought at this stage reduces the amount and size of apples the tree bears.
  • Drought in all likelihood will force your trees to bear apples that are narrow and deformed at the end furthest from the stalk. Unfortunately, to ensure a good crop, apple trees need plenty of water during the last two months before harvest. Drought during this stage will surely reduce the quality and size of fruit.

What can be done to alleviate effects of drought?

Thinning the fruit: Heavily thinning the fruit reduces watering needs and produces larger apples. In summer, mature apple trees need a thorough, deep watering, such as from a sprinkler system, every two to three weeks.

Choosing the best soil type for drought: Interestingly enough, a dry surface soil doesn’t always mean your apple tree needs water because, depending on the soil type, the water needs may differ.

While the best crops can be found on fertile sandy soils and loams, apple trees can grow in a wide range of soils from medium textured clays to gravelly sands. Clay soils hold more water, so, trees need watering less often, while sandy soils hold very little water and trees are in danger of suffering in a drought.

Drought, drainage and the Apple Tree: Managing water shortage in the apple farming industry

Drip irrigation and fertigation: These methods are increasingly used. In young orchards, fertigation helps increase early tree growth and brings trees into bearing earlier.

Grass mulch: Sowing a grass mulch between the tree rows helps to increase water holding capacity, infiltration rate, soil aggregation and recycling of nutrients. Apples prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH between 5.8 and 7.0). Extreme soil pH values can result in toxicity and poor tree and fruit development, water notwithstanding.

Danger of over-compensating: Soils should be well-drained. Wet soils can lead to poor aeration and increased incidence of crown rot in apples. Soils with high organic matter contents are normally better structured and allow good rooting, however, irrigation will always be essential to prevent dry soils – especially in young orchards.

Drip irrigation and fruit trees

While your apple trees are going to prove thirsty during the stages of new growth and fruit development, there are more economical systems available other than wasteful spray sprinklers and soaker hoses – and that is drip tubing. These specialised hoses have evenly spaced emitters that concentrate water at the soil level for an effective fruit tree watering strategy:

  • It allows you to control where the water flows; foliage, flowers and fruit remain dry, thus, preventing bacterial and fungal diseases from standing water droplets  
  • As water is not forced through the air, such as with spray sprinklers, you do not lose water to evaporation, saving money on your water bill. 
  • The application of fertilizers through the drip irrigation system allows control of mineral availability and uptake, as well as root activity.
  • The drip or micro sprinkler systems ensure regular and even distribution of water where there does not need to be a relationship between water availability and soil aeration.
  • You can irrigate at as many or few intervals as required, and control the irrigation depth. 
  • There is higher production per unit of water used; a lowering of energy and electricity costs; and improved uptake of fertilizer and faster growth. 

With a growing worldwide shortage of water, the use of drip irrigation in orchards is on the increase. Under properly managed drip irrigation, the entire root system functions more efficiently compared to those under conventional irrigation methods. So, dire as the drought may appear, it may be working as a positive catalyst in persuading apple farmers to make the right choices now to eventually benefit, not only immediately, but during water scarcity in future as well.

Drought, drainage and the Apple Tree: Managing water shortage in the apple farming industry

The apple of our eye

At Netafim, we continue to research and innovate. We now lead the world when it comes to drip technology with the biggest dripper flow path dimensions, which means the most reliable drippers.

While the situation in the Western Cape has reached critical proportions, we are still confident that the water saving devices of drip irrigation hold much of the answer to not only drought conditions but as a miraculous water saver during times of plenty – thus alleviating the pressure on dams to ensure that there is a good harvest of water to utilise during the drier periods.

More than ever, we are prepared for this current crisis and stand ready to help those farmers who understand the value of our systems – both in current circumstances and for the future.

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