Saturday, March 23, 2019

Grin and Bear It, aka Bears Invade the Orchard

When people ask if we have bears at our place, I’ve always said, “We know they’re around, ‘cause they leave lots of ‘presents’ in the road. But bears have never come into the yard.”

With all that bear scat dotting our woodsy lane, I assumed the bears were perfectly content to limit their explorations to the wilder parts of our neighborhood. But I recently learned I was wrong: bears did indeed get inside our yard. I also learned that if you don’t keep up with pruning your apple trees, the bears will do it for you.

This past apple season was another bumper crop, partly because the fruit set had been phenomenal. But mostly because John and I had gotten really relaxed about pruning our trees. With our 14 overly tall, long-limbed trees, we were overwhelmed with hundreds upon hundreds of apples…even our smaller trees, like the two Honeycrisps, yielded over 175 apples each. That’s a heck of a lot of fruit for two people. Adding to our problem, we’d allowed the trees to get so tall we couldn’t reach the fruit at the top, even with a ladder.

We gave bags and bags of apples away to friends and family, which hardly made a dent; I shared dozens of pounds more with my sister’s three horses. In desperation, I even contacted some pig-raising 4-H groups, to see if their porkers could use some apples! With far more fruit than we could store, we allowed the apples to ripen on the trees way too long.

Our north orchard holds 9 blackberry plants, 2 hazelnut trees, and 3 of our biggest apple trees, surrounded by a six-foot fence. This area includes our last tree to bear, the Florina, a late October apple, and like all the other trees, it was dripping with fruit. By now, 3 months into the harvest, our fridge was full to bursting. We had no place to store the Florina’s bounty—so we had to leave it on the tree.

I left Berryridge Farm for a few days to visit the grandkids in Astoria, Oregon—and when I returned, I noticed something…odd. Our Florina tree seemed to have fewer apples on it—the lower branches looked emptier. Oh, well, I shrugged, and made a mental note to ask John if he’d picked a few. We had so many apples I’d sorta not only lost track of them, but lost interest. Then, busy helping him process firewood for winter, I pretty much put the missing Florinas out of my mind.

Until two days later. When I went outside to take a bikeride, I glanced at the orchard and stopped, shocked. The Florina was completely bare—not one bloomin’ apple left on the tree! I hurried into the orchard and found something even more bizarre: bucket-sized piles of what looked to be partially digested apples. The piles of apple “mash” were so very large that the culprit could only be…yep, a bear. He’d eaten an entire tree of apples in one night!

I rushed to John’s study window and rapped on it. “Honey, you’ve got to come into the orchard!” He threw on his work duds and out he came.

“Only a bear could have done this.” I showed John the piles of apple mash. “I can’t tell which end of the bear this came out of,” I added, “but I don’t think I want to know.”

“Me neither,” said John, and went to fetch a shovel to clean up the “stuff.”  After he was done, he examined the Florina tree. “Would you look at this?” he exclaimed. “That darn bear really did a number on our tree.”

The damage was fairly extensive: the two main branches were broken, and claw marks scarred the bark. The marks wouldn’t kill the tree, but one branch had to be completely removed. John attempted to mend the other break, saying, “This probably won’t heal, but at least I gave it a try.”

“But how did the bear get inside the fence?” I wondered aloud. Although our fence was pretty stout,
Bear under the fence
the tree was even stronger—so you’d think that a bear climbing the fence would have broken that too. However, our fence was intact. Then I looked at the ground and found a four-foot section of loose fencing. Beneath it, the grass and weeds had been scraped away. John and I could draw only one conclusion: the bear had wiggled under the fence.

John resolved to fix the fencing, but I decided then and there on a different approach: the best way to have fewer predators in your garden is to make it less attractive to critters! Meaning, to cut way back on our apple production. “Next spring,” I vowed to John, “we are going to prune these trees hard.”

John and I kept that promise: we’ve spent the last three days pruning all our apple trees more thoroughly than we’ve ever done before. He did end up having to cut off the other broken branch on the Florina—more pruning than the tree really needed. As for all the other trees, after the fruit sets in May, I plan to thin the apples within an inch of their lives!

We are realistic enough to know we can’t build fences high enough or strong enough to keep out the bears. Nor can we depend upon Mr. Bear remembering the bellyache he got stuffing himself with our fruit before he went into hibernation. But we can pick our apples early and often…if only to make sure that next fall, Berryridge Farm isn’t surrounded by the aroma of ripening apples! 

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