LIFE STAGES OF THE ORCHARD

Orchard Planning, Design and Development
Orchard Management and Maintenance
The Almond Production Lifecycle

ORCHARD PLANNING, DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT

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Irrigation Planning

Land preparation begins once the irrigation system has been selected and designed.

Water is applied to the orchard to meet the variable crop requirements and should be distributed evenly to maximize irrigation efficiency and uptake of nutrients.  The amount of water needed varies depending on soil salinity, water quality, crop salinity tolerance and the amount of rainfall as daily weather conditions.

Because sites vary so much there is no “best” irrigation system, a good system will suit the particular characteristics and goals of the site.  Methods available include surface (or flood) irrigation (border and furrow), sprinkler and micro irrigation (drip and microsprinkler).  UAL uses drip irrigation.

Ongoing good water management techniques are imperative to ensure the efficiency of a well designed and installed system is realised.  This can include a water budget, estimations of crop water requirements using predictive methods or actual soil moisture monitoring devices and then evaluation of irrigation effectiveness after applying indicated

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Site Preparation

Investigation of soil profiles using a backhoe are undertaken to evaluate the soil at various levels in the root zone.  Water table levels can also be determined at that time.

Almonds are most productive on loam-textured deep, uniform soils.  Soil preparation can require land leveling, ripping, backhoeing and or mounding in order to produce the optimal site for optimum root growth.

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Variety Selection, Arrangement & Rootstock

Variety selection is key to establishing the orchard.  Few varieties are self fertile, so combinations of varieties should be selected.  Factors in selecting varieties include bloom time, pollen compatibility, time of maturity and ease of nut removal, yield, freedom from pests, diseases and marketability (including kernel quality).

UAL plants its orchard with varieties, 50% Non Pareil, 33% Carmel and 17% Price.  These three varieties share their approximate bloom period and of course are pollen compatible varieties of almonds.  These three varieties are ready for harvest at  slightly staggered intervals which allows for efficient organization of harvest labour and equipment.

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  • Non Pareil - Originated in Suisun California in 1879 by AT Hatch, Non Pareil continues to be the most important almond variety because of its consistent high productivity and high market demand.  The tree is large and upright to spreading and harvests early.  The nut has a paper shell which eases the shelling process.  Non Pareil has a medium sized kernel (22 to 25 per ounce) and is a high and consistent bearer.  Consistent yield reflects its good bearing habit and renewal of fruiting wood. While vigorous it is relatively easy to train.

  • Carmel - Discovered as a single tree in a commercial orchard near Le Grand, California, it was found to be a seedling of Non Pareil-Mission.  It blooms just after Nonpariel and matures ahead of the Mission variety.  The tree is of medium size and is a good pollinator for Non Pareil.  Carmel has a large, elongated kernel.
  • Price - Also known as “Price Cluster” it was a chance seedling discovered in a Durham, California orchard.  Price is another seedling of Non Pareil-Mission.  It blooms within a day of Non Pareil which makes it a popular pollinator and the crop matures shortly after that of Non Pareil.  The tree is more upright than Non Pareil trees.  Price tends to have alternate years of higher than normal set of blossoms followed by lower bloom density.  Price tends to produce a moderately high percentage 10-20% of double kernels, especially on younger trees.

Almond Rootstock is seldom used, instead peach rootstock is used which tolerates poorer drainage better and is nematode resistant.  The almond bud wood is grafted onto the rootstock of peach seedlings.

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Spacing and Arrangement

Spacing is determined by the variety/rootstock combination, the growing district, the fertility of the soil, the equipment to be used in the orchard, the type of vegetation management and the irrigation method.

Tree arrangements in almond orchards are mostly in a square or offset square pattern.  UAL’s orchard is in a square pattern.

Currently the standard arrangement of varieties within the orchard are single rows which maximize exposure to a pollinator.  It is important to balance ease of harvesting between varieties and also maximisation of pollination. 

UAL arranges its almond varieties with alternating rows of Non Pareil and Carmel, with a row of Price every sixth row.

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Tree Selection and Planting

Trees need to be ordered no later than the autumn, approximately one year prior to planting.  Trees should have a well formed root system and strong, straight trunks.

Tree hole sites are generally marked with plastic spoons and knives set out by surveyors and contractors respectively.  Holes deep enough to accept the root system are then dug by hand with a shovel.  Trees are then watered in with a tree guard with a bamboo/wooden stake placed on each tree to provide protection.

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Training Young Trees

The Orchard Manager’s goal is to make an almond tree productive and easy to work within the orchard by effectively managing the natural growth habit of the trees.

After new trees are planted their tops are pruned at about 1 metre from the ground.  General side laterals along the trunk are removed to reduce the likelihood of dessication (drying out), as the roots establish.

Pruning after the first growing season is critical in determining the performance and ultimate shape of an almond tree.  The Orchard Manager must develop 3 to 8 primary limbs (branches) known as “scaffolds” on each tree, paying attention to spacing, orientation on the main trunk and the prevailing wind direction of the orchard.

In the second season the Orchard Manager trains the primary limbs to a “Y” shape to allow good light and air penetration into the centre of the tree.  The key to developmental pruning is to fill the upper edge of the canopy while maintaining a somewhat open centre that allows sunlight, air, bees and sprays to penetrate.

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ORCHARD MANAGEMENT AND MAINTENANCE

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Irrigation Scheduling & Measuring Soil Moisture

The Orchard Manager’s goal is to make an almond tree productive and easy to work within the orchard by effectively managing the natural growth habit of the trees.

After new trees are planted their tops are pruned at about 1 metre from the ground.  General side laterals along the trunk are removed to reduce the likelihood of dessication (drying out), as the roots establish.

Pruning after the first growing season is critical in determining the performance and ultimate shape of an almond tree.  The Orchard Manager must develop 3 to 8 primary limbs (branches) known as “scaffolds” on each tree, paying attention to spacing, orientation on the main trunk and the prevailing wind direction of the orchard.

In the second season the Orchard Manager trains the primary limbs to a “Y” shape to allow good light and air penetration into the centre of the tree.  The key to developmental pruning is to fill the upper edge of the canopy while maintaining a somewhat open centre that allows sunlight, air, bees and sprays to penetrate.

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Fertilizer Application, Ongoing Soil Management and Assessment

Annual fertilizer programs are set using previous experience of tree requirements and budget.  Visual observation and leaf analysis are used to determine any deficiencies in the leaves that would be adversely affecting growth.  Trees typically need a balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron and zinc fertilizer during their growth cycle. 

Soil analysis is done to measure soil salinity and pH (ie. acidity or alkalinity of the soil).

Fertiliser is applied through the irrigation system and drippers as well as directly onto the tree leaves. 

Pest and Disease Management

Pests are normally not a problem in an almond orchard.  If mites occur they are easily controlled in the winter with oil sprays as are aphids easily controlled with effective sprays. 

Fungus and bacterial diseases are controlled with regular sprays in the spring of low toxicity fungicides. 

Birds are the only significant pest and are controlled from October to March using gas guns which frighten and scatter birds as well as selective eradication of birds from the orchard under the control of regulatory permits.

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Orchard Floor Management

UAL has a non-tilled orchard floor and uses strip weed control ie. the rows the trees are planted in are sprayed.

The orchard floor is mowed regularly throughout the year.  This assists in controlling summer weeds that compete for water and nutrients.  Mowing the orchard at bloom time also eliminates competing blooms and reduces frost hazard.

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Pruning Bearing Trees

Pruning a mature almond tree has 4 main aims:

  • Invigorate and renew fruitwood.  Fruitwood is new tree growth that develops the spurs and laterals which produce flowers and subsequently fruit.
  • maximize fruiting area by managing light distribution within the canopy
  • reduce alternate bearing
  • control tree size to facilitate orchard management

Pruning is done annually.  The degree of pruning depends on the variety, growing conditions, age and overall vigour of the orchard. 

Pruning of the UAL orchards starts in April after harvest and finishes by July each year before flowering.

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Defoliating

This occurs in May and assists in disease control and induces the winter dormancy period where the trees rest in preparation for the production cycle.

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THE ALMOND PRODUCTION LIFECYCLE

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Tree Maturity

After approximately three years of growth an almond tree begins to produce almonds.  At age 6 or 7 an almond tree is considered fully mature in its production capability in commercial orchards.

Dormancy

Almond trees need a period of dormancy.  The colder weather allows trees to store nutrients and prepare for the production cycle.

Blossom

A good chill in late autumn and early winter is the first step in the blossoms emerging from their buds.  By mid June pollen grains are present, but the tiny buds remain dormant until the warmer days of August and early September when the trees burst into blossom.  A number of factors influence the timing of the blossom, including weather, geography and almond variety.  The Non Pareil variety is one of the first to bloom, the other two varieties in the UAL Orchard (Carmel & Price) bloom either side of Non Pareil.

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Pollination

Trees require pollination to produce fruit and to assist this process bees are brought into the orchard.  From early to mid August orchards need to be frost-free and have mild temperatures and minimal rain so blossoms flourish and bees can fly easily to pollinate them.  If the blossoms are not pollinated, the almonds will not develop.

In addition for optimal cross pollination and crop development an orchard must have more than one variety.  As mentioned UAL has three varieties, Non Pareil, Carmel and Price.

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Maturing Nuts

After the petals drop and the trees have leafed out the first signs of small almond fruit appear as a result of successful pollination.   Almonds develop within a shell that is surrounded by a hull, similar to the fleshy part of a peach.  The almond shell and hull protect the nut from many environmental conditions.

In late January the hull starts to split exposing the shell.  This allows the nuts or kernels to dry.  Shortly before harvest the hulls open completely.

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Harvest

Harvest time typically occurs from late February through late March.  The orchard floor is leveled prior to harvest and cleared of any debris to provide a smooth clear surface for the nuts to be picked up after shaking.

Each variety matures at a different time so harvesting is completed in stages thus keeping the varieties of almond separate and distinct.  It is also important not to mix the varieties as this reduces their marketability and value.

The trees loaded with almonds are shaken by a special tree shaking machine.  The nuts fall to the ground as the machine clamps and shakes the trunk of the tree.  Before processing the almonds are dried naturally in the orchard for 10 days.  Then the nuts are swept into rows and picked up by machine.

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Processing

The almonds are gathered from the orchard floor and transported to the huller/sheller facility.  The soft outer hulls are removed and the shells are cracked open simultaneously.  Care is taken to monitor that the cracking doesn’t damage the kernels.  For in-shell almonds the hull is removed but the shell remains intact.  All debris or foreign materials are separated and the nuts continue onto the almond handler.  The hulls and shells are often sold as a byproduct to the livestock industry.

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The almond handler, in UAL’s case, Almondco, then takes receipt of the almond crop.  Here the almonds are sized both mechanically and sorted electronically using screens and light respectively.

After grading and sizing the almonds are stored awaiting further processing such as slicing, dicing, roasting, mealing prior to delivery to customers or are shipped whole directly to customers.

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