Despite the demand for apples locally, in Kenya, its production is confined to a few scattered farmers in the highlands of Kiambu, Kitale and Nandi. One farmer who has tapped into this growing demand is George Karemu who has 350 apple trees.
The retired teacher and his wife grow the apples on a one and a quarter acre orchard in Miugune village in Buuri District, Meru County.
“I settled on apples after a bad experience with potatoes, maize and fodder for dairy farming. I discovered that managed well, apples have better and more reliable returns. But as a back-up plan, I still grow the others but on small scale,” says Karemu.
Karemu’s love affair with apples started in 1976 when a friend from Kibirichia gave him four apple shoots to try at his farm on the Northern slopes of Mt Kenya.
Pruning is key
These four shoots have since grown into blooming trees bending under the weight of fruits. Having planted applesfor more than 40 years, he has become an expert of sorts.
Karemu mainly grows Winter Banana variety of apples but he has been trying to graft his crop with Rome Beauty and Golden Gozet varieties. Though grafted trees are fast maturing and could yield fruits in three to four years, he says his experience is that they have limited production. The farmer admits that very few of his neighbours have ventured into this territory though he estimates the farm is earning him three times what he would be making if he was farming potatoes.
But this September he plans to venture into production of seedlings for sale. He says apples have two seasons; a main one between September and March and between June and August. According to Karemu, the tree has fruits throughout the year and peak harvesting is between February and April.
To keep the fruits healthy and strong, the farmer uses six to seven bags of farmyard manure which he buys from neighbours.
“The good thing is that it is affordable. A sack of manure costs Sh100. But we also need one 50 kilo bag of NPK 20.20.20 fertiliser and three litres of foliar feed for leafage development,” he says.
The farmer also cross plant beans on the section occupied by the less mature trees which are four years and below covering over 100 trees. Because of the availability of shoots which he sources from his oldest plantation, Karemu’s garden is divided in four sections with the oldest trees planted in 2009, then younger batch planted in 2013.
Typically, his trees take five to six years to start producing fruits with commercial value and the production increases as the tree gains more years. But with a spacing of seven feet between trees and nine feet between rows, the orchard gets to a level where no intercropping can take place after eight years.
While this diminishes the weeding labour, it also increases the amount of pruning and chemicals required.
One of the most tedious tasks for an apple garden is keeping the predator birds away when the fruits broom.
“The birds are in the garden as early as 6.00pm and have to be chased away using slings and stones.”
Despite that challenge, he says the venture is worth it if someone gets it right from the word go. Henry Murithi, a crop protection expert who is in tree seedling business explains that selection of root stock seedling is one of the most important aspects in establishing a thriving appleorchard.
He explains that root stock can then be grafted with other varieties of choice once it has been established with a drought resistant tree. According to him, the best root stock varieties for East Africa as Batten Feilder and Marllieng Mutton 106 and Marllieng Mutton 107.
Those could then be grafted with varieties such as Anna – an oval shaped red fruit with yellow stripes, Winter Banana which is a good pollinator and Golden Dolcet which is a red round fruit with yellow stripes.
For soils, fertile and deep type are good for apple farming and recommends a spacing of one metre between trees and three metres between rows. He recommends nutrient replenishment through farm yard manure.
Phyllis Mutungi, a government horticulturist working in Meru said a fertiliser application of 150 grams of CAN per year can help in nutrient replenishment increasing gradually to 1.5 kilogrammes per tree. “Continuous pruning is also key.”