Sunday, Jun 25, 2017

Apple maze coming to Harvard

Royal Oak Farm Orchard, 15908 Hebron Road, is looking forward to several firsts in the coming year.

The family-operated farm has grown in size from the time the first apple trees were planted in 1992. The farm opened to the public in 1997, and the family has been adding attractions and other fruit trees and vegetable gardens ever since.

This year the Bianchini family is in the thick of planning for the grand opening next year of America’s only apple maze – in the shape of a red delicious apple, of course, complete with a stem and leaves.

Located near the largest corn maze in America, Richardson Corn Maze, the Bianchini family thought the farm could do something similar. Mazes have been created out of bales of hay and corn stalks, but it hasn’t been done yet with apple trees.

Already having worked with the espalier or trellis system with some of the apple trees, Dennis Norton, Integrated Pest Management specialist at Royal Oak Farm Orchard, felt that with the need to revamp the irrigation and spraying system also came the opportunity to create a new attraction. The trellis system would be necessary for planting trees closely together as needed for a maze. Royal Oak Farm Orchard had already been customers of Trickl-eeze Irrigation in Michigan and now will be the first to implement the company’s new solid-set canopy delivery system that will feature the first-time commercialized use of specialized spray heads and underground irrigation with a brand-new technology.

“We contacted Maze Play – the designers who work on Richardson’s corn maze – to see if they thought we could do this,” Norton said. Maze Play agreed that the new system would allow the orchard to create a large section of apple trees growing closely together along the espalier system – a necessity for an orchard-style maze.

“It will combine the new [a new irrigation and spraying technology] as well as the old [style of planting that goes back centuries],” said Norton. He explained that the family is looking forward to using the maze as a teaching tool and has several educational activities in the works.

“We are pretty excited to see [the years of planning] come to fruition,” said Norton, who is in charge of the state-of-the-art system.

Royal Oak Farm Orchard will be the first commercial farm to use the irrigation and spraying system that still is being researched at Michigan State University. The system will be implemented and fully functioning next spring – just in time for the opening of the maze.

After Maze Play used GPS to design the labyrinth in 2010, the family was ready to begin work on the large undertaking ahead. The trees were planted in 2012, and the trellis system was installed to assist in training and pruning the branches into the hedge-like shape needed for the maze.

The espalier system allowed the apple trees to be planted about 2 feet apart, but the branches will create a hedge-like thick wall of leaves and apples that will begin approximately 8 inches off the ground and continue up to 7 feet.

When the maze opens in the fall of 2015, visitors will be able to walk a 2-mile trail within the maze as well as have the opportunity to pick apples as they look for the exit. Those who aren’t able to complete the 2-mile walk will have opportunities along the route to leave the maze. And there will be a viewing tower in the center for maze-goers to see an aerial view of the apple maze.

Nine varieties of apples will be found within the 4-acre maze – Blondee, Snowsweet, Zestar!, Royal Court, Empire, Smoothee, Grand Gala, September Wonder Fuji and Granny Smith.

As the family looks forward to next year, this season also brings a new first: Royal Oak Farm Orchard will be open Sundays – for the first time since its opening.

Norton said the decision was more about safety and crowd control. As much as the family liked keeping Sunday as a day of rest, he said, the lack of available parking and shelter to support such large weekend crowds lent itself to the necessity of having the orchard open another day during the peak season. During September and October, the farm will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Beginning Aug. 22, Royal Oak Farm Orchard will be open for fruit picking.

On the 160-acre premises, visitors will be able to visit the harvest barn, apple barn, gift shop, bakery, cider mill, restaurant and entertainment area including a playground, train, carousel and petting zoo. Parking and admission is free.