“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
– Martin Luther
As an ardent survivalist, arborist, and aficionado of the apple tree, you can see why this is one of my favorite quotes. The apple tree may be one of the most valuable survival tools you can have if you own land. The only downside to apple trees is they take advanced planning and you will have to wait several years or more, depending upon tree type, before you have fruit. The plus side is that you can have bushels of fruit annually with minimal work and expense, much less than planting a garden. I would like to share with you my thoughts on apple trees.
Apple Tree Variants
There are hundreds of variant apple species. From tiny crabapples to the Peasgood’s Nonesuch with apples weighing in at nearly one pound each, you can find varieties bred to grow fast, weather tolerant, disease and insect resistant, timeliness of fruit ripening (early summer to late fall), fruit durability, and, of course, taste. Besides, anytime someone grows an apple from seed, it is likely to be a variant of some type and there is no guarantee it will produce the same fruit from which it came. Apple species should be chosen for your local weather conditions including zone type and annual moisture, as well as your ultimate use.
While I will go into usage a bit further, as a survivalist, while the taste is important, it is almost the last of my considerations. My retreat is in a colder area with a bit of altitude, traditionally a Zone 4. However, experience has taught me that Zone 3 is preferable for production as they tend to flower just a bit later allowing for our regular late frosts that will kill off the flowers and thus the apples. Of secondary importance is hardiness from insects, disease, and drought. While I can treat my trees currently, I want them to be able to survive, if necessary, without chemicals, fertilizer, or supplemental watering.
We also tend to prefer organic as well and these types of apple trees support this choice. Finally, my third consideration is when the fruit ripens. I plant several fruit trees a year and my final strategy is to have fruit ripening for harvest at differing times to allow a better return for collection and processing. When I go through this decision process, I find that the heritage trees are often better suited for my needs such as the Gravenstein or McIntosh. However, there are new breeds that are also ideal such as Red Baron or Zestar, which has recently been developed.
Expert Tips: When selecting species, go through a reputable nursery that identifies the tree species, zones, and fruiting periods. Most of them will deliver, although for the best nurseries you will have to make your order well in advance as they often sell out before planting season. If you are willing to spend the money, you can buy older trees that will fruit sooner, but these often have to be picked up.
Tree Stock/Tree Size
Several types of rootstock determine the size of your trees. The majority of apple trees are spliced onto rootstock to guarantee your apple type. As indicated before, growing an apple from seed can have varying results and most people do not want to gamble on outcome with the timeline it takes to grow a tree. Thus, if you want a Braeburn apple, the nursery takes a base rootstock and splices a Braeburn branch, guaranteeing Braeburn apples. The main rootstocks are :
• Miniature (potted) with a yield of ¼ to 1 bushel at maturity
• Dwarf (just over 10 ft tall) with a yield of 1–4 bushels at maturity
• Semi-Dwarf (just over 20 ft tall) with a yield of 5–10 bushels at maturity
• Standard (just over 30 ft tall) with a yield of 10-20 bushels at maturity.
These control the ultimate size of the tree as well as the time to bring the tree to maturity.
A dwarf tree will typically produce two to three years after planting. A semi-dwarf will add a couple more years and a standard tree will take twice as long to mature as a dwarf. This is an additional decision for a survival orchardist to consider. Standard rootstock is harder to find, but it is what I look for as I have plenty of room, currently have several trees that are in full production, and willing to wait for them to mature. Last but not least, you can plant a tree from seed. Apple seeds are unique as there are several processes to enhance sprouting. While I have tried many, placing the seeds with moisture and peat moss in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for a month or so tends to work well for me. Seeds can take between 7 to 12 years to mature. This may not be the ideal way for an immediate need but it can allow you to develop your retreat on a budget.
Expert Tips: If you have space, resources, and availability my recommendation is to have a variety of tree stock with the same variant. With regards to planting seeds, make sure you take seeds from locally picked apples and not apples shipped from other regions. The survival rate of the seedlings is much higher.
Planting the trees are easy enough. There is a great video (and plenty of additional videos) from the Wisconsin DNR on YouTube on planting apple trees and this methodology protects from animal damage both large and small. The key element for planting apple trees is to make sure you do not put the tree so deep that you cover the graft, as it can cause a variety of issues including suckers, rot, and infection. Also, you want to make sure you place a bare root tree in the hole with native soil.
Filling the hole with other soil will not encourage the roots to grow. You can, however, dress the top of the planting with compost or commercial fertilizer if you want to provide the tree a boost. Before filling the hole, line the hole with a small gauge wire fencing, which will keep out burrowing and smaller animals. Support the tree with a wooden stake and place larger fencing around the tree to prevent deer and rabbit damage. Newly planted trees should be watered regularly and there are several items on the market for providing water remotely. I use modified rain barrels that allow water to drip for long periods.
If planting trees in different areas on your property, which I do, it is important to plant them in groupings to ensure better pollination. It is recommended based upon rootstock size to plant trees from 4-8 feet apart, although I prefer at least 12 feet, if not more.
Expert Tips: Mycorrhizae fungus is a beneficial fungus that grows with the roots of the fruit tree and provides better water absorption. Multiple companies sell mycorrhizae fungi as a root conditioner or fertilizer; however, it is expensive. An orchard owner shared with me that when planting a new tree, take a shovel full of dirt from an established tree and mix it in with soil.
While I do not discourage store-bought additives, I prefer the traditional methods. Another orchardist trick is to have a flowering crabapple in your orchard as they tend to enhance the pollination of the other varieties.
The nice thing about apple trees is that even if neglected, they will provide apples. However, providing them with some additional attention increases the harvest and longevity of your tree. Apple trees have a life span between 30 and 80 years. This can vary greatly based upon environment, type of graft, species, and care. There are several areas of care that support the life and harvest of an apple tree.
The most basic is providing additional nutrients and water. Unless you are in wetlands or an area that receives significant amounts of rain, additional water will support the growth and fruit of your trees. Adding supplement fertilizers or compost will also support the growth of the tree and fruit.
In addition to supplements, it is important to understand pruning. There are many books, articles, and methodologies to pruning. At the core, pruning provides additional light and air to the branches while reducing the trees’ need to support mass in favor of fruit. Pruning should be done yearly but as a hobbyist, it does not hurt the tree to miss an occasional year. Pruning is sometimes neglected by hobbyists worrying about damaging the tree, which while possible, is fairly difficult. When a tree is pruned appropriately, it flourishes and grows and fruits better.
Apple trees should be sprayed for bugs and diseases to prevent infection. This should be done annually but many trees can survive without spraying. I recommend it strongly for newer trees but only once they start fruiting (usually after three years or so), especially newer trees in older orchards.
I try to spray yearly. Dormant oil spray is usually sprayed right as the leaves start to bud. This is the most important as it protects the tree. It is also recommended to spray after the fruit first appears and then several weeks later to prevent pests from impacting the fruit. I am not as regular on this later spray as I prefer organic apples and find uses for the fruit even if infested. With an organic preference, I take some additional steps to protect my trees. I rake up leaves and downed branches (usually burning them) to remove places where pests may hide. I keep the area around my trees mowed once they are established and for those that are within cages, I typically purchase a “weed mat” to keep weeds away. I also purchase bug traps to catch bugs versus spraying. The primary insects that can impact an apple tree are:
- Apple Maggot
- Apple Tree Borer
- Codling Moth
- Plum Curculio
- San Jose Scale
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)