How ‘Bout Them Apple Trees!

Hen fruit is not the only food we harvest here at the Hipster Hen Ranch!  We’ve also got apples!  A couple years after we moved from the city out here to the ranch, we decided that any good homestead needed apple trees and that for this homestead, the time had come.  So I picked up my Gurney’s catalogue and ordered four trees which Gurney’s then sent through the mail.  They could come through the mail because they were bare root trees.  “What are bare root trees?” you ask.  Well, when you go to a nursery and buy a tree, it will have a ball of soil around its roots.  Bare root trees have absolutely no soil around the roots—which is exactly why they name them “bare root trees”.  My name for bare root trees?  “Sticks.”   When they arrived and I tore open the box I immediately had deep misgivings.  I couldn’t imagine that these dead looking sticks would actually grow when I put them in the ground.  But that’s exactly what bare root trees do.  Nurseries grow baby trees for one to three years, then in the fall they’re dug up and all the soil is removed from the roots.  They’re stored over the winter with the roots kept moist in a cold environment, then they’re shipped to customers in the spring.  Obviously, bare root trees weigh a fraction of trees with a root ball, so they can be shipped and handled for a fraction of the cost.  Because they can be shipped at a reasonable cost, it allows you to shop for trees from a much broader geographic area and allows you access to tree varieties that you might not be able to find locally.  If you plant and maintain your trees properly, they’ll grow and prosper just as happily as a tree with a root ball.

I planted my four little sticks and enlisted my two-year-old son to water them.  His job was to aim the hose at the base of each tree so the baby trees “would have plenty of water to drink so they would grow big and strong.”  My son diligently performed his duty and the little trees thrived.  I’m sure he didn’t know that I could have easily just laid the hose on the ground for the water to trickle onto the tree.  But shooting water at the apple trees kept him occupied and happy for a while and it allowed me to get some gardening done that summer!  Yeah, it was a underhanded parental trick, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.  At least he’s never brought it up in the years since, and he’s 34-years-old now.  If it were to come up, I’m sure he would understand that sometimes you need to do what you have to do to keep your little guys occupied so you can get a few things done.  After all, he’s got kids of his own, now!

Blooming Apple Trees - 2014

All four of those trees were grafted onto semi-dwarf rootstock.  All apple trees are propagated by grafting.  Basically, you cut a branch off a tree and graft it onto an apple tree rootstock and voila!  Instant baby apple tree!  Since apple trees of different varieties cross pollinate with each other, the only way to propagate the exact genetics of the parent tree is to graft.  A standard apple tree will normally reach a height of around thirty feet.  A semi-dwarf rootstock stunts the growth of a tree so it maxes out at about fifteen feet.  Semi-dwarf trees are a sensible choice for home orchardists—you can get by with a ten-foot ladder when you’re pruning and spraying and picking apples.  The downside of semi-dwarf rootstock is that it also limits the longevity of a tree.  A standard apple tree may last for a long, long time.  Your grandchildren could conceivably be picking apples from a tree you planted.  Semi-dwarfs, unfortunately, show their age by the time they’re twenty.  You’ll recall that I mentioned my son, who watered my trees as a toddler is now 34.  If you do the math you’ll see that my trees are really, really old.  As a matter of fact, some of them have passed on to the big orchard in the sky.  The Granny Smith failed to leaf out one spring about five years in.  The Minnesota climate is a little harsh for Granny Smiths, and it never really got going.  Two years ago, the Fireside started to die back and I cut it down last year.  This year the Lodi is looking pretty unhappy—little by little I’m losing my orchard.

So this year I bought a batch of new babies!  Once again, I purchased bare root trees through the mail—from Jung Seed.  Six trees total—all on dwarf root stock.  These little guys will max out at ten feet.  In spite of their small size, dwarf trees can be very productive.  My main concern is that their small size makes them very browsable and the word will quickly spread in deer community about the cool new buffet, so I’ve had to put a ring of fencing around each tree.  With dwarf trees, I shouldn’t need ladders at all—a good thing since the thirty-some years that passed for my old trees also passed for me.  Ladders just aren’t as easy as they used to be.  

The six trees are six different varieties, all Minnesota hardy—The Enterprise is a late-ripening red apple that has good resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, powdery mildew and fire blight.  It was developed by the “PRI Program”, a collaboration of Purdue, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and the University of Illinois to produce disease resistant apple cultivars.  The Freedom was developed in New York in the 1980’s and is a cross between an Antonovka, an ancient Russian variety and the Macoun, another New York apple.  The Liberty is a dark red apple that was developed in the 1950’s, also in New York and also from Macoun stock.  The Honeycrisp is a very popular sweet, firm, and tart apple developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1970’s.  In 2006, it was declared the Minnesota State Fruit!  The sweet and flavorful Sweet Sixteen is another popular apple developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1970’s.  It was developed by crossing a Northern Spy with other varieties.  The Prairie Magic is large, sweet and pink and green in color.  It is a cross between the hardy Goodland and the ever-popular McIntosh.

Planting a bare root tree is pretty straight-forward.  Shortly after they arrived in the mail, I pulled them out of their shipping box and plunked them into a bucket of water.  This is an important step—it allows the trees to rehydrate and helps to break dormancy.  I allowed them to soak overnight, but a few hours would have been fine.  You should never soak the roots for more than 24 hours.  I dug six holes about twelve feet apart, which is plenty of room for dwarf trees.

Mere sticks!  And they grow!  It's magic!

I dug six holes like this for six trees (compared to the ten thousand
holes in Blackburn, Lancashire - What a project that must have been!)
I filled each hole with water, put in the tree, and then backfilled with the soil I removed from the hole mixed about 50-50 with good ol’ composted chicken manure.  While backfilling I was careful to make sure the trees were vertical so they would grow straight.  

Add Water

There's no water where I planted the trees, so I found this 100 gallon  poly stock  tank for a very reasonable price, fitted a water spigot to it, and added a hose & loaded it onto my all-purpose trailer.  One tankful takes care of all the trees!

Composted chicken manure!  The other product the chickens provide!
I was also careful to keep the graft union of the scion (the top part of the tree) and the rootstock around three inches above the surface of the ground.  The main problem with burying the graft is that the scion can then grow roots and override the dwarfing properties of the dwarf rootstock.  Then you wind up with a full-sized apple tree.  I’ll be staking the trees later.  Since their tiny root system can’t support the weight once the tree sets fruit, tree stakes are critical for dwarf trees.  I’ll be watering these guys once a week through the growing season for the next couple of years, until the root system is well established.  Any week when there’s a good soaking rain, I can probably skip the watering, but otherwise it’s an important chore that needs to happen.  And these little guys will reward my efforts.  I should probably start to see apples in a couple years, and once they’re up and running each tree should produce 3-6 bushels of apples a year.  I’m predicting a lot of strudel, pie, sauce, & plain old eating apples in my future!

One tree - planted.

A ring of wire fencing will keep the deer at bay. 

The little trees have been in the ground only a matter of a few
 weeks and they're already blooming!  They must be really happy
 in their new home.  Maybe it's the composed chicken manure.

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