—by Joe Orsi
Since I began planting my micro orchard in Alike Bay near Juneau in 1991, this was the first year many of my trees flowered and set fruit. I had fruit on ten varieties of apples (Centennial, Discovery, Duchess of Oldenburg, Geneva Early, New Summer Scarlet, Red Astrachan, Rescue, Summer Rambo, Wynoockee Early, and Yellow Transparent), four varieties of sour cherries (English Morello, Meteor, North Star, and Suda Hardy), and one variety of sweet cherry (Gold). My total production—I hope you’re sitting down—was about 24 descent-sized (6-8 cm) apples, two hand fulls of sour cherries, and a half dozen sweet cherries. Not exactly roadside market production, but a good start. Of the trees waiting in the wing, I have 22 additional varieties of apples, four varieties of plums, two additional varieties of sweet cherries, and one additional variety of sour cherry. I have duplicates of many varieties, and this year I have “frameworked” additional varieties onto most of my three-year old apple trees.
What worked best? Well, I can only speak for apples since I sampled so few sour and sweet cherries. Although my eight-year old son, who sampled some of the sweet cherries, remarked “Hey dad, just like store bought!” I guess he hasn’t yet acquired that discriminating taste for home-grown fruits. The earliest apples were Geneva Early and Yellow Transparent, which began falling off the trees in late August and early September. Geneva Early is the better “desert” (fresh eating) apple of the two, but the Yellow Transparent makes excellent applesauce. The best desert apple by far was Discovery, which tasted like a tart Gala and ripened during mid- September. The best “culinary” (baking apple) was Duchess of Oldenburg, which ripened during October and made for an outstanding pie. As for cider, I’m afraid it will have to wait a few more years, although Centennial, an oblong crabapple, would be an excellent primary cider apple because it is spicy and sweet with an aromatic aftertaste. All four of the above mentioned apple varieties are scab (fungus) resistant, which are good choices for the cool, wet maritime growing conditions characteristic of Southeast Alaska.
Southeast is a relatively mild region by Alaskan standards but our heavy wet snow, driving gales, and yo-yo freeze-thaw cycles can bring a fruit tree to its knees. In Auke Bay, during 1994, our minimum winter temperature was -6°F and our maximum summer temperature was 80°F. Our last spring freeze was mid-April and our first fall lading frost was the end of October. We received 71 inches of rain and 120 inches of snow. Our spring was a little on the cool side, with sweet cherries, sour cherries, and apples blooming from mid-May to mid-June. Due to our heavy wet snow last year, my trees lost about 20 feet of wood-only counting graftable material. I have since learned to train my trees to a central leader form and cut off all branches 2-3 feet below the first scaffold to prevent shifting snow from ripping lower branches off the trunk. I also remove branch spreaders, nursery tape, and leaves by the end of October so snow cannot accumulate and break branches, bust tops, or topple over trees. To minimize the likelihood of sunscald and rodent damage in the spring, I use white vinyl tree guards on smaller trees or paint the trunks white and use hardware mesh on older trees. To help moderate the freeze-thaw cycle in the spring, I use a layer of seaweed mulch 4 inches away from the trunk in about a 3 foot diameter circle. There are obstacles to growing productive fruit trees in Southeast Alaska, but the challenge and the perseverance makes the fruit all the more sweeter.