By Robert Fox
Back when I was five years old, my grandmother would send me out to the old peach tree to pick the makings of a wonderful peach cobbler pie. How I loved those pies!
Many years later, I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska, wondering what it would be like to grow some fruit trees. I remember going to one of the local greenhouses and asking about fruit trees that could survive in our harsh climate. I didn’t get much in the way of encouragement, but would find myself ordering apple trees from catalogs, all of which would be completely dead by the next spring.
Several years later, I heard of a group called North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). I heard that they were looking for people interested in a grafting workshop, and I was quick to call Bob Purvis and tell him to count me in. The workshop was set for mid-April of 1988.
Bob arrived in Fairbanks with a box full of apple and pear rootstocks, scionwood, wax, knives, and a genuine desire to help others master the art of grafting, I had been practicing grafting on birch limbs for a month, and was ready. Even then, I was amazed to see nine out of 10 grafts take and bud out.
My grafts were all planted in pots that summer, and that was the way I left them for winter. For some of my first trees, moose found them to be irresistible. Others were girdled by voles and, come spring, I had two trees alive.
In the spring of 1989, 1 ordered 10 apple trees from St. Lawrence Nurseries, ordered rootstocks and scionwood from Bear Creek Nursery, and was set to try again. Bob Purvis had planned another workshop, and I signed up. Most of my grafts were successful, but by late spring of 1989, only a few were still alive.
What had survived the winter were all of the Malus baccata (Siberian crabapple) seedlings that I had started the previous spring. I started using some of these seedlings for rootstocks, and found that my success rate for winter survival improved (except for moose, mouse, and rabbit predation).
I also found that several of my friends were interested in fruit trees, and we were able to compare problems and solutions along the way. Clair Lammers was having fairly good success with several varieties of fruit, and it was a real joy to visit at his place. I also met another gentleman that had been enjoying some great success with apples, and had started his orchard in 1958! Carroll Phillips had some really beautiful trees, just loaded with ripe fruit. I remember that several of his trees had so much fruit that he had to prop the branches up with birch poles. Carroll gave me several varieties to try, and what a joy it was to eat fruit from trees grown right here in Fairbanks.
First off, if you are inclined to grow tree fruit, you must understand that we are fairly near the limits of how far north you can expect to succeed. Siberian and several other varieties of crabapple, as well as chokecherries, seem to be well-suited to our growing conditions. Chokecherries are one of the very first fruits to bloom in Fairbanks, while the Siberian crabapple and other apples will usually not bloom until the first of June.
In planning an apple or other fruit tree for Fairbanks, there are several factors to consider. As I mentioned, there are crabapple varieties well-suited to Fairbanks— Siberian, Columbia, Ranetka, and Wien, to name a few. Look to these for your rootstock. There are many others used on trees to be grown in the Lower 48, but most are longer-season and less hardy.
The scionwood or variety of apple tree that you select is also important. Northern Spy is said to be hardy to 40° below zero, but it is a long-season apple; even if it were to survive in Fairbanks, the fruit would never ripen in our short season. Grafted to a short-season rootstock, the tree would likely get more tolerant of a short season, but probably not enough to make the effort worthwhile for Fairbanks. Ideally, at least for your first tree or two, stick to a variety that has proven itself fairly hardy for others. These would include Heyer 12, Rescue (both apple-crab crosses), Norland, Norcue, and other Nor-series, and crabapple varieties such as Dolgo, Trailman, and Kerr.
When producing a grafted tree, try to obtain at least two good branches fairly early and as low as possible on the trunk. It appears that many of the apples produced on some varieties are located low on the tree … usually below the snow line, indicating that fruiting buds are more tender than growth buds. In the northern part of Russia and in Siberia, the trees are staked to hold growth to about 30” high, and planted on south slopes for maximum solar exposure.
For those of you interested in growing and grafting your own fruit trees, I would certainly encourage you to join the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers (APFG), the Alaska chapter of NAFEX.
Also, you will want to join the nationwide NAFEX organization to take advantage of the quarterly journal Pomona, the R. W. Daniels library exchange service, and the Handbook for Fruit Explorers.
Part of the handout I usually distribute at talks and slide presentations includes several sources for rootstocks, scionwood, and nursery stock, along with applications for NAFEX and the APFG. I think you will find everyone willing to give you plenty of support and helpful hints. You will also certainly enjoy touring established orchards and attending the fall apple tasting party. I am sure that you will share with me the joy that I experienced in growing your own fruit trees in Alaska.