Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association

Update from Dwight and Lauren Bradley

December 23, 2015

 

Lauren and I moved out of Alaska in mid September and drove two cars and three pets to Randolph, New Hampshire. We bought an old farm on 20 acres here; I worked at this farm in the 1970s, before becoming a geologist. The farmhouse is in great shape. There are three attached barns Two of these are also in good shape, but the the third one has a bunch of rotten timbers and will need to come down.

The land hasn’t been farmed since the late 1980s, and the fields (about 15 acres) have been totally neglected for about 10 years. This is based on our reckoning that the oldest pine, maple, and apple(!) saplings in what had been pasture and hayfields are about 8 years old. Randolph is in the heart of the White Mountains, in USDA Zone 3. It’s not unusual to have three feet of snow on the ground during pruning season. The last frost is usually in late May or early June and the first frost can come anywhere from the end of August to (these last few years) early October. So: not unlike our place in Peters Creek. The main difference is that it’s warm enough to grow cucumbers, peppers, corn, and tomatoes outdoors.

There’s what’s left of an apple orchard. Originally it might have 25 trees or so, all on standard rootstock. Now the main part of the orchard is down to five trees: Yellow Transparent, two Duchess, and two unknown summer apples. These look to be at least 100 years old. Another section of the original old orchard is mostly overgrown with spruce and fir, but five apple trees survive. It looks like the rootstocks have sent up new tops and the old grafted tops have either died or are being out-competed and are struggling. It will be interesting to see what ripens next summer, and what if anything is worth keeping. A few other apple trees are scattered around the farmstead: two Wolf Rivers that re about 80 years old, a probable Black Oxford that’s about 40, and three or four nice wild apples that are tasty enough, and sufficiently pest resistant, to take care of.

Nothing had been pruned since the 1970s when the place was owned by Jack Boothman, who taught me how to graft the old fashioned way (double cleft graft on 1″ to 2″ wild apple sapling, sealed with grafting wax that you’d soften up by hand). We’ve had this farm purchase in the works since 2010, and we started a program of restorative pruning in 2011. The tallest trees were about 30 feet tall and had very little fruit production or vigor except at the top. The first year, we cut out dead wood to see what we had to work with, and we took out the tallest, strongest central trunk. This was chainsw work on an extension ladder. In years two and three we took out more of the tops. In year four, to not push things too fast, we mostly just fertilized. One more round of major surgery will be needed during the upcoming pruning season. The trees will then be around 15 feet—still taller than ideal, but at least manageable.

We also have blueberries. There are 25 highbush blueberries that Jack Boothman planted around 1970. The variety names are long forgotten. They’ve been neglected like everything else, but are still producing on old (5-10 year) canes. They’ll need a jolt to get some new canes to come up. We plan to add a bunch more or these, enough for a small u-pick operation. Also we have two or three acres of wild lowbush blueberries, which are best cultivated by mowing or burning to the ground every other year, or every third year. Commercial growers opt for every other year. the downside is that half your acreage is not producing at all, but the other half is producing a huge crop that can be quickly harvested with a rake. The next year, each plant will have sent up multiple tops and these tangle the rake tines and thus interfere with harvesting.

Of course, we’re also planning big vegetable and flower gardens. Next summer, we’ll team up with a local restaurant (run by an amazing chef who once worked for Julia Child) to host farm-to-table events. We are also going to start growing hops but more on that in another newsletter.

Cheers

Dwight