—by Bernie Nikolai
Dwight Bradley suggested I update the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers, with my recent experiences in apple growing in central Alberta. By way of introduction, I have an orchard of about 200 apple trees one half hour drive west of Edmonton, Alberta. My trees are from one to five years old, and are of many varieties and on numerous rootstocks. Basically, anything I thought had a ghost of chance surviving in my climate, I planted. My coldest temperature was about -45°F during the test winter of 95/96. Temperatures of -40°F and slightly colder down to about -45°F occur about every second winter. Unfortunately we often get a lot of wind in the winter, although on the very coldest days its usually calm with ice fog. Last and first frost on average is about May 24 and about Sept. 15. Our summer temperatures are very similar to Fairbanks, with an average high in July being about 73°F, with only a few days in the eighties and every second year it might hit the low nineties. To keep out the deer I have an 8 ft. gamewire fence erected around the orchard.
The rootstocks I’m trying are Ranetka, Siberian Crab, Columbia Crab, Bud 490, Bud 9, Ottawa 3, P22, M26, and V 1, 2 and 3 (new rootstocks from Vineland, Ontario, M9 x Kerr applecrab crosses). I have yet to lose a single tree due to the death of the rootstock as we always seem to get a good, snowcover that lasts all winter. Minimum soil temperatures at 6 inches under the soil (under the snow) never get colder than 14°F according to government tests in our climate, and obviously all the above rootstocks can take this temperature, or they would have died. If I wanted to be safe I’d use only Siberian and Ranetka. As a rule, a three year old tree on Siberian rootstock is only as big as a two year old tree on Ranetka, so Ranetka would get the nod as it produces a larger tree faster. If you got a week of -40°F and zero snowcover, over 90% of the Ranetka would pull through and probably 98% of the Siberian, so both rootstocks are probably the two most hardy apple rootstocks available on the planet. Both Ranetka and Siberian also seem to be quite drought resistant, which I believe to be quite important unless you are among the few northern growers who uses irrigation. We average about 18 inches of precipitation annually in Edmonton, with a June and July maximum.
I’ve tried over 70 different apple varieties, many of which I’ve discarded due to lack of hardiness (example Ginger Gold, McIntosh) or a lack of quality (example Heyer 12). My objective is to grow the absolute best tasting fresh-off-the-tree large apples possible in my severe climate, with a secondary objective of good baking and juicing qualities. Each year I “ruthlessly” hack off and regraft trees if they don’t match up to my quality and hardiness standards. So what are the “winners” so far from my testing?
The Winners (Drum Roll Please):
Simonet 1847. Rock solid hardy, and not a hint of winter dieback after -45F during the winter of 95/96! This is a local seedling from Edmonton with unknown parentage, but rumoured to possibly be Haralson x Rescue Crab. It is ripe in early September, and similar in size and appearance to a Royal Gala. Excellent taste, and many folks are amazed an apple of this quality can be grown in Edmonton. Clair Lammers in Fairbanks is growing this apple, and may have a limited number of trees for sale this spring.
Prairie Sun. This is a brand new cultivar (Brookland x Goodland) just released by the University of Saskatchewan in the spring of 1999. The best description I can think of is that Prairie Sun is a “Goodland” that matures about a month earlier (Prairie Sun matures late August for me), and is also much hardier and more productive than Goodland. This cultivar has produced full crops in Saskatchewan after winters as cold as -54°F! It is a large apple with a small core, has a yellow/green background with a red blush on the sunny side, and is good for fresh eating and OUTSTANDING for pies. Its main selling paints are extreme hardiness coupled with tremendous productivity even after exceedingly harsh winter conditions. The licensed propagator is Jim Boughen of Boughen’s Nursery, in Nipiwin, Saskatchewan (phone 306-862-3343). I understand Jim has one year whips of Prairie Sun on Siberian Crab rootstock ready for sale this spring of 2000. If you can get a tree or two of Prairie Sun, well, just do it. You won’t be disappointed.
Zestar (was Zesta), from the University of Minnesota, a new release. This apple fruited for the first time during the 99 season in my backyard in the city, which is warmer by at least 5°F in terms of winter temperatures than my orchard site. It is fully hardy to -40°F, but I can’t comment on any colder temperatures as it hasn’t fruited at my orchard yet. This apple is OUTSTANDING in terms of fresh taste. Its a medium sized apple, pleasant light red in color, and ripe early September. It is available from a select few nurseries in Minnesota, and you might try calling the U of Minnesota directly for licensed propagators if you can’t find a source.
Honeycrisp, from the University of Minnesota. Honey crisp fruited for me for the first time in my backyard on 4th leaf M26 rootstock this fall. It was ripe Oct. 7 (this was a late year for apple maturity) and was AMAZINGLY GOOD! It is important to note it has yet to fruit at my significantly colder (outside the city) orchard site, and may well be too late in maturity to grow successfully in Alaska. The apple does take frosts easily down to about 24°F without damage, so if you think you can get away without temperatures much lower than this until late September or early October, then Honeycrisp is definitely worth experimenting with. It has survived -40°F for me in the city without damage. My experience is that both Zestar and Honeycrisp are hardier and significantly better tasting than either State Fair or Sweet 16, two other relatively recent Minnesota introductions.
The above four apples are the clear “winners” in terms of fresh taste from my experience. The first two (Simonet 1847 and Prairie Sun) should easily survive and produce well in much of Alaska, while the latter two (Zestar and Honeycrisp) would be for trial only in the better and milder winter areas.
In addition I’d like to offer another ray of hope to Alaskan growers. I have a few other test advanced selections at my orchard, and there are a number of truly outstanding apples “in the pipe” that should be released within 2 to 5 years. My personal favorite is a McIntosh cross (with an ultra hardy prairie apple variety) that to me tasted better than the BEST McIntosh I have ever tasted!!! This test selection has been fully hardy at my orchard so far, but has only just started to fruit for me. I am personally convinced that apples now exist, and will be released within the very next few years, that take -50°F and colder, yet have full commercial capabilities and taste. So if you are a bit discouraged by what we can grow in cold climates so far in terms of apples, my advice is “Hang in there, you ain’t seen nothin yet!” The best by far is truly yet to come.