by Dwight Bradley, Peters Creek
Our orchard was laid out in summer 1992 so this was its 14th summer. It’s looking more and more like a real orchard and less like the “stick farm” that it once was. Of the 50 trees that were planted in 1992-1993, only six remain (Heyer 20, Crimson Beauty, Norland, Parkland, Rescue, and Yellow Jay). The other 45 have been replaced, sometimes twice, and a few three times. The first orchard has filled up and we also added a second one containing 50 trees. We now have 60 apples varieties.
The 2005 growing season was the most favorable yet. Spring came early. Before 2005, the earliest apple blossom date had been May 28 (the cold northern exposure means that we always run late compared to others in the area). This year, the first blossoms opened on May 21. The growing season itself is a blur: we were gone a lot and not all the apple trees were adequately thinned. It was hot by Alaskan standards. Through 2003, the earliest date on which we picked a ripe apple had been September 3. (Again, this is later for us than for most people in south-central Alaska.) In 2004, we broke that record by nearly a week, picking our first ripe Chinese Golden Early on August 28. In 2005, the record was totally shattered again, when we picked a ripe Chinese Golden Early on August 17. (In Fairbanks, Clair Lammers topped that by picking his first apples on August 11.)
If you think global warming is a myth, think again. I believe more strongly than ever that it would be a good idea to plant more of the later-ripening, high-quality varieties that we’ve always considered marginal—especially if you have room to spare. They might be risky, but if Alaska’s climate keeps warming, the potential payoff will be huge.
Anyway, this year we harvested about 1 ton of apples, of which we sold half and made most of the other half into cider. We put out a few orchard signs and that was it for marketing. At first we were concerned about letting customers pick their own but eventually decided that it was no big deal. So what if a few fruit spurs get busted off? That just means less work the following year during thinning season. Anyway, most people love to pick their own and that led to a lot of good publicity, neighbor-to-neighbor. We ordered 1000 one-peck apple bags with handles from somewhere in the Lower 48, and ended up selling these nearly full (5 lbs) for $7.50. We probably could have charged more without scaring off too many customers but we didn’t, and won’t. The only downside of the warm weather was that our two main varieties, Norland and Parkland, didn’t keep nearly as long as usual. Eventually we had to stop selling them because their quality wasn’t holding up.
Comments on varieties:
Norland and Parkland. Their reputation has never been that good in hotter climes and now I know why. Still very reliable croppers, but quality was quite variable, with fruit on a single branch ranging from excellent down to average. This year, the very best Norlands were better than the very best Parklands. Norland ripened about a week ahead of Parkland.
Yellow Transparent. We have two pretty large trees that are finally taking off. Fruit is large and quite popular at the fruit stand, when touted as a “great pie apple” which is absolutely the truth. I’ll be happy when our two or three younger YT’s come into heavy bearing.
Westland. We have two Westland trees, both kind of spindly, but bearing huge apples with great eye appeal that sell well for the same reasons as Yellow Transparent. Of the 50 more so Westland apples I’ve ever tasted, a couple were great but the rest were sour and bland. With all the heat last summer, I was expecting that Westland would finally be good, but they were as bad for fresh eating as ever. But they sure can cook.
Trailman. Reliable, tasty, and prolific, but small. I’m now recommending this to people in marginal areas, along with Resuce, Norland, and Parkland.
Rescue. Reliable, tasty, prolific, and small; not as good as Trailman. Kept very poorly after all the hot weather.
Centennial. Reliable, tasty, and prolific; a bit larger than Trailman. The hot weather really brought out the best of this apple.
Kerr. Small apple-crab; would have benefited from more thinning than it received. Never really got edible but made a nice astringent addition to cider toward the end of September, when almost everything else was very ripe, very sweet, and devoid of character.
Heyer 6. Medium-sized, hard, good keeper, tart and astringent, good addition to cider.
Heyer 12. Prolific medium sized apple, sour, cooking only. The hot growing season didn’t help its already poor keeping qualities.
Heyer 20. Good year for this one. Fairly large fruit, yellow with red blush. Ripens late, keeps well. Not a huge amount of character but good tasting and very reliable. The hot, long season improved it a bit over recent years. Needs very little thinning. Kept in common storage in the 40 degree garage until January.
Morden 359. Will not ripen in our location. Dan Elliott, across Knik Arm less than 10 miles away, grows it to perfection, but for us it is fodder for the cider press late in the season, to be mixed with ripe apples.
Crimson Beauty. All cover, no book. A beautiful, bright red apple that is marginally hardy, not very prolific, and even when ripe, quite sour. Makes a fine addition to sauce, though. Tree has a spindly habit and a tendency toward narrow crotches. Not recommended.
Priairie Sun. This University of Saskatchewan introduction, which requires a non-propagation agreement to grow, set fruit for the first time, on three different trees. It took me a few extra years to get somewhere with Prairie Sun because of bad scionwood in year 1, bad rootstock in year 2, and then 3-4 more years before the first fruit. The fruit is rather flat, attractive, medium-sized, red striped on a light background, firm, crisp, and good tasting. It benefited from the long season, and might not have ripened in a normal season. I don’t think I’ll regret having 10 trees of this variety, but it is not a sure thing yet. Tree has nice branching habit.
Liveland Raspberry. Third try with this variety, finally got one to live long enough to bear fruit. They ripened! Medium sized, light color with thin red stripes giving a pink effect, good. I wouldn’t mind having a few more of these. Tree has nice branching habit.
Pommes d’Or. Our three Pommes d’Or (“Golden Apple”) trees fruited for the first time. The variety came from Fedco in Maine, who carried it for a couple of years before dropping it. It came from Fort Kent in Zone 2 at the extreme northern end of Maine, and on paper looked like it had a chance to succeed here. So far, I am unimpressed. The apples are medium sized, green (not gold), sour, and utterly without character. Judging from the brown seeds, the apples were “ripe” when they finally had to be picked in because of cold in the first week of October. Luckily the cider needed some acidity so they did not go to waste. Not recommended.
Borowinka. About 10 years ago I planted a Borowinka seedling rootstock to see how the apples were. Finally set fruit. Small to medium, looks like a small Duchess. No good. Very sluggish grower; will remove rather than topwork.
Chinese Golden Early. Small to medium (subject to extreme thinning), yellow, sweet and tart, good eating, especially when watercored, very poor keeping. The earliest apple. Ripens over a very long period; some were still in good shape on the tree in mid September. I think the heat slightly diminished its quality.
Drew Brook. We have three or four Drew Brook trees, the oldest being ready to bear in 2006. This was a wild seedling that I discovered and named from along a roadside in Zone 3 in Turner, Maine. The original apple was huge, sweet, crisp, somewhat astringent, ripe on Aug. 20, and absolutely free of scab, apple maggot, codling moth, and fireblight—a rarity among wild apples in New England. Finally got to eat a Drew Brook grown in Alaska this year, thanks to Dan Elliott. It was big, did not particularly resemble the original, and didn’t have much flavor or character. So far, not too promising.
Appalachia. This is another discovery of mine, a seedling in a long-abandoned orchard in Randolph, NH, Zone 3. The apple is named for a railroad whistle stop near where the tree was found; the name of whistle stop was a pun on the orchard. The apple is medium, yellow with red stripes, resembles Duchess (which was probably a parent), tart, tangy, crisp, and ripens at about the same time as Yellow Transparent. My oldest tree is about 4 and will set fruit in 2006. Several other growers have grafts but I haven’t heard of anybody getting fruit yet.