-by Tom Marshall, Anchorage


In 1969, weary of looking at my neighbor’s unfinished garage through my one picture window, I planted what I thought was a crab apple from Swedberg Nursery in battle Lake, Minn. My thought was that its early season pink blooms and foliage would beautify my house near Merrill Field and mask that garage. The tree cost $4.25.


Five years later to my surprise the tree bore white blossoms, not the pink ones stated in the advertisement. Oh well, they were fragrant and abundant so why should I complain. To my greater surprise the “crab apples” grew to 3- inch diameter yellow-green apples streaked with rays of red and orange where exposed to the sun. I rechecked my order and the nursery had interpreted my handwriting as Oreole apple instead of ornamental.


The Oreole is a cross between Yellow Transparent and Livland Raspberry apples. The tree is characteristically slow to get started but when it does, it is an abundant annual producer. The apples have a relatively long shelf life. This year the tree produced over 150 pounds of apples, many weighing about 9 ounces. After 28 years the tree has about a 10- inch diameter trunk, is about 20 feet tall, and 25 feet wide. Every year I cut many branches from the center of the tree in an effort to achieve an inverted funnel shape. A neighbor eagerly removes the primings for his parrot who shreds and eats both bark and wood.


I’ve had no insect problem since I started painting the trunks and longer branches of the apple, plum, and cherry trees with a homemade mixture of interior latex white paint diluted with water plus a small amount (1/2 teaspoon per half pint) of Bordeaux mixture. This annual treatment also seems to cut down on fungal and lichen growth and probably also helps prevent bark damage in the springtime by lessening heat absorption. Very thorough clearing of dropped fruit, leaves, and grass clippings may also help eliminate insects.


To improve pollination, experiment with hardiness and other varieties, save yard space, and just for the fun of it, I learned to graft from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’ve probably carried this to an extreme by placing 18 grafts on the one Oreole tree. Four grafts have duplicates so there are 14 different varieties represented; this year, 11 varieties bore fruit. I hope to surprise the apple tasting party next fall with a couple of unusual varieties.


A problem with having numerous grafts is that unless you label them carefully and mark them with colored tape you may cut some off in the annual mandatory springtime frenzy.


I do not use those tiny stainless steel wires that come with aluminum write-on labels because I choked off several three-year-old grafts by not observing that the growth of the branch had overtightened the wires. The labels are fine and very durable but attach them loosely with stretchy polyethylene tape.


Generally speaking, the Oreole makes a very vigorous host tree for scions although Summer Red and Wolf River are quite stunted and unproductive after six years. Geneva Early, Parkland, and Novosibirsk! Sweet scions are so vigorous that they must be severely pruned to keep them from dominating the Oreole tree.


I have stopped using polyester (non-stretching) tree wrap to ward off mice and voles. I strangled several good producing trees on the homestead near Wasilla by failing to loosen the fabric semi-annually to allow for growth. I believe damage can occur even during one growing season. Now I use low density polyethylene stretchable wrap several feet above the snow line because I believe rabbits will again be a significant threat. The rabbit cycle is on the rise in the Matanuska Valley and according to newspaper accounts domesticated rabbits’ in the Anchorage area may create a menace to fruit trees in parts of town where cover is abundant and predators are few.


I leave my moose fence up all year round. In summer the fences give a measure of protection from children playing hide and seek and from reckless lawn mowers. Most of the fences are eight-foot-high standing coils of driveway reinforcing steel wire grids. I have used it for 15 years and it’s effective providing branches don’t poke through the grid thereby enticing the browser further up the tree. A ling of surveyors’ tape threaded through the fence grid at eye level to a moose also helps, I believe. The props and ties used to support ripening fruit are left on the trees until enough leaves drop. This prevents an irrational pruning by those first wet snows of fall such as the one foot that fell Oct. 13, 1991.


I heartily recommend growing fruit trees. Coming from Wyoming in 1958 I had never been close to an apple tree until my Oreole came in the mail. There seem to be new problems to be solved every year but also new satisfactions — and of course more good fruit. One of the intangible benefits is the friendships with members of the Aslaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association, and the sharing of information, scionwood, and the apple tastings.


My challenge in 1998 is how to legally prevent magpies from pecking deep holes in apples. One really fat one broke off an entire graft loaded with fruit. A net solves the problem with small trees but is a real hassle on a tree 25 feet wide and 20 feet tall. Nets may also cause more damage than the magpies on a large tree. Stuffed owls work for a week or so if rotated every day. Pinwheels and spiral tape spin only when the breeze is blowing. When I lived in Hot Springs County, Wyoming, magpies were subject to a 25-cent per bird bounty because of their habit of eating Hungarian grouse eggs and squabs. They are now classified as songbirds and protected nationwide. Whoever did this had a poor ear for music. Stay tuned!