This was the best year yet for our apple orchard in Peters Creek. The fall of 1997 was a late one, which allowed just about all trees to harden off nicely. There were no severe fall ice storms when the leaves were still on — one of the two worst things that can happen to apple trees here in the fall (the other being moose). The winter of 97-98 was mild (lowest = -25°F), and we had ample snow cover that came not long after the ground froze, and lasted all winter. We also were spared any prolonged warm spells in January of February, of the type that caused sunscald problems for us a few winters back. Spring breakup came a couple of weeks early. The only cold-related damage was to a couple Parkland/Antonovka trees, which died, but which were already nearly dead from the two previous winters. Most trees came through the winter of 97-98 in perfect condition.
Early breakup was followed by a cold May, and the trees leafed out and bloomed later than ever before. It was not until June 5 that the first few apple blossoms opened enough for a bee to get in; this is about a week later than normal. Eventually, 57 out of 78 apple trees bloomed, and 53 of these bore fruit. About half were fruiting for the first time, in their third season including the year they were drafted. June and July were wetter than normal — more like August usually is. (It was NOT a tomato year!) It was so rainy that I never really needed to water anything, not even thirty or so new grafts in pots. Even though the summer was somewhat colder than normal, (only 3 days above 70°F), all the rain had a remarkable effect on growth. Even the weakest trees put on 12” of new growth, and the most vigorous put on 24-27”. I guess I need to water a lot more in the future.
Tip beating. As a consequence of the late fall in 1997 and the mild winter that followed, many varieties (e.g., Norland, Parkland, Rescue, Norda) bore apples on their tips in 1998. You could tell months in advance which trees were going to tip bear, from the fat terminal buds.
It was a normal August — cold and wet. The first mild, patchy frost, which blackened a few of the outer leaves on zucchini and bean plants, came on August 19. We got a killing frost on August 28, but then things eased up for three weeks and it wasn’t until the last week of September when we started getting frosts every night. The two early frosts didn’t affect the apples at all, and in fact may have helped with the hardening-off process.
With the late bloom and cook growing season, apple harvest was also later titan normal. We began picking a few Rescues and Parklands around Sept. 20; these varieties reached their prime around Sept. 25. Norland ripened about a week behind Parkland, and in fact about half the crop was still not quite ripe on Oct. 4, when we had to pick everything, ready or not, before the temperature dropped into the low 20’s.
When we originally laid out the orchard in 1992, we had decided on a spacing of 10 by 14 feet, the 14-foot lanes being wide enough for our Kubota tractor even after some years of growth. This year, we planted a new tree in between every older one, giving a new layout of 5 by 14 feet. Over the past few years, I’ve been more and more impressed by the importance of shelter for trees, even at the expense of a little sunlight. Bob Boyer’s studio courtyard in Anchorage, surrounded by a combination of buildings and tall cedar fence, is a great example of the value of calm air. His trees are spaced so closely that none of them enjoy full sun all day long— but still they thrive, I believe because of the warm microclimate. Similarly, Kevin Irvin s container orchard is crowded but thriving inside high walls. Jim Yassick’s apple trees just down the road from us in Birchwood are interplanted with tall spruce and birch, and they have grown impressively despite the partial shade. Jay Dearborn’s orchard in Palmer is crowded. Even though our orchard in Peters Creek is in a relatively calm spot (compared to other locations in Peters Creek a mile or so closer to the mountain front), there are fairly constant light breezes that keep the temperatures down. The idea with reducing the tree spacing to 5 feet is to provide some wind relief from the trees themselves. Next year, in addition, we’ll be planting a permanent windbreak along the fence, either tall perennials such as hops, or possibly, tightly spaced spruce trees.
Notes on varieties in Peters Creek:
Parkland. Our most successful variety; all but a few of our 18 trees bore fruit, including most of a bunch of Parkland/Antonovka that were purchased from Lawyer’s as one-year whips in 1996. The fruit this year was attractive, tart, crisp, and just sweet enough. Not a particularly complex flavor, but excellent. There was a slight tendency to split (maybe 5% of the fruit — I suspect due to all the rain). Most of the Parkland trees set too many apples, and I didn’t get around to thinning them until mid-August. So, most of my Parklands were pretty small. Those on the occasional branch with only one or two apples were significantly bigger.
Norland. Over the past four years, almost every apple tree that died was replaced with a Norland or Parkland; we now have 26 Norlands and all but a few of the youngest have now fruited. The fruit does not seem to need thinning quite as badly as Parkland, but those trees with only a couple of apples did bear somewhat larger fruit than comparable trees with an average loan of apples. Without a doubt, Norland is the most reliable apple we grow. It is not as good as Parkland, nor quite as early to ripen, but definitely hardier.
Rescue. Two out of two trees bore nice crops, although the fruit could have used some thinning.
Yellow Transparent. Two Yellow Transparent trees bore fruit. These were both bought from Lawyer’s as Parkland (on Antonovka rootstock), and were just now found to be Yellow Transparent, when they fruited for the first time. The apples were quite good, and ripe but not overripe on Sept. 26.
Trailman. All three trees of this variety bore fruit, fourth leaf and two others in their third. Trailman was the first to leaf out in May and the first to bloom in June. The older tree set a heavy crop, but during late August and early September almost every apple ended from too much rain. (Tom Marshall had the same experience in Anchorage). Those few fruits that did not crack were ripe around Sept. 26. Great flavor, somewhat reminiscent of a tart, tangy Golden Delicious. I observed watercore in around half the apples that I cut open. The apples are small and oblong.
Heyer 12. One tree, age three, bore for the first time I don’t know why I even planted this mediocre variety, except for the sake of something different and, I suppose, to hedge bet against the next killer winter. The apples were still not quite ripe when I picked them on Sept. 30. A few were cracked.
Morden 359. This tree has never quite recovered from the winter with no snow, but continues to struggle on, and to produce a dozen or so unripe apples each year. I have never tasted a ripe one.
Heyer 20. This tree is thriving. The tree has a nice shape and a good spreading habit. It produced a nice crop of not quite ripe, medium-sized apples that are usable for everything but fresh eating. Maybe some quirky year, they’ll ripen on the tree. I recommend this variety for other growers with better microclimates.
Yellow Jay. The original seedling tree in Dearborn’s orchard produces a huge crop of great- tasting apples, which this year began to ripen around Sept. 20. Our only producing Yellow Jay tree in a poor location, never has produced a truly ripe apple. We picked about 50 premature apples when forced to on Oct. 4, but they were only useful for cider, sauce, and pies.