– Dwight Bradley
It’s been ten years since Lauren and I bought our place in Peters Creek and planted our first apple trees. Since then, the orchard has grown to about 80 trees, but for every few steps forward we’ve been set back a step. This is written for the benefit of rowers who might be starting.
1988-1991: Getting Started. In our first few years Alaska, we planted a total of 25-30 trees, none of which are still alive. The first year, for example, we ordered from St. Lawrence Red Astrachan, Oriole, Minnesota 1734, State Fair – all on Antonovka rootstock. IN HINDSIGHT: (1) The trees were set out in the back yard with no protection from moose. Moose ended up trimming these trees every year until 1995-96 when the test winter finally killed the last one. I’ll never again waste the effort of planting an apple tree where moose can get at it easily. (2) The demerits of Antonovka rootstock did not really become clear (at least to me) until the test winter. Knowing what I do now, I’ll never waste my time or money planting another tree on Antonovka. (3) The varieties all seemed good on paper, but Minn. 1734 ripens WAY too late, and State Fair marginally too late.
In 1990, I ordered about 10-15 bench grafts from Bear Creek, all on Ranetka rootstock. These included Norland, Parkland, Westland, and various others, including some that I would never try to grow again. Judging from the catalog, all seemed to ripen early enough, and be hardy enough, and to be of high enough quality, to be worth a try in Peters Creek. Using a common practice from the lower 48, I set these new grafts out in a “nursery row” I the vegetable garden, where they could get the extra ???? they would need in their first year. The bench grafts arrived in early May and I planted them within a week, as soon as I could dig through the frozen ground. IN HINDSIGHT: Only a handful of these trees survived, and it was my fault. The problem was, half the scions had begun to break bud when I opened the package from Bear Creek, and the others did so within a few days of planting. After looking happy for a couple of days, the new growth soon began to wilt, and in the end, only a couple of grafts survived. What happened was that, in the cold ground, the bare roots didn’t get established soon enough to support the new graft. Most of the rootstocks sent up new tops later in the summer, but by then it was too late.
1992: Getting Serious: This year I started to get seriously interested in apples, and especially, variety collecting and antique apples. From Bear Creek and St. Lawrence, I ordered about 45 one-year whips, each of a different variety, on Antonovka and Ranetka rootstocks. Only a few of these are still alive.
Lauren convinced me that there was no point in having this many apples trees without moose protection. This presented a bit of a problem because although we had 10 acres of land, none of it was particularly well suited. The flattest, sunniest spot, about half an acre, had been stripped of all its topsoil by the previous owner, an unscrupulous land developer. Another problem is that the site slopes gently north, which makes it one of the last places in the neighborhood to lost its snow cover in the springtime. Knowing how long it would take to dig suitably large holes by hand, we instead hired a backhoe to dig out 3´3´3-foot holes in the glacial till (an impermeable mix of boulders, cobbles, pebbles, sand, silt, and clay). The holes were set on a 10 by 133 foot grid. Then we filled the tree holes back in with our own homemade “topsoil”, made by mixing the till (which had been screened to remove any stones bigger than 2”) with composted horse manure, lime, and bone meal. This was an enormous job that eventually got more efficient as our standards relaxed and we figured out how to make the best use of our small tractor. In essence, each apple-tree hole became a giant flower pot, surrounded by less fertile ground. Between the holes, we spread compost and seeded in clover, aiming to build up the topsoil by the time the apple trees had grown large enough for their roots to move or from the 3´3´3-foot holes. To look at the orchard today, you would never guess how poor the site was at the beginning. IN HINDSIGHT: 2-foot-deep holes would have been ample, and a more economical spacing would be 8 by 133 feet, the wider dimension for tractor access.
For fencing we used 10-foot 4´4 cedar posts, spaced 11 feet. There were about 50 holes, which we dug by hand with a two-handled post-hole digger. For fencing we used woven-wire stock fence, which is 4 feet high and comes in 330’ rolls. Above that we stretched several strands of Marcel wire (similar to an unraveled strand of chain link fencing. The fence is 8 feet high, and it does the job. IN HINDSIGHT. I would rent a two-man power auger for a day for $75. The cedar has not held up well at all; pressure-treated 4´4’s cost about the same and last much longer. Better yet would be to get 4² or 5² diameter pressure treated round posts-but unfortunately these only come in 8-foot lengths. For fencing, I would put another row of 4-foot stock fence on top, and dispense with the Marcel wire.
1993-1995: The Norland Saga. Lauren and I met Dave Crusey and were treated to tour of his orchard on the Knik-Goose Bay Road. Like everyone who saw them, we were impressed by his Norlands, which were on Antonoyka rootstock. I decided that I’d be better of growing a whole bunch of one successful variety than having a big orchard full of all different varieties, half of them struggling just to survive. To this end, I grafted about 10 Norlands in 1993. Strike one: it turned out the rootstock was bad, and only one or two of the grafts took (nobody that year at the grafting workshop had much luck). In 1994, I tried again to graft about 10 more Norlands. Strike two: this time the scionwood was bad, and only one or two of the Norland grafts took, although I had near-perfect results with all other varieties. Finally, in 1995, I grafted about 15 Norlands on Ranetka, and this time, they all took. These trees, however, weren’t ready to plant in the orchard until 1996. IN HINDSIGHT. I should have paid the extra expense and bought one-year Norland whips in the first place, back in 1993. If I had, I probably would be harvesting 500 lbs of apples this year, instead of 50. These whips have much stronger root systems than bare-root bench grafts, so for the few extra dollars you gain a year of growth and minimize the chance of failure, which after all costs a whole year.
1995-1997: Three bizarre winters. The 45 or so trees in the new orchard survived their first few winters with very little damage, and many varieties were about to fruit for the first time in 1995. But the weather stepped in. A very warm spell in February of 1995 was followed by a very cold spell in March, and many trees ended up either being killed outright, or severely damaged, by sunscald. Neither Ranetka nor Antonovka rootstocks fared very well, but Ranetka did worse. About half of the trees needed replacing. The following winter (95-96) was a true test winter: no snow whatsoever until late January, by which time we had weathered a long spell in -20° to -30°F range. The ground was frozen to as deep as 15 feet in parts of Anchorage. In early spring, the damage didn’t appear as bad as I had feared, but toward the end of May, its severity finally became apparent. Trees began to leaf out, but suddenly they wilted and died. Trees on Antonovka rootstock did the worst. Bert Gore in Palmer and Dave Crusey in Knik also lost a number of trees on Antonovka (including Dave’s beautiful Norlands). Meanwhile, as Antonovkas were dying all over south-central Alaska, I had ordered 30 one-year whips of Norland and Parkland on Antonovka from Lawyers. So I was stuck with all these trees that I no longer had any use for. Not knowing what else to do, I planted them anyway. But sure enough, the winter of 96-97 ended up killing or severely damaging many of the Parklands on Antonovka. Cause of death: sunscald, brought on by a very warm February and a subzero spell in March. The sunscald only affected one-and two-year-old trees; the older ones with thicker bark did fine. IN HINDSIGHT: Ranetka and Antonovka BOTH have problems. I was heartened (and convinced) therefore, by Bernie Nikolai’s recent contribution to our Newsletter, in which he endorsed Baccata as a rootstock.
September 1997: Summary.
- It takes a long time to see all the curveballs the weather can throw at you. It is certainly a good sign when a variety or rootstock gets through a few winter unscathed, but don’t get too complacent after a few years of apparent success.
- Mistakes in apple growing can take a long time to become apparent. For example, it was not until my ninth season that I realized the main shortcoming of Antonovka – that it can’t handle extreme cold with no snow. Meanwhile, I planted a lot of trees on Antonovka.
- A mistake in apple-growing costs time as well as money. If a tree fails after after three or four years in the ground, but some, at least will succeed.
- In selecting varieties, remember that just because it looks good on paper doesn’t mean it necessarily will survive and ripen in Alaska, or that the fruit as grown here will be worth eating. My guideline is that a variety must ripen no later than a week after Yellow Transparent; some supposedly “early” or “summer” varieties aren’t ready to pick when winter sets in.