Apples are pretty important in Maine. Every fall, dozens of pick-your-own orchards around the state welcome visitors who will take their hauls home to eat fresh and make apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and even apple molasses.
Growing numbers of Mainers have their own cider presses; some even host cider-making parties during the fall harvest time.
While U.S. commercial apple production is centered in Washington and Oregon, Maine has several heirloom, or heritage, apple varieties that are unique to the state. Some are even unique to Hancock and Washington counties. They’re good eating and have colorful names such as “Cunningham #13,” “Dumelo,” and “Orland Town Office #1.”
If you have an apple tree in your yard that’s not producing, or yielding fruit that isn’t very good, there are steps you can take to encourage it.
Pruning is an important step. It can increase a tree’s yield of fruit and also training its growth in a way that will keep it healthy and get all branches enough light. Trim away dead wood and branches that cross over each other. Then, trim off “crow’s feet”— or forks — from the ends of branches, especially the “central leader” main branch. Discourage new side branches that are growing too close to another one.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and other groups offer pruning and other orchard-management workshops. CJ Walke teaches some of them as the group’s Organic Orchard Educator. He’s also the farm manager at Peggy Rockefeller Farms, which is one of College of the Atlantic’s (COA) two working farms.
If you planted a seed from the next apple you eat, there’d be no telling what kind of apples that tree would eventually produce, he said.
“It’s totally possible to grow your own from seed, but the issue is the consistency,” Walke said. “You have no idea what you’re going to get. That’s just the genetic makeup — pollen is coming in from bees and other pollinators, and who knows what those varieties are. They’re probably wild apple trees in the woods.”
If an older tree is not producing fruit, it could be because there’s no viable pollen available from other nearby trees. An age-old way to add that genetic material and to cultivate a certain type of apple is called grafting. The technique is used in nurseries to start new trees as well as to introduce a new variety of apple to an existing tree.
“For fruit trees, the majority of them are not going to be grown from seed,” Walke said. “Grafting is really the only way to propagate fruit trees accurately. The majority of nursery stock will be grafted.”
The first step, gathering material from productive trees whose fruit you like, follows pruning in the late winter or early spring. This “scion wood” is new, small branches of one-year-old growth. MOFGA and Waterville-based Fedco Seeds even host a “Seed Swap and Scion Exchange” event in March every year, where cuttings from more than 200 varieties are available for free and supplies are available for sale.
If you’ve gathered your own scion wood, it’s best to label it carefully, then put it in plastic bags and keep it cold but not frozen, Walke said.
“Eventually it’s going to either dry out or get moldy,” he said.
Grafting onto established trees, or top working, has to wait until the sap is flowing, he said, but the process is similar to the way orchardists set up a new tree in the nursery to produce a particular apple variety.
This is called bench grafting, and involves joining some rootstock, usually ordered from a West Coast nursery, to recently cut scion wood.
“For apples, the research has been done to create this whole variety of rootstocks,” Walke explained. It’s the roots that control the roots of the tree, so nurseries choose rootstocks for certain characteristics, such as size and adaptability to weather.
For the bench grafts Walke was working on for Rockefeller Farms this spring, he used Anatovka, a Russian rootstock variety that’s hardy in cold winters.
If you let the Anatovka rootstock tree grow without grafting, he said, “it would make apples that would be really hard and bitter and you wouldn’t want to eat them.”
So he’s grafting local heritage varieties onto the trees. He soaked the rootstock in water for a few days and planted it in compost until it “woke up,” the sap started to run and it began to produce new shoots.
“I want it to be awake and starting to grow, starting to put out shoots so when I put the dormant scion wood on there, the rootstock is actively trying to heal,” he said.
He cuts the rootstock and scion wood at an angle with a sharp knife and is careful not to touch the inside of the cut. Ideally, you choose pieces with a similar diameter. You want the cambium, which is the layer just below the bark, of the two pieces in contact.
These “whip and tongue” grafts involve making small knife cuts in both rootstock and scion wood, and then carefully fitting the tongue from one into the groove in the other. Special stretchy, waxy tape can be used to protect the graft union while it heals.
“This will heal over the next couple weeks, join the two pieces of wood together and then the root system will start to feed these buds and these buds will start to swell and grow,” Walke said.
The apples from the Rockefeller Farms’ orchard will mostly be used in the cafeteria at COA, along with the meat, eggs and vegetables the farm produces.