Maximizing the Homestead Apple Orchard, by Eric K.

“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits” – Henry David Thoreau

American homesteaders and gardeners have a high degree of familiarity with eating and growing apples.  Who hasn’t enjoyed biting into a fresh, crunchy apple on a cool fall morning?  Most homesteaders plant an apple tree or two early on in the process of establishing their property.  This makes sense – the apple is deeply connected to American pioneering history and culture.  Johnny Appleseed traveled the Ohio River Valley and parts of Appalachia planting apple seeds.  Oregon Trail settlers carried seeds and seedlings with them when they came west as they established their new homes.  Yet, beyond a general familiarity, or owning a few trees, few of us have taken the time to learn how to maximize the apple’s mighty potential for survival and homesteading environments.

I grew up on a commercial apple orchard on the irrigated eastern steppe of the Cascade Mountains.  While my childhood was spent working after school, weekends and summers in our Red and Golden Delicious orchards, it wasn’t until later in life after careers in the military and business worlds that I bought our homestead and began the process of applying the technical skills of successful orcharding on my own.  In the intervening years, the smaller family orchards of 10-100 acres that were so prevalent in my childhood have almost entirely disappeared.  Massively scaled operations have become a necessity for commercial orchards that typically exceed 1,000 acres.  These are farmed by employees who specialize in their individual unique functions such as irrigation, pest control, etc. SurvivalBlog readers will not be surprised that one of the results is that individuals with an understanding of how to maximize one’s own orchard are a dying breed.

This article will provide a foundation to start learning more about maximizing your apple orchard’s benefit, develop the important skill of grafting to improve your varieties, and to think a bit differently about the overall utility of apples.

Planning the Orchard to Maximize Benefit

Readers will need to consider local climate, soil, slope, sunlight, availability of water and other factors in selecting their homestead’s orchard location and size.  There is no one right solution for planning all orchards but several principles should be considered in advance of planting your first trees.  First, homesteaders should think beyond simply having an individual tree or two of their favorite variety for their family’s personal consumption.

Apples require a pollinator so you will need multiple varieties to enable cross-pollination.  Further, carefully evaluate the micro-climates of your retreat and try to avoid planting your trees in cold pockets where frost can kill buds and destroy your crop.  Additionally, apple varieties have different fruit maturation cycles that correspond to early, mid-season or late-season harvest windows.  This enables fresh apple consumption to extend for up to 4 months of the year.   Your specific location will dictate the options available to you, but consider planting three or more varieties, including an early, mid-season and late-season to achieve this elongated fresh harvest window.

Today’s technology of controlled atmosphere storage and trade with the Southern Hemisphere allows us to find apples of our favorite varieties year-round in the grocery store.  But in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, we’ll be on our own. A well-planned orchard, however, will enable the survivalist to utilize apples nearly year-round.  If you plant multiple varieties including those that store well, apples can be enjoyed in a grid-down environment for 9+ months of the year with ease.

In my childhood, we enjoyed “summer apples (Yellow Transparent) starting in July each year.  Early season (August) varieties include Gala, Jersey Mac, Gravenstein and Earligold.  Mid-season (September) varieties include Empire, McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Jonathan and Golden Delicious.  Some later season (October) varieties are Red Delicious, Northern Spy, Cameo, Rome, Enterprise, and Fuji.

Good storage options that are readily available include Granny Smith, Winesap, Pink Lady/Cripps Pink.  In our climate, we can store these three late season varieties without refrigeration in a cool/dark location for 5-6 months with only some loss of quality.  These may not work with your climate or taste preferences, so evaluate personally.  Also, apples require cross pollination so research pollination options and plant pollinators near the trees they benefit to maximize fruit set.

Second, don’t forget the apple’s utility beyond simply personal eating when determining how many trees to plant.  Few of us would need more than a tree or two for fresh eating, but have you considered that apples make excellent feed for livestock?  People think of feeding apples to horses or pigs, but may not be aware that apples can be used as a major alternative feed for cattle as well.  In our region, an inexpensive way that small scale cattle operations cut down on hay costs is to purchase tons of cull apples to feed their animals.

Apples don’t provide all the nutrients cattle need alone, but are worth considering as part of a fall/winter feed mix.  Further, apples are an excellent source for beverages (ciders), food preservation (vinegar), dehydrated snacks, and (recognizing varietal differences) even pectin for jams and jellies.  When you consider the full range of uses for apples, many homesteaders will understand why pioneers planted many apple trees on their properties.  Some early homestead laws allowed a settler to lay claim to a piece of property if he planted 50 apple trees on it.  The reasoning behind that might make you question whether you have enough apples planted on your property!

Finally, a few closing thoughts about site selection, irrigation and layout to maximize production.  As you consider your property, apples (and most fruits) will need well-drained soil that has regular watering.  Apples don’t do well with “wet feet” for extended periods of time, but won’t produce without plenty of water.  So, don’t plant your fruit trees where it floods, but you most likely can’t only rely on rainfall.  Your local county extension agent is an excellent resource if you are unsure of how your region’s rainfall will translate to fruit production.  A good rule of thumb is to water your orchard just like you water your vegetable garden.  While the root structure of trees are much larger than annual vegetables, you will experience increased production and fruit quality by regular watering.

Most modern orchards (apples, pears, soft fruits, etc.) orient their rows north and south to maximize the light/shade ratio needed for bud development, fruit set, and coloration.  This doesn’t mean your rows won’t grow well if oriented otherwise, but simply that you can gain an advantage in light maximization which can be important if you are dealing with shade from nearby trees/etc.

Rootstock Selection and Grafting to Maximize Benefit

Perhaps you read Part 1 and realized that you want to change apple varieties or feel the need to add on to your orchard.  This installment will provide guidance regarding your choice of rootstock as well as teaching you the skill of grafting.

My childhood was spent playing and working under the shady canopy of our orchard.  At that time, trees were still planted on traditional, non-dwarfing rootstocks that would (if not pruned) grow 40-50 feet tall!  If you can find them, older orchards still have this “classic” look – large trees spaced 20-30 feet apart that create an almost park-like setting of total shade when well cared for.  While there is no denying the beauty and sentimentality of these orchards, I urge today’s homesteaders to utilize semi-dwarfing or dwarfing rootstocks.

Nurseries sell trees that are a combination of the “rootstock” and the vegetative growth of a specific variety.  Generally speaking, you’ll only find trees with semi-dwarfing and dwarfing rootstocks available for sale today.  The benefits of these types of rootstocks are a shorter, more efficient tree that doesn’t require as much pruning to manageably produce a crop in a smaller area.  Further, modern semi-/dwarfing rootstocks bring trees into production sooner, can have resistance to certain pests/diseases, and produce higher quality fruit.

Another benefit (especially of fully dwarfing rootstocks) is having an orchard that doesn’t require climbing ladders.  In our region, some commercial orchards are now combining dwarfing rootstocks and trellising to achieve an orchard where trees are no taller than 7’ or 8’ above the ground.  One note:  Trees on drawfing rootstock require some type of support.

For those who have apple trees on their property but aren’t happy with the varieties you originally selected – don’t pull those trees out!  You can learn how to graft these “bad” trees to what you prefer with just a little bit of practice.

Grafting techniques have been around since Bible times.  In fact, the beautiful biblical principle of our life in Christ is illustrated in the New Testament via grafting.  As a Gentile, Romans 11:17-24 explains how I have been grafted into God’s family, draw strength from God my root, am to maintain an attitude of thankfulness for my salvation, and should pray for/rejoice at Jews who accept Christ.   I’d encourage you to consider this truth as we learn the skill of grafting!

To graft an existing apple tree, you will need scion wood, saw, sharp knife (grafting knife is ideal), grafting sealant, and electrical tape.  I will explain the function of each as we step through the grafting process.

First, you’ll need to access scion wood.  You’ve been wanting your own Gravenstein, Honey crisp, Fuji or another kind of apple tree?  Just find someone who has one and ask if you can take some scion cuttings!

Once you find your source, it’s important to time your cut and care for the scion wood carefully.  Apples go dormant in winter and you need to cut your scion wood in mid-winter.  Cut the scions from one-year-old wood – last year’s growth.  I look for branches at least as thick as a pencil but not thicker than your pinkie finger and cut lengths about 12-24” long.

Once you get your cuttings they will need to be kept wrapped in damp towels and constantly refrigerated –without fresh fruits/vegetables nearby to avoid ethylene damage.  If refrigerator space is in short supply (or if your wife kicks you out of the fridge), you can also wrap scion wood in damp towels, surround them in straw for insulation and bury them below the frost layer.

Grafting should be done in mid-spring, when the trees are actively pushing flowers and leaves.  You begin by cutting down your existing tree.  I typically cut it off at between 2-3 feet in height, parallel with the ground.  This should be done when you are ready to graft, not beforehand.  A fresh cut is one of the crucial steps to getting good “take” in your grafts.

Once the existing tree is cut down, take your scion wood out of cold storage.  I cut off the ends of my wood, then cut the scion into 6” lengths.  Once you have these cut, you’re ready to actually graft.  Take your knife and cut through the tree’s outer bark in 2 separate cuts – each cut should be ¾” long, ½” apart, and perpendicular to the ground.  The key to grafting is to slice through the outer bark to the cambium.  If you’re a bit unfamiliar with where the outer bark begins and ends, YouTube has some helpful videos.   You have now created the “channel” that will hold the first scion.

Now take your 6” long scion.  Be careful not to touch any green wood with your fingers as the surfaces of the scion and contact point on your tree need to be contaminant-free to make a good union.  On one end, carefully make one cut at about a 30 degree angle, then rotate the scion 180 degrees and make a second cut at a 60 degree angle in that same end.  These two cuts create a nice “wedge” on one end that will be placed between the bark and the cambium of your tree.

Using your knife (but not your fingertips) carefully pry the outer bark away a little bit from the cambium where you made the two perpendicular cuts on your tree.  You don’t need to pry it far away – just enough to get your scion “wedge” in to the area.  Take your scion wood and gently push the longer edge towards the inner part of the tree and down into the “channel.”  The cut needs to be fully within the channel and seated securely but be careful not to push too far down and tear away the outer bark.

Properly seated grafts should stay upright in their “channels” without you needing to keep holding them.  Once you’ve completed the first graft, repeat as many times as space allows on your tree.  Typically, we put 4-6 grafts on a tree, but you can put more if it has a large diameter trunk.  You also can put as many different varieties of apples as you want on the same trunk.

Once all the scions are in their “channels,” we take electrical tape and wrap it repeatedly around the entire trunk, completely covering all the “channels.”  This provides added stability.  Alternatively, small nails can be used.  After this, apply grafting seal (we only use Doc Farwell brand) or paraffin wax to cover/seal any open wound you can see.  We cover the top tips of the scions, the open wound of the tree trunk, all the electrical tape and any gaps that exist.  Don’t let any gaps open up – keep applying the sealant.  You may need to come back several times – it is really important to seal any openings so air doesn’t cause the scion to dry out.

That’s it!  In a few weeks green leaves should begin to emerge from your grafts as the life and energy from the root causes the grafted wood to begin to grow.  In a few years you’ll have your first crop of the variety you want! I hope this information is useful to you. The homestead orchard plays a crucial role and should be well planned to achieve its maximum benefit.

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