Who knows whether or not an apple a day does what it’s supposed to, or whether Dr. D.C. Jarvis was right about the healthful properties of apple cider vinegar. I do know that I feel better when I find myself in the presence of apples in all their forms – whether it’s a wild tree and I have a pruning saw in hand or it’s applesauce and I’m armed only with a spoon.
Every April, I spend many hours working on our apple trees. We have an old pasture of about six acres that had grown up to milkweed, juniper, and apples before we bought it a few years ago. The apples are what Tom Wessels calls “weird apples” in his wonderful book Reading the Forested Landscape. Weird apples are those trees that result from a lifetime of annual pruning by cows. They start out as seeds that go through the cow’s system, and then life in the pasture assures that the young trees will be browsed and browsed, with little chance of growing above the cows’ heads. The result is a tree that looks like a cross between a corkscrew and a toilet scrub-brush, the bristles made of buddy wood growing on buddy wood.
This pasture hasn’t seen cows for more than 30 years, but the deer have taken over where the cows left off; they have the same love of eating leaves and buds, setting every branch back every year. There are more than a hundred wild trees on the six acres, and many of them owe their survival to the many jumbles of juniper, the only thing standing between hungry deer and the tender new growth on the apple trees. If you can’t picture how a low, spreading bush like a juniper can protect a tree, I invite you to change into a pair of shorts and go wading into a sea of juniper. You won’t be leading with your nose like deer do, but you’ll join the deer in recognizing that tangling with the sharp little needles of juniper isn’t worth it.
My goal is to rehabilitate weird apples into nearly normal apples. If the tree’s trunk hasn’t been rendered into a cockeyed spiral, its next 30 years may prove to be much more productive than its previous 30. I prune out the brushiness to give the tree a chance to put on some growth.
Other apple trees have survived the deer by growing in thick concentrations with fellow apples and other sun-loving trees. My job in this case is to release the tree by removing the competition that once protected them, since an apple has no future as a crowded forest tree. I have one tree I released last year that has a long skinny trunk and very little branching. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a bittern standing out in a recently cut hayfield, stretching its long neck trying to blend into its surroundings, not yet having grasped that the camouflaging stalks of grass have been removed. That’s what this apple looks like. I need to cut it back to a height of about 10 feet to encourage it to send out horizontal branches, so it can become an orchard tree rather than a forest tree.
I’ve been doing this pruning and releasing through a program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, known as WHIP, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. Through it, the NRCS encourages landowners to make improvements to habitat for fish and wildlife by paying a share of the cost of doing the work. Some of the habitat improvements require equipment and expertise I don’t have. Keeping this old pasture from reverting to forest meant getting rid of the juniper and all sorts of cherry and maple seedlings that had benefited from its shelter. This was more than a tractor and a brush hog could handle, so we hired a contractor with a forestry mower – it has a flail head, and it chips everything on the spot – and the WHIP cost share covered three-quarters of the cost.
Apple trees provide food to everything from bears to birds, and making them more productive provides months’ worth of food. I’ve asked myself whether it’s fair to take money from the government to do work I would do anyway, but then I realized that the word “incentive” in the program’s title is the operative one. If it were left up to me, I’d peck away at my pruning a little at a time, but because I’ve signed a contract to prune or release 35 trees a year for three years, I have no choice but to get the work done in a hurry. Without the incentive, I wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in the habitat.
I do much of the work in late winter and early spring, and the rewards begin in May as the pink tint comes to the budding flowers. Days later, the trees will be awash in white blossoms, which will draw in a humming, buzzing blur of bees. If all goes well (especially no frost while they’re in bloom), those flowers will become fruit.
And if all goes well again, that fruit will grow and ripen, and by September, there will be many trees loaded with apples. I look forward to my treks to the various trees, stopping at each one to pick an apple and take a bite. Most of them are spitters, so called because you can’t swallow even one bite – some are so tart your salivary glands pucker themselves into paralysis, others no tastier than cardboard. But maybe once a season, I find a tree with apples I’d gladly eat every day. I’ll flag it and go back in early spring to do a better job pruning it, paying attention to how much light reaches through the top to the lower branches. I won’t prune it as much as an orchardist would, but I’ll open it up so the fruit can find light. Of course, chances are my pruning will result in a surge of sucker growth, and it becomes a game to prune just enough to produce more fruit and fewer suckers.
Surely you have a favorite eating apple, and maybe you’ve been tempted to save the seed from one and plant it to grow a tree. If you were to tend the seedling, then the sapling, in 10 years or so, you will have grown a tree. Maybe you’ll even see some flowers in the spring and some fruit in the fall. Expect to be disappointed, because the fruit that comes from your Fuji or Northern Spy seed won’t bear any resemblance to the apple that caught your fancy. That’s because apple seeds don’t breed true – an apple tree grown from seed is a spin of the roulette wheel, except that there are many more than 36 possibilities. The only way to propagate a Macintosh or an Esopus Spitzenberg is to take a twig from one of them in the spring and graft it to another tree. Any variety of apple tree you purchase from a nursery will have started as a twig grafted onto rootstock specially developed for this purpose. The rootstocks come in dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard, these designations having nothing to do with their size in the nursery but with the size you can expect them to attain at maturity.
Any Cortland or Rome Beauty is a clone of the original Cortland or Rome Beauty. Those trees were chosen because someone once took a bite out of a wild apple and hit the jackpot. Recognizing that it was a keeper, instead of a spitter, he took cuttings the next spring and grafted them on to other trees to produce the same fruit. When enough people fall in love with a variety that tastes great or keeps well, the twigs are spread around, not just from the original tree but from the clones. In this way, if you buy an Esopus Spitzenberg tree (said to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), you are eating an apple from a tree with the same genetics and indeed some trace amount of the same wood from a tree that he tended at Monticello.
It’s truly miraculous that if you attach a two-inch long twig to another tree, the wood that grows will bear the particular fruit you’re after. Another miracle is that it’s not that difficult. To get started, you’ll just need some grafting wax, tape, and a sharp knife – a utility knife works as well as an expensive grafting knife. The knife must be sharp because you have to be precise: you need to put the cambium of the twig in direct contact with the cambium of the host, and on the twig, the cambium is only a paper-thin layer.
I’ve learned to do cleft grafts and bark grafts, which some people call veneer grafts. These took best for me. The twigs, known more elegantly as scions, come from a local orchard that grows heirloom and other interesting varieties, so we’re not stuck with Red Delicious or Granny Smiths. A new favorite of mine is St. Edmund’s Pippin, though they don’t keep well. Pomme Grise is another russet that keeps better. In addition, my wild apple trees now have branches of Baldwin, Golden Russet, Mac, Cortland, Duchess, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Hubbardston Nonesuch. I only started playing around with this three years ago, so these grafts are just putting on wood at the moment; none of them have produced fruit yet. When those branches become big enough, I’ll remove the wild branches, and the wild tree will have been tamed.
Knowing the difference between cultivated and wild trees, I’ve always been puzzled by the story of Johnny Appleseed and his practice of starting orchards from seed as he wandered the Ohio Valley. Why would anyone want an orchard of wild apples? Then I read Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, where I learned that on the frontier in Johnny Appleseed’s time, they weren’t looking for an apple to eat, they were after an apple to drink. And to be clear, it wasn’t fruit juice to serve with donuts, but a nice hard cider with a kick. Fermented apple cider was the settler’s moonshine, because it was much easier to make than whiskey, which requires grain and the equipment to distill it. Squeeze apples, let the juice ferment, and voila, you have something to ease the pain.
With cider, nobody was after a particular, repeatable taste – they were after apples, as many as possible. So am I, even though most of ours go to the animals. But each fall, as I check the progress of our trees, I’ll renew my search for the perfect apple.