Thursday, April 22, 2021

Mourning the Apple Trees and Moving On

There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Often used to inspire some action in one's life, it can also be taken literally, and that's what I'm doing today.

Twelve years ago, we hefted a grapefruit-sized (maybe bigger) Wolf River apple in our hands and thought, You are 300 miles from your birthplace in Thorp, Wisconsin. We are going to eat you. And then we are going to plant your seeds, just for fun. Probably nothing will come of it.

That was in fall 2008. The seeds we planted from that Wolf River apple, soon became seedlings and then saplings. They spent their first three years in pots, overwintering in our unheated garage with newspaper and blankets as insulation. In the spring of 2012, Len did the hard work of digging holes in the heavy clay of our townhouse yard and planted them . They bore fruit in 2015 and every year after that, although harvests were not large.

Our apple tree history in blog posts:

April 21, 2009 (seedlings)

November 3, 2009 (winterizing)

March 20, 2010  (after winterizing)

March 4, 2012 (pruning)

May 13, 2012 (planting)*
*The city suddenly cut down the ash tree in our backyard one day; Len dug out the leftover stump, and that is where the third apple tree now resides.

Summer 2015 (first fruit)

And now...

February 2020, we put our house up for sale because we'd signed a contract to buy the new old house. The apple trees were now almost as tall as the house. They would have to stay behind. (Our babies!)

I did a lot of searching and reading and video-watching. I cut scion twigs from each of the three trees (pencil-thick, straight, recent growth, each at least 12 inches long), wrapped them in a damp paper towel in plastic bag, and stored them in my in-laws' garage fridge, which held only beverages, so the scions could stay away from any other fruits or vegetables that could off-gas and cause early budding.

I ordered four dwarf rootstocks from an orchard, and they arrived in March. I tried my hand at whip-and-tongue grafting. Two of my four grafts seemed to have survived! Leaves popped on the scions. I planted one in the yard of our new old house and kept the other in its pot as a backup.

Come summer of 2020, some insect ate away the new leaves. I continued watering diligently, but there was no new growth. We eventually tossed the potted spare -- it also looked more like a stick now and less like a baby tree.

Now, spring of 2021, still nothing was happening on the grafted tree in the yard. I had to accept that it really was dead. (In fact, I just pulled it out of the ground like plain stick -- I guess the roots rotted, and the graft site had ultimately failed. Maybe I overwatered.) The cousins in Wisconsin have sold the farm. Unless we go steal an apple out of our old yard, this heirloom line of Wolf River apples ends its journey where it is rooted. 

Instead, we'll carry on the tradition honorarily. Last fall, I ordered three heirlooms from Trees of Antiquity: two Egremont russet apple trees, an English Victorian variety supposedly good for fresh eating and cider, and a Napoleon (a.k.a. Queen Anne) cherry tree, which is the kind my Grandma used to have in her yard (that tree cut down just last year and also on property soon to be sold). The trees arrived early this April!

Our new experiment, besides just trying to grow trees, is the art of espalier. Espalier should be a good strategy for growing more productive trees in a compact space, here along the fence (I know, I know, easy access for the squirrels). 

The first task was (gulp!) an aggressive prune to encourage side branching. 

Wish us luck.


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