Top Work

Graft stubsNo, I didn’t get hair plugs…

Just before it started to rain on Monday afternoon, I climbed into my unproductive MacIntosh apple tree (which regularly blooms with scab — a fungus infection — in late July, whereupon all the young apples fall off the tree) and started grafting scions of other apple varieties onto some of the limbs. Last year an orchardist suggested top-working the tree instead of cutting it down because it rarely produced edible fruit.

We inherited this particular tree along with five other semi-dwarf varieties (two Rome Beauty, Northern Spy, Macoun, and Cortland) with the property, all about twenty years old at the time we moved in. Besides the MacIntosh the other trees, despite our utter inexperience and ineptitude tending an orchard, regularly bear prolific quantities of beautiful fruit. We managed to press fifty gallons of cider last year, and we still left bushels of apples on the trees because we just couldn’t fit all of them onto the truck to take them to our local press (our sheep, cows, and the wild deer were very happy to help with the rest).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we take an organic approach towards management of the orchard (which includes inherited pear trees, and has now expanded to include six more apple varieties, plums, peaches, and cherries), although it might better be described as “lax management.” We don’t bother spraying with natural dormant oils to smother any bark insects, nor do we use sulfur powder to reduce the fungus danger becausemost of the apples go into cider so they all don’t have to look pretty — we cherry-pick the occasional perfect looking apple (they all taste good) out of the cider pile and bring it into the house for fresh eating and baking, and there are more than enough of these for the two of us. When we moved to this property and I asked around about how to manage the maturing orchard organically I was told by multiple knowledgeable apple growers that it “can’t be done.” Naturally I ignored them and eventually found some people who were growing apples organically to give me advice.

However, by essentially doing nothing except pruning poorly, liming around the base of the trees, and mowing the grass, each year we have harvested excellent crops of apples from all of the mature apple trees except the MacIntosh. Only one year of the twelve we’ve lived here, which was very hot and very dry (record drought dry), did we ever get a any crop of mature MacIntosh apples, and since neither of us are Mac fans, it just isn’t worth that kind of wait.

From what I’ve been told, the MacIntosh variety was born on the windswept plains of northern Ontario where scab isn’t a problem. Down here in Maine it gets hot and humid in late July and scab loves hot and humid. I’ve been told that one way to keep the tree from staying damp (the fungus needs moisture to spread and grow), we should prune limbs away from the middle of the tree to encourage as much air movement as possible through the whole tree. We did this to such an extent that we eventually taken the extreme step of removing the central “leader” so the tree now looks more like an old fashioned champagne glass than a pyramid. It still gets scab.

So why don’t the other trees suffer from scab? This goes back to the comment that organic apple management “can’t be done.” In mid-coast Maine that’s probably true for MACINTOSH apple trees and other varieties that are susceptible to scab. In the deserts of eastern Washington, or on the northern plains of Canada, I bet you could grow beautiful crops of MacIntosh apples organically (and I’m sure many do). But if you plant an orchard full of MacIntosh trees in mid-coast Maine, they try to switch to organic management, I’m sure you would decide that organic management wouldn’t work for ANY apples.

In my opinion, this is an important lesson in organic agriculture, and agriculture in general. The same reason that it would be very difficult to grow oranges in Maine, it’s difficult to grow MacIntosh apples in mid-coast Maine. I said difficult, but not impossible — there is a family in Northern Maine that grows all kinds of citrus successfully, although they need to create and maintain an artificial environment (a large greenhouse in this case) to do this. Likewise, if you spray all kinds of fungicides on your MacIntosh apple trees in mid-coast Maine, you may dependably get a good crop of MacIntosh apples every year (outside of other factors like freezes, pollination, etc. that affect any apple tree). Theoretically you can grow any crop in any location, as long as you’re willing to manage the environment for a crop that isn’t well suited.

But why go to the trouble if other apples grow and bear well without all the expense (both in dollars and in toxicity)? You like the unique MacIntosh flavor? Plant Macoun, with MacIntosh as a parent; or plant Famuse, one of the parents of MacIntosh. Both have very similar flavors, and I’m growing both successfully here in mid-coast Maine. I think that proper agriculture involves selecting the appropriate varieties for your environment, otherwise you must spend time, energy, and money compensating, and you still risk low yields from crop that is likely still stressed from growing in a hostile environment. When you match your crop to the environment, you need to do little but get out of its way.

On the other hand, I wanted a climbing rose for the front of our house, and I wanted a very specific color flower (to compliment our house and barn colors), and only one variety suited me: New Dawn. Unfortunately we live right on the edge of its hardiness zone, and one out of four years that we’ve had it it has died back to the ground over the winter. I’m sure if I took the elaborate step of untying the rose from its trellis and buried the canes every year I could keep a substantial part of the canes alive through each winter (and roses bloom on second year wood); but as it is we have two years of blooms, then two years of just beautifully green glossy foliage. I’m OK with that, but I’m not selling the flowers.

Wounded but still hungry
   Wounded, but still hungry…

Back to the inspiration for this post: in the lead picture you can see two types of top working grafts: Inlay, or Bark Graft, where you cut off a limb where it’s an inch in diameter then make three or four slits in the bark through to the cambium layer surrounding the wood then insert a two-bud scion with a single bevel into each slit; Cleft Graft, where you cut off a limb no more than an inch in diameter, then spilt it in half and insert two double beveled two-bud scions, one on each edge. The pictured scions are for Esopus Spitzenburg, a cider variety noted for high acid and high sugar. The other scions I grafted on Monday were also cider varieties (Yarlington Mill, Summerset Redstreak, Caville Blanc D’Hiver, Ashmead’s Kernel).

In the second photo, notice the wrapped forearm covering a two inch slice I inflicted on myself while cutting the first limb with our (apparently surgically) sharp pruning saw. Also notice the beautiful soufflé that Alison made for me to enjoy when I got home late last night. I decided not to insert a single beveled two-bud scion into that slit, however.


2 thoughts on “Top Work

  1. Ah, life on the farm.
    What are your cider blends? Do you press one variety of apple at a time, or just throw everything in the hopper?
    Oh, I now see the scale for the souffle.


  2. As you note, a lazy farmer doesn’t want to deal with managing a crop variety that isn’t well-suited to his or her region. This is the basis for the very existence of “local” varieties. Back in the days before industrial agriculture, no one could blanket their apple trees with fungicides or insecticides or what have you and thus, they had to work with what survived on their farm. The popularity of Macintosh apples likely derives from their huge yields when they’re grown under ideal conditions — whether it’s on windswept plains in Ontario or in heavily-managed orchards in New England. Take away the heavy management (i.e. the well-timed application of fungicides or insecticides) and maybe it’s a dog. Maybe even a wet, flatulent dog with a gimp leg. Sadly, once farmers become accustomed to industrial agriculture, they forget (or just plain haven’t learned) the importance of planting the right variety for their farm. And in the case of orchard crops like apples, even if they wanted to plant the right variety, they’re stuck with what they’ve already got planted. Lotsa work to get back to where they need to be….


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