Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Apple Pruning and Saving Scionwood

A freshly pruned Stayman Winesap
Today was a lovely day - dry, warm and time to prune the apple trees.  This winter was so warm for so long, I feared our apple trees might bloom in the middle of winter like some of the street trees in Pittsburgh, but luckily, it finally got cold and that didn't happen.

I have our apple trees planted in a hedgerow, at fairly close spacing, loosely experimenting with the idea of Backyard Orchard Culture from Dave Wilson Nursery and others.  I found this a helpful synopsis of the pruning ideas, if you scroll down through all the "why to do it" stuff.   This idea of forcing trees to compete for nutrients and keeping them small through lots of extra pruning isn't my usual planting philosophy, but it makes sense to me to try it in this context.  I want a tree I can easily reach to spray with my holistic foliar sprays, and easily prune and harvest without an orchard ladder.  I want the trees to grow closely in a mixed hedgerow with other plants to keep out the deer, and I don't want to just use a dwarf rootstock because they are short lived and not good at anchoring so they would have to be supported and staked on our windy hillside.  So far, so good (trees are 2 -3 years old) but we shall see how it goes as they continue to grow.  This is something I am prepared to fail at, though I hope I don't for the trees' sake. 

All my trees are on EMLA 111 Rootstock, a large semi-dwarf that if allowed to grow full size would reach 20'.  I'm attempting to keep them pruned to 10 - 12'.  This means spring and summer pruning the first few years that pretty much removes half of all new growth.  Pruning fruit trees is hard for the uninitiated...it seems so damn complicated.  Reading, reading, reading the 400 different theories of how to do it, thinking about what feels right, and then just going for it is the only way to learn.  I'm still in the beginning of the learning curve, but each year I figure things out...so we shall see how these trees respond to what I've done now that we are in year three.

Arkansas Black with minimal pruning
The varieties I have planted include:
  • Stayman Winesap (this tree has a lovely, open growth habit)
  • Arkansas Black
  • Zestar! (definitely the oddball in my collection of older varieities - this is a patented variety whose growth habit seems very unfortunate - like the Grinch's christmas tree...spindly, with crazy, whip-thin branches growing every which way).  
  • Maiden's Blush
  • Winesap
  • St. Edmund's Pippin
  • Red Royal Limbertwig
  • York
  • Virginia Beauty
  • Yellow Transparent
  • Wickson Crab
And in large 5 gallon pots, ready to find somewhere to be planted this spring: Red Horse and Virginia Gold.  All but three of these trees are from The Urban Homestead in Bristol, VA, a family nursery specializing in heirloom apples.  They run specials each spring of "imperfect" tree bundles that are full of perfectly nice trees, though some have a bit of a wonky shape that can be corrected with pruning.  

A friend and I are making our first grafts this year, and we have some scionwood and rootstock on order from Fedco Trees.  After this pruning session today I have some extra scionwood to add to our experiments.  You can use what you have pruned off an existing tree to attach to rootstock with a graft, plant it, and there you have a new tree.  If you do that, the pruned wood is called scionwood.  

Prunings bundled into scionwood varieties
Varieties that I pruned that I can add to the mix are:
  • Stayman Winesap
  • Arkansas Black
  • Maiden's Blush
  • Red York
  • Winesap
  • Red Royal Limbertwig
  • Even though I pruned Zestar! I can't graft it, since the variety has a patent.  I would likely leave this tree out if planting everything now, but it's there so I'll give it the same love as everyone else)
We won't be grafting until we get the rootstock in the mail so what to do with this scionwood until then?  Seattle Tree Fruit Society came to my rescue.  They say to paint the ends of the scionwood with latex paint so they don't dry out, then store them in the fridge in an airtight plastic bag with a damp paper towel included inside.  So, that is just what I did.

I'm really looking forward to another year of apple tree addiction and experimentation in 2016!  

Latex paint seals the ends so they don't dry out
Painted ends

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