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Establishing Apples in the North Country
Establishing Apples in the North Country

Establishing Apples in the North Country

by Joseph D. Conwill of Sandy River Plantation, Maine

My apple orchard has only recently begun to bear fruit, but I have learned many things by the “school of hard knocks” which I wish I had known before. Perhaps these remarks may save some time and trouble for others thinking of setting out apple trees in a cold and demanding climate.

Northwestern Maine, where I live, appears on the climate map as Zone 3, and area frost pockets even get down to -45 degrees F. The old family land, however, is on the side of a long sloping piece of territory where the coldest frosts do not collect, and it is probably just a cold Zone 4. When the chilliest nights arrive in January there is usually a snow pack of some eighteen inches, and by the end of March it is common to have four feet on the ground, sometimes even more. The ground is snow-covered for at least five months. Surprise late frosts occur in the area into June, but fortunately not at my place. The soil is acid, around pH 5, a thin stony clay loam. In flat areas it gets boggy; on a slope it is suited to apple growing, but a little liming helps.

People here are aware that plants must be cold-hardy, but they give insufficient attention to the shortness of the growing season, about 100 days frost free. Apples continue to mature for some time after first frost, and many varieties are made sweeter by it. But some kinds, which are hardy enough in the wood to survive, do not have a long enough season to mature the fruit. Wolf River is a prime example. To be safe one must stay with early or mid-season apples, although most of these are not long keepers.

Establishing Apples in the North Country


Never buy apple trees on unknown rootstocks!

For my area, as for many northern places, the best and perhaps the only reliable rootstock is Antonovka. This is a seedling stock of Russian origin. It is unusual in having, when young, a very prominent tap root like a nut tree. Feeder roots are few and tiny, and easily lost when dug out of the ground. Because of the small surface area of the young roots, Antonovka often suffers much transplant shock, and requires extra attention during the first year. In rare cases it takes two years to get established, but in the end it makes a strong, vigorous tree, which is as cold-hardy as the variety grafted to it will allow.

My first few trees were on EMLA-7, a clonal rootstock which has long been a commercial favorite. In recent years it has gotten a bad name among small growers in Maine, but I have had good results with it. EMLA-7 is not cold-hardy enough for above-ground use here, but my graft unions are underground, so it is protected. Perhaps if we get a winter with scant snow cover my EMLA-7 trees will be in trouble, but for now I am pleased with it. Some of these trees have scion-rooted by now anyway. The stock suffers hardly any transplant shock and it seems well adapted to my soil. I have also tried MM-111, and do not see any difference between it, and EMLA-7, though it is touted as a big improvement. On the other hand, MM-106 is definitely not cold-hardy enough. Even if the variety grafted to it is hardy, MM-106 rootstock will die out under it in a normal winter here.

Renetka rootstock is said by some to be more cold-hardy than Antonovka. Trees I grafted on Renetka flourished in my nursery, where the soil is a special mix, better drained than the usual clay loam. When outplanted, the trees absolutely stopped growing, or even died outright. Poland-18 rootstocks gave similar results. I do not know why, but perhaps they are intolerant of clay soils. Given the widespread disapproval of EMLA-7 among people whose opinion I respect, my conclusion is to stick with the well-proven Antonovka rootstock. Although it does suffer in transplanting, it makes a very sturdy tree in the long run.

Dwarf trees are not of much interest because they are generally less coldhardy, and can never grow tall enough to escape moose and deer devastation. I am experimenting with a few well-fenced trees on Budagovsky-9, a very small dwarf stock, but I have no clear results yet. There are a few varieties which are genetic dwarfs, that is, they stay very small even without being grafted to dwarfing rootstocks. I have tried Norland and found it perfectly cold-hardy, and a tasty apple too.

Establishing Apples in the North Country


When I began my apple project I was influenced by the advice of a kindly friend in southern Vermont who always does things the old-fashioned way. He told me that open-center pruning is best. This is definitely not so in a region with a snow pack as deep as we have here. I cannot fault my friend for not knowing; southern Vermont might as well be South Carolina compared with northwestern Maine.

Towards the end of winter, in March and April, the deep snow repeatedly melts and re-freezes, forming ponderously heavy ice crusts which lock in all vegetation. These slowly descend, ripping off low tree branches along with long strips of bark, and folding young trunks right in half. In the fall I stake and thoroughly tie all apple trees smaller than six feet in height, and I head them high during spring pruning (that is, I leave no low branches). As for open-center trees, the snow crust splits them completely apart, no matter how carefully you have formed the branch angles, and there is just no way conveniently to tie them over the winter. If by luck they make it into middle age, they do become solid enough to be safe, for there are ancient open-center trees in the area. But it is not worth the risk. The single central leader style is best for the north country.

I have a Duchess of Oldenburg open-center tree which split down the middle under heavy snow when young, splintering the wood badly. It was repaired with small brass bolts. Despite the serious damage, it greened up in spring right to the terminal buds, and has been flourishing since. But this is unusual. Less hardy varieties usually die back to the base if they split like this.

Establishing Apples in the North Country


Despite the limitations of climate, there are many varieties which do well here. It makes no sense to grow kinds such as Cortland which are only marginally hardy, and are grown elsewhere in huge quantities. On the other hand, if you are looking to sell them, it is well to keep in mind that some people only like sweet apples. The following varieties look promising, and they begin bearing here in four to six years.

Dudley (or Dudley Winter) is a mildly tart or “sub-acid” apple with a sprightly flavor. It is a large apple, with yellow-green background and a bright red blush, and it keeps up to three months in cold storage. It looks like it is ripe here at the end of August, but in fact does not develop its full flavor until mid-September. Its drawback is that the tree has a spreading, pendulous growth habit which is much exaggerated by the heavy fruit, and is a challenge to prune. It soon overgrows fencing and is thus susceptible to moose and deer damage.

Viking is mildly sub-acid with almost a hint of cinnamon, it is dark red with a bluish bloom, and of medium size. A disadvantage is that it bears biennially, at least as grown here.

State Fair has a high fruity taste similar to some other recent commercial introductions. It is mostly red, and elegant in appearance, although not large.

Yellow Transparent is an old standard for applesauce, but many people find it too tart for fresh eating; it is rather like a lemon. It is a very light yellow when ripe, almost white, and usually small to medium in size. It is an early apple, ready here the third week of August, but it does not keep more than two weeks. By the way, if your applesauce stays lumpy no matter how long you cook it, you have the wrong kind of apples. That doesn’t happen with Yellow Transparent. There are century-old trees of this variety here, but in this area, any yellowish apple is often mis-identified as “Yellow Transparent” merely because people are familiar with the name.

Experimentation will show when is the best time to pick, and for each variety it is different. A common rule of thumb is to wait until the seeds turn brown, but this measure is not always reliable. Many early varieties such as Yellow Transparent still have white or tan seeds even when they are so over-ripe that they are turning soft inside and falling off the tree. Note that some apples, like grapes, take a couple of years to reach their full varietal flavor.

Establishing Apples in the North Country


Many wild animals love apples, both the fruit, and the trees themselves. Unless well protected your trees will soon be destroyed. I’ll discuss some problem creatures from large to small.

Moose and deer have similar browse patterns, except that moose are much larger, and can easily reach twigs over seven feet high. Both animals eat foliage and young wood, and the browsed ends are rough, because the animals pull them off instead of cutting with their teeth. Moose are capable of pulling young trees completely apart to get at high branches, leaving nothing but a splintered stump. They are a year-round problem, but damage is heaviest in the fall because apples hold their leaves longer than native trees. This also coincides with the moose rutting season, when the animals are occasionally violent. Yes, the cows as well as the bulls, at least so far as tree damage is concerned.

I constantly hear of substances such as soap which supposedly repel the big creatures. Maybe these tricks work in other parts of the country, but the moose and deer here are not impressed. Stout fencing is the only defense.

Moose at least have the virtue that they don’t jump, except in cases of panic to escape predators. A perimeter fence five and a half feet high will keep them out, but it must be very strongly built. Chicken wire on steel posts is useless. Moose will either walk right through, or else will use the mouth as a demolition tool to pull the fence apart. I know–I’ve seen it happen! Plastic deer netting is no use either against moose. Many of my apple spaces are protected behind a worm fence, made by stacking dead fir logs in a zig-zag pattern. The fir was killed by the spruce bud worm a number of years ago, and the dead trees, formerly a big nuisance in the woodlot, have become an important resource for fencing. They seem to hold up fairly well in this application, although fir quickly rots if used underground. They cost nothing but my labor to bring them in.

Deer can jump the perimeter fence, and it is difficult to keep any kind of taller fence standing in the frost-tossed ground, especially since every other fence post you try to set hits a rock or an old tree root just a few inches down. Instead, each apple tree has a little cage around it about four and half feet high and seven feet square, made of wooden posts and rails with chicken wire stapled to it. The deer do not jump in because there is not enough room inside for them to land freely. One corner has ladder rungs so that I can get inside myself. A drawback is that the cages limit the positions where it is possible to set up a nursery ladder.

A few apple spaces are outside the perimeter fence, and here the cages are five and a half feet high, and eight feet square, to protect against moose too. But it is more work for me to climb over these. These rails must be stout to keep the moose from pulling the fence apart, and also to resist breakage from the heavy snow and ice clinging to the chicken wire in late winter.

Deer and moose are constantly around, but it helps to pick up any fallen apples from old trees in the vicinity so as not to attract them more. Also, I’ve found that both creatures are irresistibly drawn to annual ryegrass, so I no longer use it as a winter cover crop in the garden. Summer people regularly go oogly-googly over moose and deer, which are indeed majestic when seen in the wild, but they can be major problems on agricultural land.

Rabbits and hares. I will follow the popular usage and refer to both as rabbits. Winter is the crucial problem time, because these creatures walk on top of the snow, which can reach five feet in depth here. Thus by late winter they can get over fences, and they gnaw bark and eat twigs. The twig browse is a clean diagonal cut, looking like some human had pruned in the wrong place. Until the snow gets deep, my deer cages also guard against rabbits. Note, in passing, that young rabbits can walk right through two-inch chicken wire; much of the apparent bulk of small animals is just their fur.

Fortunately, rabbits prefer not to be out in the wideopen spaces in the middle of the orchard, but they are sometimes found around the perimeter where they have cover near. I patrol often on snowshoes, and if a local problem develops, I can spray with “Hinder” which makes the wood taste bad. So far I have not had to use it. Instead the rabbits attack young pine and spruce in my woodlot, but that is another story.

Very small trees are sometimes cut off in their first year by rabbits, which are very skillful at getting under fencing. The problem can be solved by hardware cloth guards, as I am about to describe for the next creatures:

Mice. For convenience I will include voles in the same category. They look similar, but have short tails and smaller eyes. These too are primarily a winter problem. They eat bark, and will girdle trees, completely killing them. The activity is most often near ground level, underneath the snow, and invisible until the spring melt reveals disaster. On occasion mice will walk around on an interior snow crust higher up; I once had a tree girdled two feet up, and it was mice, not rabbits.

My first approach to mouse protection was a permanent cylinder of hardware cloth, a heavy metal mesh with square holes which are either half-inch (“2×2″) or quarter-inch (“4×4″) in size. There is some discussion as to whether mice can get through half-inch square holes. My experience is that they can’t, although they can easily get through a hole half inch high by one inch wide. The cylinders should be around sixteen to eighteen inches in diameter, and two feet high. Thus they will guard against rabbits also, while allowing you room for borer inspection (the next subject). If three feet high, they would give better protection against any mice which may ascend the snow crusts, but then they damage young trees, which (unless tied) will whip around in the wind. High cylinders also make borer inspection harder.

Hardware cloth cylinders will protect against most mouse damage, but not all. Mice can tunnel under. I first put the cylinders five to six inches underground, and still the occasional mouse would tunnel. Moreover, roots would sometimes grow through and get strangled. Upon discovering this, I raised all the cylinders so that they are now only two to three inches underground. They still protect against most mice, but for more security I now also add plastic spiral tree guards over the winter. These are hard to find, but can be ordered from Forestry Suppliers Inc. in Jackson, Mississippi. Kraft paper tree wrap is totally useless. Pea gravel mulch around trees is said to offer mouse protection, and is much in style at the moment, but I doubt it will prove reliable in the long run.

Having described the various kinds of necessary fencing, I must admit that the cost per tree is higher than for the tree itself, even though I make most of the wood parts, and the perimeter fence cost me nothing. But I have spread the cost out by setting out several new trees each spring, instead of doing it all at once. Thus I also correct the technique by learning from the mistakes. Round headed apple tree borers are among the smallest of animal pests, but they are just as vicious as the larger ones. The adult is a beetle which appears in the spring, and lays minuscule eggs in a slit near the base of the tree. When the grubs hatch they tunnel in, and feed first on the inner bark and cambium, later on the wood. If left unchecked they will girdle a tree and kill it, although once trees attain a diameter of five inches or so, they can survive a borer attack without much weakening.

Regular inspection once a week is your protection against borers, which announce their presence by orange or reddish-brown frass pushed out the tiny entry hole. They are difficult to spot in the early stages, but a practiced eye will pick up on the signs. The hole can be anywhere from ground level to a few inches up, and on rare occasions as high as three feet. Borers will attack trees as small as a half-inch diameter. Cut them out of their galleries with a very sharp pocket knife (for your own safety it should have a locking blade). Get down to clean wood all around, as there may be a second or third borer in the hole. This sounds brutal to the tree, but it is better than leaving the borers in.

I’ve found borers active over a far longer season than the literature suggests. I’ve found them shortly after leaf-out, perhaps galleries begun very late the previous fall which went dormant before being detected; and I’ve found them as late as mid-October. For this reason I do not add plastic mouse guards until early November, and I inspect regularly for borers until then.

It is possible greatly to reduce your local population of round headed apple tree borers. They normally do not travel far, just a few hundred feet. Inspect any old apple trees in the vicinity perhaps three times a year. The borers also have alternate hosts in the woods, of which the most important is American mountain-ash, Sorbus americana (sometimes called Pyrus americana). Although this looks nothing like an apple tree, it is genetically related, and shares many of the same pests. I searched the woods within “commuting distance” of my orchard, and found over one hundred young mountain-ash, of which some thirty showed borer activity! It helps to remove this alternate host. I observed borer tunnels, probably round heads, in a mountain-ash close to the summit of Bald Mountain near Oquossoc, Maine. There has never been agricultural activity anywhere near the summit, so I think the pest is indigenous to the region.

Having now summarized what I wish I’d known before I started, I see that perhaps it’s better I didn’t know. When you hear about all these problems at once, you might get so terrified that you never set out any trees. But do it anyway. I haven’t covered the obvious information such as pollination, and for thoroughly excellent background material, get The Apple Grower, by Michael Phillips. Then go plant, no matter how far north you live!