Grafting Season // Notes on Wild Apple Groves

Hello again my dear apple friends!

The trees are finally awakening! Dormant season, at long last, is finally breaking. Sap is running, twigs are now a bit more limber than they used to be, and we can notice buds swelling to silver-tip at this time here in lower New England. What a welcome change it is to be putting away pruning saws and chainsaws, and readying the grafting supplies for several exciting weeks of propagation. That means scion swaps and a bunch of exciting workshops for any of you interested in learning the art and science of grafting to check out.

Before I get deep into the nitty gritty of apple tree grafting, and this specific season that it belongs to, here are a couple of quick updates from the last few weeks.

LAQP // Cider Chat

An ongoing research project that you all should know about is the Lost Apples of the Quabbin project. This is a fruit exploration mission to [re]discover place-based apple varieties from the Quabbin hills region of the Swift River Valley in Western Massachusetts that were lost when the 5 towns of the Quabbin Reservoir were permanently disincorporated and flooded. Al Sax, along with myself, are lovingly doing this research on behalf of apple lovers and fruit explorers all around the country.

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This picture of the confluence of the Swift River and Quabbin Reservoir, New Salem, MA was taken during our search for apple trees in the Fall of 2016.

We presented our data and findings from 2016 to the public, and among the many listeners in the crowd that we had, Ria Windcaller from Cider Chat (the #1 cider podcast du monde) was there to record our talk for her podcast. You can hear the talk and learn all about LAQP and our 2016 research in this episode. Listen Here: Episode 072, Lost Apples of the Quabbin, Massachusetts.

GRAFTING SEASON // MOFGA Scion Exchange and Seed Swap

For those of you who graft apple trees annually, I am sure that you are gearing up with scions in hand, getting ready to bust a move on some apple trees to propagate some new varieties into your orchard or garden. For those of you who are new to grafting, what I am talking about is clonal propagation of apple trees. This is the means by which any specific variety of apple tree must be propagated (remember, apples do not faithfully reproduce the parent variety when planted from seed). Because of this, we need to carefully splice twigs of the desired variety onto some type of host apple tree.

If you have read the Wild Apple Forager’s Guide, it is likely that you remember that landless apple folk must rely on topworking rather than planting new, young trees. Topworking trees is the fastest way to get fruit off of grafts (planting young trees takes longer since the root zone takes more time to develop the courage and strength to produce fruit buds. Established trees, with fully furnished root systems are burly & ready to bloom as soon as the wood is old enough). This will come in handy over the next few weeks as I embark with knife, tape, sealant and cleft tool in hand to tackle some topworking at various sites in Western Massachusetts.

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My new custom forged cleft grafting tool! Tool and photo courtesy of Eli Sedaris — Haruspex Works Co,.

The MOFGA scion wood exchange, an annual good-faith gathering of regional fruit growers, is an event where all apple folks get together to trade planting stock from numerous varieties of fruit for the community to share. This is a pilgrimmage of sorts for orchardists. Hundreds of place-based and heirloom apples are up for grabs, as well as a large handful of new seedling apple varieties selected by the orchardists and cidermakers in attendance. These varieties are most interesting to me, since we are growing apples in a time of growing climatic instability. Thus, the growers selecting scions to bring to the exchange are breeding and selecting seedling apples that will withstand the turbulence that climate change brings to the orchard, ref. 2016.

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There are about a dozen long tables this size, all garlanded with bundles of many folks’ favorite scion wood. My favorite holiday of the year.

If there are any apple varieties, or any elusive types of apples, that folks have been looking for, please do not hesitate to reach out to me to see if I may be able to send you some that I obtained over the scion wood collection period of the last couple months.

GRAFTING WORKSHOPS

A reminder that the NOFA Fruit Tree propagation workshop takes place next Saturday April 8th! Information and Signup link is here. The events director for NOFA Massachusetts also did an interview with me to help promote the workshop. Read the interview here.

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Shot taken from last weeks apple tree topworking workshop at the UMass Community Garden. Knowledge was learnt and grafts were grafted. A great time!

Guerrilla Grafting workshops will be done within very small groups! No more than two students per session, since we’re going to try not to draw too much attention while we’re on that guerrilla game! These workshops will involve grafting edible and cider varieties of fruit onto established landscape trees, like the many flowering ornamental pear and apple trees commonly found in parking lots and other public campuses. For signup: email matt.s.kaminsky@gmail.com and we will coordinate our private workshop between us.

WILD APPLE GROVES and HUMAN INTERVENTION

Most apple foragers are used to finding wild apples strewn about the landscape–a few here and there — perhaps dotting roadsides, along tree lines of field edges, at old cellar holes and homestead sites, or the occasional one-off on the outskirts of a gas station or office park. No place is unheard of as a habitat for a wild apple tree.

While the discovery of any one-off pippin is a real boon, even more exciting is the discovery of a larger grouping of them. A small population tells a more interesting story of lineage, pollination, and survival than the solitary tree. For the forager, it beckons the pervasive “kid in a candy store” feeling more intensely to have a dozen unique apple varieties to taste and acquaint one’s self with than just one or two. Simply put, more is better!

It is really not all that rare to find a small group of wild apple trees– a rule of thumb for apple scouting is: “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” One apple tree will give way to many more due to the annual production fruit leading to self-seeding or dispersal by wild animals.

In rare circumstances, wild apple trees can dominate an entire ecosystem, being a prominent species among stands of mixed hardwood forest. This is the result of a perfect combination of ecological variables: soil type, drainage, land use history and type, the other species of hardwoods present, and even more that I haven’t reconciled yet! The product of the alignment of these factors is an expansive wild apple grove, comprised of hundreds or thousands (crazy, but true) of apple trees, all producing different varieties of fruit, displaying different bearing habits, different susceptibilities to disease, and growing to different heights and statures.  This is beginning to sound a bit like the ancestral apple forests of Kazakhstan, isn’t it?

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The wild apple grove, managed by Yoder farm in Danby, VT after doing a solid day of chainsaw “triage” pruning.

GROVES: A SPECIAL TYPE OF WILD APPLE ECOSYSTEM

This may be totally unbelievable to be reading, but it is indeed true. Here’s the story of this piece of land:

It is an oblong strip of land along a dirt road, totaling some 50-60 acres. It lies in the foothills north of Dorset Peak, a major topographical feature of the Taconic Mountain Range, a region whose lower elevations have notoriously “sweet” or alkaline soil (Duchess Loam, to be exact) from the limestone-rich geology of the region. Much of the Taconic Mts. are protected in the northern rim of the Green Mt. National Forest. It is partially wooded and partially maintained as pasture.

This area of Vermont was settled in the late 1700s, so homestead sites with some amount of apple trees planted would’ve been in the ground by the year 1800. Over the past two centuries, due to the heavy downhill drainage and uneven grades, it has been mainly a dairy cow and horse pasture, rather than having hay, grain or veggie crops grown there as it may once have had in the days of diversified farmsteads in agrarian America.

In addition to having domesticated farm animals eating apples (drops, ground apples, cull apples), the area is home to rabbits, porcupines, deer, squirrels, and other denizens of the mountain. Because of a deer hunting culture in the area, wild apples are generally not cut down when maintaining sproutland (brushy neglected animal pastureland) to attract deer and other game, thus increasing the amount of apple seed being eaten and dispersed, and setting back populations of competing trees.

Let’s tally the flags so far:

  • Good soil type
  • Mixed Hardwoods
  • Some planted apple trees
  • Great climate for apple tree growth and annual production
  • Cows (beefaloes) and horses eating apples and dispersing seed within the pasture.
  • Wild critters
  • Apples being a favored species among farmers and hunters

The land was neglected for years, and then sold to the OMEA (sp?) Corporation, a multinational corporation that mines and sells limestone slurry, but they haven’t done anything with the land in the 60 years that they’ve owned it. During the years, apples have multiplied aggressively due to the combination of factors listed above. Many have lived and died, and many others survived. This is the school of hard knocks for apple breeding. A few decades in the great wild apple yonder has given way to a plethora of awesomely well-adapted apple varieties for minimal management: in other words, natural selection hard at work.

HUMAN INTERVENTION and LONGEVITY

In my review, I find it amazing that apples in North America (Malus spp., & interspecies hybrids), have been shaped by their own natural selection (and human-based artificial selection, to a minor degree) that a type of ecosystem such as this can be created and sustained. This echoes pieces of the survival and migration story of pome fruit from its ancestral origin deep in northern Asia.

Well– it isn’t exactly the same. Apples were introduced here. North America’s indigenous crabapple varieties are not widespread in this part of New England. The original trees planted on the property (of which we could only discover 3 — ancient, burly, sprouty trees far greater in size than any of the pippins growing there, that all sported distorted gnarly graft unions) have been producing heaps of seed annually for 150 years. With that much seed available, Malus has no problem populating the whole forest with saplings, but their ability to compete successfully and produce healthy fruit within a much more vertically challenging canopy relies on “triage” pruning (removal of competing trees, vines, and dead wood).  These are veteran trees who have been mothers to many hundreds, perhaps thousands of trees over their lifetimes.

This is a mystical place, a diamond mine for foragers and gnarly pippins followers. It is unique, but it is not one-of-a-kind. It just so happens that it was the subject of a perfect storm, and picked up by a local farmer in time to really make something of it, maintaining its abundance and mystique. More of these sites do exist, some others featuring a moderate percentage of wild pears, descendants of original mother pear trees that probably went through a similar chronology to this apple grove. With just the right type of human intervention, these ecosystems flourish and offer a myriad of possibilities for the orchardist, cidermaker, or woodlot owner. Steady management of these types of groves is a very viable method of apple production, given the right type of application for using the gnarly harvest. I would like to see sites like this become more common in New England, as it ensures a truly low input, high output, beneficial ecological impact in lieu of conventional orchard management.

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One of three surviving original trees in this largely pippin orchard that have been dated at ~ 150 years old.

If you are aware of a pippin orchard site like this, do not hesitate to reach out to me! This type of work is the specialty of my namesake, Gnarly Pippins. If you would like to read more about apple foraging, as always, the Wild Apple Forager’s Guide is available at the purchase link below. Only 7 copies left! 
Buy Now Button –
The Wild Apple Forager’s Guide

And if you are interested in joining the wild apple gang, you can rep the team colors with the Gnarly Pippins screen printed patch.

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Buy Now Button – Gnarly Pippins Backpatch

Until the next time! Bon courage, hope to see you at one of my workshops!

Matt // Gnarly Pippins

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