The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Should you want an apple tree to survive, you must: Select an apple tree correct for this  growing zone; support it with posts and ties to keep the wind from shaking the soil loose around the roots; protect it from mice and rabbits by using metal screen around the lower trunk; water it religiously; and do not let mowers and weed trimmers get close to it. Failure to do these things is the primary reason apple trees fail to make it.

You can also do all those things, and because you planted it in the shade of some other tree, or in the wrong soil, or it broke due to poor or nonexistent pruning, or you failed to control apple pests, or you let it overbear or bear too soon, you will still be unhappy with what you have. Apple trees are, it is sad to say, nearly as difficult to raise properly as children.

But, you say, you grew up with apple trees and no one did those things, to which I reply: Are those trees still alive? Wild apples are one thing.  Sweet, edible apples are another. They are good because they are grafted onto special root stock, and that grafting makes them much more to our liking for taste, but much less hardy.

Back in the old days, apple trees were planted from seed, and those folks valued apples for cooking, or cider, or for other purposes for which being pretty sour really didn’t matter. It turns out that apple trees possess somewhat the genetic variation that humans have. All humans have the same two arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc., but are different. The same thing goes for apple trees. You could plant ten thousand apple seeds and get ten thousand apple trees—each of which will bear an apple that is somewhat different from other apples. It is a very rare occurrence for one of those ten thousand trees to produce an apple that everyone agrees is tasty.

But once in a great while a perfect apple happens, due to cross pollination (cross breeding, in other words) with another tree. The University of Minnesota, among others, spends years trying to grow the perfect apple by crossbreeding one tree’s flowers with another tree’s pollen, and then growing that apple and planting the seed. It’s a process that requires enormous patience. It is also a process that produces countless dead ends before a Honeycrisp or a Fireside or a Honeygold pops up. These are all apples that will not only survive but will produce well here in Zone 4, where winter nights are prone to freeze less hardy roots to death.

Okay. Here’s what I learned last year. First: It turns out that there is a positive side to hot, dry weather, because apple trees are not exposed to the wet conditions that cause all kinds of blights and fungal invasions. 

Those diseases? That’s why we prune like crazy in the spring, so there’s not so much leafy growth that disease has a nice enclosed and damp space to breed inside all protected. And wet.  Sure, I had to water last summer, but given the two conditions? I’ll water.

Second: That old wive’s tale about apples needing a frost before you pick them? Baloney! You know how bananas continue to ripen after you buy them? Apples do, too. Here’s the deal: Cut the apple open, and if the seeds are dark, pick it. They’ll continue to ripen, even if you refrigerate them. The refrigeration slows down the process, but they’ll still ripen. Tree ripening is nice, but not if you intend on having any storage time left in them.

Third: Deer don’t eat apples; they eat soy beans, corn, and alfalfa. Why would they eat an apple. But they do eat the leaves. Which kills all growth in that branch. Frankly, I’d prefer they ate the apples.

Last: My favorite apple is the Sweet 16. I’ve been unfaithful the last few years, thought the Honeycrisp was my favorite. But the Honeycrisp has a genetic weakness that makes it prone to cork spot, a nasty apple rottenening disease. Nope. The Sweet 16. For sure.

Well, okay. Maybe the Centennial Crab. And the Connell Red. Maybe a Fireside. 

Aw, heck. I like them all.