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Apple Notes

Bernie Nikolai's hobby orchard



Its been surprising how many folks from cold apple growing regions have contacted me. I've had emails from Russia, Finland, Sweden, Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and the high mountain areas of Colorado and Nevada. As well as from fellow cold climate apple growing Canadians in Quebec, northern Ontario, and the Canadian prairie provinces. Many folks have asked for an update on my orchard. Since I'm basically a computer illiterate, my wife Tina is the one who designed and updates my webpage. So one of my resolutions for 2012 was to give an update. Here it is...enjoy.

2012 Apple Notes Update
Orchard update.....The orchard is still going strong and doing well. This is despite record drought worse than the 1930s until recently, and hideous climate conditions. For example a couple of years back, we had the third most mild November in central Alberta weather history, going back over 120 years. Then on Dec. 12 it hit -46C or about -52F at the Edmonton International Airport, a short 30 minute drive from my orchard. This was about the coldest temperature ever recorded in the last 100 years. And I'm trying to grow apples, pears, and cherries in this....Its a good thing one of my philosophies is "Don't take life too seriously. You'll never get out of it alive anyways."
There was severe dieback the next spring, about 2 ft. yet not a single tree died. They recovered the next summer, and appear normal today. Clearly all the "weaker varieties" died out years ago, and only the ultra hardy remain. Even most of my test University of Saskatchewan apple trees had a good 2 ft. of tip dieback that spring, but they all recovered. Obviously after an extremely mild November, the trees were nowhere near as dormant as they would normally be. Then they got hit with -46C within a week or two...Ouch...But they all made it!
Here are a few random notes...
I DON"T sell trees or rootstock. Its purely a hobby for me. I have been contacted by a number of people asking to buy trees or rootstock. Sorry, but just do a Google search on the variety you are looking for, and you will find the sources from folks that sell them. My orchard is a kind of "Zen hobby" for me. I don't want to complicate my life by attempting to sell apple trees or rootstock.
Apple Tree Killers
It seems all nature conspires against the poor hardy apple tree....In a heavy snow year voles will often decimate a prairie orchard, and when the snow is gone, the orchardist is astonished to see many or all of his trees completely girdled to the heartwood. Unless you are skilled at "inarch grafting" you will lose the entire tree above the graft. The way around this is to put poison bait stations around the orchard for mice and voles in the late fall. Since doing this each late fall I have had no problems with vole damage.
Deer and moose will chew your orchard to nubs. I sometimes get emails asking for orchard growing advice in cleared "bush plots". The potential orchardists have cleared a few areas in the trees, and think it would be nice to "plant a few apple trees" in the opened area. I have 3 basic rules for prairie orchardists...1/ "Unless you have a wire game fence around your orchard, don't bother". Rule number 2 is similar..."Unless you have a wire game fence around your orchard, don't bother". And my 3rd rule for success (you guessed it) is "Unless you have a wire game fence around your orchard, don't bother".
ABSOLUTELY NOTHING else works to keep deer out of the orchard. I've tried them all. Human hair and blood and soap hung from nylon bags on the trees. I even got "timber wolf essence" from a trapping company and liberally applied it on my apple trees. These scent methods work, but only for 3 or 4 weeks. Then the deer habituate to the smell, and feast on your trees no matter what you try. Did I mention "Unless you have a wire game fence around your orchard, don't bother"? I had a friend in Saskatchewan who told me the nearest bush was two miles over plowed fields. He had NEVER, ever, seen a deer on his property in decades. So he planted his orchard. Actually the first winter he was okay, no damage. But the second winter he was absolutely astonished to learn that his trees had been severely damaged and eaten by deer that apparently had walked a good two miles over plowed snowy fields for the feast. My game wire fence is 8' tall, and keeps out the deer and moose nicely. My suggestion is don't even bother trying an orchard without a game wire fence. It just can't be done, at least not in prairie Canada.
The Biggest Apple Tree Killer is (drum roll please) THE SUN!
What you say? The sun? That's pure nonsense, isn't it? Sadly no....Apple trees will do well for a few years, then you will notice cracks on the southwest side of the trunk when the tree gets to a certain size. These cracks expand, allow in bacteria, and believe it or not, the tree goes into a fairly steep decline in health and dies a few years later. The cause is the sun hitting the trunk in February and March, warming it up, the sap starts to rise, then freeze, the freezing causes expansion, and the cracks form in the trunk. I'm saying you can have a perfect 100 tree orchard, nicely tucked behind a 8 ft. game wire fence, lovingly watered and weeded, and the trees still can go into a steep decline and die. All due to the SUN and sunscald.
The way around this is to wrap the trunk of each tree each fall (a daunting task with 300 trees), or do what I do....Mix a half and half solution of interior white latex paint and water in a pump spay can, and spray the entire southwest side of the trunk from ground level up to 4 or so feet every few years. Yes, this looks a bit weird at first, but the trees don't mind at all, and they actually live and bear fruit for you. This is a lot better than the trees becoming sickly, and dying due to sunscald. And don't use those white plastic spiral wraps for your apple trees. Why not? The answer is you will become too busy and forget to take them off in the spring. Then the tree will be damaged as it expands and grows into the spiral wrap. Don't ask me how I found this out....
Dwarf Rootstock in Zones 2 and 3
I've tested many kinds of dwarf rootstock in my Alberta orchard. Guess what? They ALL work fine if   irrigated. None of them die. Keep in mind I always have a good snow cover in winter. Ottawa 3, Bud 9, Bud 118, or the Vineland series from the University of Guelph are all decent choices. However, I recommend using Ranetka instead, a full size rootstock. Why? Prairie folks are a tough breed, and we think anything we plant should also be tough. So we tend to plant a tree on dwarf rootstock in good soil, water it in, perhaps stake it, and think that's fine. In a few weeks the grass aggressively grows to the trunk, the dwarf rootstock has a tough time competing, and you get poor results in terms of crops. The trees don't die. However you just get very few apples.
So if you want to use dwarf rootstock and get good results on the prairies, you can, BUT...1/ The trees must be grown in black soil without ANY competition by grass, weeds, etc. That is a TON of backbreaking weeding every few days/weeks. Very few folks have the heart (or back) for it. And Roundup will kill the grass, but it also will damage and kill apple trees. I have seen numerous apple trees killed and severely damaged by Roundup application that got on the leaves accidentally, or on the watersprouts at the base of the tree. Apple trees are extremely sensitive to Roundup. My worst dieback year was when the farmer next to my orchard grew "Roundup Ready Canola". To control the weeds he just sprayed the canola field with Roundup, and the spray drifted over my orchard. I lost two rows of apple trees nearest the fence....
Point number two is always stake the trees. Putting them on a metal wire is not good on the prairies. At -40C and colder the metal causes "burns" in the parts of the tree in contact with the wire. So I've had the best luck with individual wooden stakes.
Lastly you MUST irrigate the dwarf apple trees. The roots are just not able to feed the tree, and produce a nice apple crop without extra watering. Dwarf trees need about one inch of water a week in the summer, assuming they are grown in black soil without any grass to compete for the moisture. Most prairie locations get about half that May to Sept. per month. I'm saying dwarf apple trees can work well on the prairies, but require a TON of work. Most folks start out with high hopes and strong determination. But the constant weeding to get rid of grass competition, the irrigation, the staking soon gets old...and the trees go into decline. They don't die. They just produce very poorly. So go with Ranetka instead. The trees won't get too big in our tough, cold climate.
Making Money Selling Apples on the Prairies
I can answer this one quickly. Forget it. It "ain't a gonna happen" folks.....at least not in enough volume to make it worth your while. Here's why not...Apple trees need to be "babied". We think we can just stick them in the ground and they produce like barley or oats. That just doesn't happen. Voles, deer, moose, porcupines and other animals LOVE to eat apple trees. They need pruning and irrigation to do their best. The sun kills them if you don't protect the trunks. A bad winter causes significant dieback and the trees will take a year or two to recover. Or some years they just "rest". Things look great in the orchard, but the trees just don't produce apples, or very few. Then you get a GREAT crop! Guess what? A hailstorm in late July to August! The apples all look like they were shot with a shotgun with many ugly black spots all over them. Totally unsellable. From my experience I'd say you might get a good crop to sell about every third year. That's two years of pretty thin soup...
I suppose if you held a gun to my head and said "you MUST make money selling apples" I would go into the value added processing business. For example, I'd try to get a contract with the Gerber Baby Food company for "organic apple sauce" and produce the sauce from my orchard. Or make and sell "gourmet northern apple pies" and sell them for $20 each to a high end specialty market. But I'd never just pick and sell the apples. Its almost a sure way to go broke in prairie Canada from what I have seen. In warmer zone 6 climates you can get 20,000 lbs of apples per acre on dwarf trees. On the Canadian prairies you will get one tenth of that, and thats a good crop! So keep it fun. Keep it a hobby. Often when your hobby becomes your work, it no longer is fun.
Honeycrisp and best varieties
I really had hopes for Honeycrisp at my orchard. Sadly all 20 of my trees died, one by one, over a period of 7 years. I think I got a total of 3 apples from my 20 trees. Honeycrisp just can't take -40C and colder. It is fine in the city of Edmonton, but we don't hit -40C inside the city limits due to the heat island effect of large cities. But we often get -40C and colder outside the city in a test winter. There goes your Honeycrisp....
My favorite apple is still the old 18-10-32 from the University of Saskatchewan, now released and called "Prairie Sensation". This is a large apple, excellent eating fresh off the tree, that stores well and makes outstanding apple pies! It is rock solid hardy, and basically wasn't damaged at all in the test winter where most other varieties died back a good 2 ft after -46C on Dec. 12 after an extremely mild November. Its main downfall is that it is "bland looking" in that it is yellow with a slight red bloom. But "bland looking" is not nearly as bad as "bland tasting". For information see http://www.fruit.usask.ca/apples.html
Summing Things Up
My orchard has been a wonderful hobby for me, and I have all the apples, apple juice, apple sauce and pies that I care to consume. I have found the search for ultra hardy apples to be fascinating, and I've enjoyed astonishing the naysayer who assured me "you can't grow an apple orchard in central Alberta". My 300 trees say differently...Learning the art of grafting and "making my own apple trees" has also been very rewarding. However apple trees will always need "babying". You can't just "plant them and forget them, returning in the fall to pick the apples". They take a surprising amount of work and effort to produce well, and even then, there are hailstorms, test winters, frost during blossom time so you get no crop, etc. There seem to be dozens of different things that can stop a tree from producing for you. But despite it all, there are few feelings as satisfying as being in the orchard when things are going well, when the grafts you made "are taking", at blossom time, or when the trees hang heavy with delicious apples.


Introduction and Climate Data

My test orchard of 200 apple trees is located in a harsh zone 3, even zone 2 in some winters, climate about a 30 minute drive west of  Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The coldest recorded at my orchard was -43C (-46F) during the test winter of 1995/1996. Cold weather in central Alberta can stay for several days, with each night dipping to the -30s and -40s. The average January temperatures at my orchard are a high of -10C and a low of -20C. In July the average high is +23C and the average low +10C. Precipitation averages about 18 inches per year, with a June, July, and August maximum. The climate would be generally semi-arid, with supplemental water needed for the trees (especially those on dwarf rootstock) a few times each summer. The last spring frost averages May 24th and the first killing frost in the fall arrives about September 15. The later maturing apples are left on the trees until temperatures of -6C are predicted overnight, usually the first or second week of October. The orchard was started in the spring of 1993 by planting 50 Ranetka Crabs, and grafted-on them with several varieties. Each year the orchard has been expanded by a few dozen trees, ending in 1999 when I ran out of space with a total of 200 trees.

Several different rootstocks are being tried at my experimental orchard. Obviously all rootstocks need to be quite hardy to survive my winter climate. The following are my comments based on my trials of various rootstocks:

Ranetka Crab - Very hardy, grows well, produces good sized apples, and is rought resistant. However, as a seedling rootstock, each rootstock will have very slightly different characteristics that it will pass on to the grafted-on cultivar. This is one very tough rootstock, and it has survived a week of -40F with no snow cover in Fairbanks, Alaska, with less than 5% mortality.

Siberian Crab - Very hardy and drought resistant, but slower growing than Ranetka. A two year old tree in my climate on Ranetka is as big as a three year old tree on Siberian. I have not experienced compatibility problems on Siberian Crab, probably due to the fact that the apples I'm growing are very hardy, with a lot of crab in their recent ancestry. Some have claimed Siberian Crab produces smaller apples than other rootstocks. I'll be watching for this in the next year or two as the trees produce. So far there is no difference in apple size on Siberian Crab.

Ottawa 3 - This rootstock appears to be hardy in my climate, as well as drought resistant. However in the winter of 2000/2001 we had very little snow. This greatly reduced the insulation for all rootstocks on trial. On marginal cultivars, the grafted-on tree died, but the Ottawa 3 rootstock came up from the roots. Based on this preliminary evidence, I'd say Ottawa 3 is not the rootstock to use in a severe climate with marginally hardy cultivars. It also hates to be moved, and will "pout" by not growing for two years after transplanting. Apparently the roots regrow very slowly.

Bud 490 - This rootstock survived fully after the test winter of 2000/2001 with almost no snow and temperatures down to -30C. This was actually a mild winter for us, but the lack of snow tested all rootstocks. Bud 490 is semi-dwarf, drought resistant, produces large apples, and partially fire blight resistant. The main problem is that it is very hard to get in Canada. I received mine from the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Kentville, Nova Scotia. It apparently does poorly if the soil thaws and freezes as it does in eastern Canada. However in my climate, once the soil freezes in early November, it stays frozen until April. Bud 490 may prove to be the rootstock of choice for me, but further testing is required.

M26 - I'll pass on this rootstock as I lost about half of my 20 trees on M26 during the test winter of 2000/2001. It just isn't as hardy as the others. The other problem is M26 is very drought sensitive, which is not good for my semi arid climate.

Bud 9 - While not tested heavily, I did lose a few trees, about half of 6 or so, on Bud 9 after last year's test winter. Pass.

P22 - While this rootstock was hardy, it appears extremely sensitive to fire blight. Specifically 20 trees were grafted to P22, and every single one died of fire blight. Since fire blight is a constant problem in my area, P22 is not a rootstock of choice.

Vineland Series, V1, V2, V3 - These are new rootstocks from the breeding program at the Vineland Research Station in Ontario. Parentage is Kerr Applecrab (very hardy) x M9. These rootstocks are fire blight resistant/immune as well as quite hardy. Time will tell how they produce in my climate. They have survived 3 winters, including last years test winter, unharmed.

Apple Cultivars and Comments

Clearly any apple cultivars I grow must be extremely hardy by apple growing standards. As an example, McIntosh is widely considered to be a very hardy cultivar in most apple growing regions. McIntosh, however, doesn't stand a ghost of a chance of survival at my orchard. McIntosh simply can't take winters colder than -40C. Also, a hardy cultivar recommended for the Canadian prairies is Goodland. Unfortunately at my site, Goodland is very marginal in terms of hardiness, and my test trees have struggled, especially after a colder winter. This will give you an idea as to the challenges I'm up against in terms of tree hardiness and survival. Nonetheless, I've found numerous cultivars that survive, and even prosper in my harsh climate. While I have experimented with well over 50 different apple cultivars at my orchard, the below sums up the most promising:

Norkent - The origins of this Edmonton apple are obscure, but it appears to be a seedling from the tens of thousands sent out across the prairies from a program by Agriculture Canada in the 1960s. The original Norkent tree was moved from the University of Alberta as a whip to a residential backyard in Edmonton as they were out of room at the university in terms of letting it grow to full size. It is best described as an ultra hardy Gala. It has been fully hardy for me, and also quite productive. Two other apples closely related to Norkent, some say it may be the same apple, are Simonet 1847 and PF51. Norkent is ripe about Sept. 7. While it stores reasonably well, it seems to lose taste in storage. Good for fresh eating and cooking. Red/orange striped and quite pleasant looking.

922 End - This is an Alberta apple with an unusual name. It originally stood for "plot 9, row 22, end of row", hence "922 End". This apple is one of the hardiest apples on the planet, and was grown for many years by the late Jake Friessen in the Peace River country of northern Alberta. Jake told me he had never once even seen tip dieback on this cultivar, even after long cold periods of -45C and a bit colder. While tart to eat, it excels in pies, sauce and juice. It is also very productive and must be thinned. 922 End is a yellow apple with red cheek, turning 80% red by its ripening date, about Sept. 10 for me. It doesn't store well and should be considered a processing apple, especially suitable for extremely cold climates.



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Photo 2001

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September Ruby - This is another ultra hardy apple which has never shown a bit of injury at my site. It is a beautiful red, but somewhat lumpy apple that will store for a few months. Reasonably good to eat fresh, September Ruby is my favourite hands down for juice. 100% juice of this cultivar, not mixed with any other cultivar, beats anything I've ever tasted from any of the Ontario or British Columbia organic apple juices. It is ripe for me about Sept. 15 most years.

Parkland - Very hardy, productive, with good fresh off the tree taste. It is ripe late August for me, and is a very pleasant looking red blushed apple. The main problems are that it is a softer apple that won't store, plus it tends to fall off the tree. However it is the first red apple of good quality that matures each year for me. Far better than its cousin Norland.

Wealthy - Even though this is a zone 4 apple, it has survived well at my orchard. Wealthy excels in pies and for juice, and is good fresh when fully ripe, about Sept. 15 in my climate. It appears to be produce only every second year unless well thinned.

Golden Uralean - Nothing is known about this beautiful, golden apple's origin. I'd guess it is Russian, and perhaps coming from the Ural mountains in Russia. It is ripe by mid August in my climate, and is good to eat fresh (although somewhat soft in texture) plus excellent for baking. It doesn't store and must be used quickly, within a few days of ripening. This is however, a beautiful, ultra hardy cultivar, the first ripening apple of the season for me. It must be thinned very aggressively in spring or only crab apple sized apples will be obtained.

Prairie Sun - This is a new release from the University of Saskatchewan. It is extremely hardy, does not brown when cut, has a small core, and makes outstanding pies with the cut pieces remaining solid in the pies. It is good if picked fresh for eating. It doesn't store for too long, and must be aggressively thinned as it is very productive. It is a large yellow apple with a red cheek that is ripe by September 1 in my climate. In a nutshell, an ideal, highly productive and ultra hardy cooking and processing apple. It is a Goodland x Brookland cross.

18-10-32 - This is an advanced selection from the U. of Saskatchewan's breeding program that will be released fairly shortly. The apples are large, yellow with a red cheek, crisp, and very tasty. The tree is also extremely hardy and has not shown any winter injury, not even minor tip damage, in my climate. It is ripe about the third week in September for me. Highly recommended when available and formally released.

18-18-11 - Another advanced selection from the U. of Saskatchewan. This very hardy, red/orange apple is ripe about mid September for me. It is tasty, crisp, and non-browning when cut. It seems to suffer from superficial skin blemishes for some reason, and as such would probably be more of a processing apple despite its good taste.

18-8-9 - This McIntosh x Brookland seedling is fully hardy in my climate, and tastes like a really good McIntosh (which would never survive my winters). It is a beautiful red colour, but may have problems sizing. It is ripe the last week in September for me. Outstanding fresh taste, but lack of size may limit it from commercial applications.

Other varieties of promise: I am currently growing another 25 or so other advanced selections from the University of Saskatchewan. While fully hardy so far, none of these have yet fruited, and are currently one or two year old whips. I don't expect any fruit for a couple of years from these, but if they are as good as the 4 Saskatchewan varieties that have already fruited for me, I'm in for a treat! I also am testing varieties from Mr. Lloyd Lee, lifelong plant breeder from Camp Creek, Alberta. His Lee #21 and Lee #17 seem especially promising as they possess very good taste coupled with extreme hardiness. If you come across an ultra hardy apple that has commercial potential, please e-mail me.