I started typing this post in the spring of 2017 and just pulled it out of the drafts folder. I’ve added a bit and decided to publish.
In the winter of 2017 I planted three* apple trees at the request of my family. Apple trees weren’t part of my original plan because of the required upkeep for insects or disease in a southern climate. Spraying chemicals was low on my list. However, Twin A, my picky son, favors apples and had started saving seeds in hopes of planting a tree. I wanted to nurture my young Johnny Appleseed but I didn’t want to devote a lot of my precious yard to seedling test plots so I found a nursery “specializing in old southern and disease-resistant apple and pear trees.”** It’s not too far from my home. In fact, it’s along the route we use to travel north for the holidays, so around Thanksgiving of 2016 we stopped in at an apple festival at Century Farm Orchards.
The weather was clear and growing colder the longer we were there. The old farm was pretty, with views of the surrounding hill country, and you could see the dark clouds of a weather front approaching.
This was a good stop for our family because I like plants and the boys are foodies. The boys drank many samples of apple cider (the soft stuff) and ate some apple pie. Then they took a walk with Oso while I viewed an exhaustive planting demonstration by a professor from NCSU.
I was able to ask David C. Vernon, of Century Farms, about his recommendations for apples that can succeed with less chemical intervention. He recommended Red Free and St. Clair, newer apple varieties that ripen early in the year. Mr. Vernon explained that the less time the the fruit spends on the tree the less it is exposed to insect and disease pressure. I also selected Grimes Golden, a variety originating in WV, like me. He said this would be a good variety as well, even though it doesn’t ripen as early as the others.***
I received the bare root trees by mail at the beginning of January. I didn’t have a good cold-but-not-freezing spot for them to wait out the impending ice storm so I decided to plant them the next day. I came home from work a couple hours ahead of the freezing rain and went right out with my shovel.
There is something magical about planting a bare root tree. It is dormant and looks like a dead stick when you receive it. There will be instructions about preventing the root end from drying out too much, maybe soaking for a couple hours in a bucket of water prior to planting, etc. The bare root plant it looks more like lawn debris than the majestic fruit tree it could become and this does not inspire confidence at first.
In fact, planting a tree requires faith, hope, and love. Specifically, it requires you to have faith that it is alive, that it is labeled correctly, and that it will be able to survive in the environment you can provide. It requires you to be hopeful for a harvest, or flowers, or shade, or whatever you, well, hope for. Finally, it requires you to love it and take care of it: plant it straight, water it during its first summer, prune it to your vision for it, and eventually, if everything goes right, thin the fruit.
I take my trees out into the freezing rainy mist that is falling from the sky and dig three holes in the yard at the appointed places, and set to work planting them. You must not bury the graft unless you want the tree to make extra roots that will not have a dwarfing effect. So that’s the vertical dimension of leveling. Then there are the other dimensions to consider. I take extreme care to make sure the trunk is straight–especially the lower few inches, since I will be trimming it to knee height after planting to make sure the branches start low and keep the tree as small and manageable as possible.
Once straight I back fill with soil from the yard, grass side down because I don’t want grass coming right up around them. I will mulch with wood chips and cardboard later to suppress weeds. I keep checking to make sure they are straight, often crouching or lying down to line up trunks with existing structures in each direction, like the corner of our house or the neighbor’s garage. It took me over an hour to plant these three saplings. It was cold and freezing rain started to fall. My fingers felt icy, and my clothes looked grubby. What a great afternoon!
Throughout the winter, I will keep looking at the trees. From the window, and up close. Wondering if they are still alive. They still look like dead sticks. But part of the magic is that one day in the spring I will see the leaf buds starting to enlarge a little. Slowly but surely, the tree is waking up, and if no rodents gnaw off the rootball, and by the grace of God, in a few years, apples!
The next week after all that work to establish the trunks straight, I noticed that one of the trees was sideways a little. I interrogated my husband in case he had tripped on the little sappling or knew what happened. Twin B, who was 5 at that time, let me know that he had loosened up the roots in the soil to help it grow better. Sigh… I went out and tried to realign it.
*I planted three trees because apples require a pollenizer and if something happens to one of them there will still be pollen for the other two.
**I will still have to do a bit of spraying for insects or disease, but by selecting less vulnerable trees I expect to do a care routine with less or fewer pesticides…
***The Grimes Golden has been growing for two summers and has had much more trouble with Cedar Apple Rust than the other two trees. It has also been trying to grow larger and was the only one to bloom in 2018. In 2019 I will treat it with something for the rust and hope to get apples if one of the other trees will flower.
The St. Clair has had the most struggles. During its first summer a deer snacked off some of the main limbs it had developed. It recovered but never replaced the limbs and now has only two.