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Strong Roots, Fruitful Branches; Grafting wild and heirloom apples

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 April Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

(C) Matt Kaminsky 2016

On April 8 in Amherst, Matt Kaminsky, the author of The Wild Apple Forager’s Guide, will be teaching the workshop Fruit Tree Propagation Practicum: Grafting and Top Working along with Bob Fitz, lead orchardist of Small Ones Farm.

Malus domestica, the Latin nomenclature for the common apple, truly is an aptly-named species. From its early colonial days as the primary ingredient in hard cider, the drink of choice for most early New Englanders, to its current place as a centerpiece in autumn’s culinary delights, Malus domestica tells the story of our endless quest for sugar, intoxication, and control. No other fruit has been as shaped by the needs of the people it cohabited with.

At Small Ones Orchard in Amherst, they honor that legacy by growing some of the finest naturally-grown apples in Massachusetts while maintaining a commitment to a holistic, organic system. While most orchards in New England rely on a vast toolkit of fungicides and pesticides, Small Ones focuses on growing strong and resilient trees that can better withstand the barrage of insects, viruses, and fungi that enjoy apples as much as the rest of us.

Its strength begins at the very earliest stage of an apple tree’s life, during the process of propagation known as grafting. Unlike the majority of vegetable crops, apples are almost never intentionally grown from seed because the resulting fruit is inevitably going to be unlike its parent.  Plant a McIntosh seed and you may end up with a small, gnarly, and utterly unpalatable apple. Apple growers for centuries have maneuvered around this problem by grafting. Essentially, grafting is the craft of taking a cutting from a desirable variety (known as the scion) and attaching it to a desirable rootstock in order to get the benefits of both worlds: a known and proven variety with a strong rootstock that can control the desired height of the tree.

The craft of grafting goes back to at least the medieval era of Western Europe. Apples were already a staple crop back then (in fact, there are even records of tenants paying their rent with apples) and some ingenious farmers figured out that they gain some control over their fruits by splicing a clone onto a different tree.

Centuries later, when apples made the journey across the Atlantic they retained their cultural importance, though in colonial New England most apples were grown from seed because most apples were destined for the cider press, not for fresh eating (making the shape, size, and gnarliness of the apple less important). From those ungrafted and semi-wild apple trees came many of the famous varieties that we now know and love. In fact, most named varieties – McIntosh, Baldwin, Orange Cox Pippin – came from an ungrafted seedling apple tree that happened to bear a nice fruit.

With the blessing of so many wild and semi-wild trees came a plethora of heirloom varieties in all colors and flavors, each with a specific use: cidering, baking, or fresh easting. The realities of modern agriculture have unfortunately diminished the availability of these heirloom varieties. Most contemporary grocery stores now only offer a handful of varieties, including such insipid offerings as Red Delicious. One now finds the same varieties in Springfield, MA as in Springfield, IL.

So, what’s an adventurous apple lover to do? If you’re Matt Kaminsky, one of the growers at Small Ones Farm, you learn to graft, and you go back to the source: wild apple trees. When Matt goes foraging for wild apples, or wandering the countless abandoned orchards of New England, he’s always looking for worthy trees to bring back to the farm for propagation. By skillfully cutting a few twigs of a particularly desirable tree, he can then graft that variety onto good rootstock and grow it out into a variety unlikely to be encountered anywhere else. Not only does this add interest and variety to their harvest, but also the increased genetic diversity on the farm means that in a year of drought or high pest pressure there will be more likelihood that at least some of the trees will thrive.

(C) Matt Kaminsky 2016Grafting also allows Small Ones Farm to propagate a number of rare heirloom varieties. One such variety, the Black Oxford, is a rare variety that hails from Paris, Maine and dates back to the late 18th century. Matt describes it as “midnight purple with a little bit of russeting.” It also happens to be “bulletproof” and can easily last the winter in cold storage. Countless such varieties exist in New England waiting to be rediscovered.

According to Matt, grafting isn’t just for the professional orchardist. Home orchardists and gardeners can harness the craft of grafting as well. The savings alone are reason enough to add grafting to your DIY repertoire: a single apple tree at a nursery usually goes for $30-$40, whereas a grafted tree usually only costs $1-2 for rootstock (which can also be grown out for free). The scion wood can be had for free from a wild tree or any number of scion wood exchanges.

Grafting also opens up new options for saving space and time in the garden. Through a grafting technique known as top-working, in which a scion cutting is grafted to an older tree, a home orchardist with minimal space can graft several different varieties onto a single tree, leading to better pollination and more diversity of fruit. The same technique of top-working can also be used to grow good eating apples on a crabapple tree. Or, as often happens, it turns out that the variety of apple you’ve planted turns out to be lacking flavor or vulnerable to a disease; with top-working, you can cut off a branch, and graft on a new and improved variety without having to start from scratch.

For Matt the reason he grafts wild, heirloom, and modern varieties goes beyond economics. He says, “It makes sense to get into grafting if you want to have a connection to your trees.” Through the process of grafting, one not only joins two distinct apple trees together, but also creates a new union between the individual, the tree, and the earth which they both share. 

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