Growing apples in Alaska requires bushels of patience

Sunday, August 4, 2019 - 12:59
  • It’s not uncommon for apple trees to take five years to begin producing fruit. (Photo by Chris Wood)

Well after waiting for five years, my Norland dwarf apple tree has finally produced apples! This tree has been babied and cared for to the nth degree, and just when I was about to give up — surprise! — 25 apples appeared on the tree after the blossoms faded this past spring. I am a patient person, but five years? It’s time to research this subject a little more.

Growing up in Washington state, my grandparents lived on a farm and they had a large apple orchard. Many hours were spent climbing in these trees and picking these yummy apples. So how hard can it be growing apples here in Southcentral? As it turns out, you have to pay attention to a few important details when buying apple trees and when planting your tree if you want them to live and flourish.

The first thing to remember is that we are a zone 3-4 here. Apple trees should be planted in the spring of the year in the northern part of the United States and in full sun. Your new tree should be well watered until it is established. The ideal pH for an apple tree is 5.5-6.5. Obtain a soil sample and test your soil prior to planting and amend your soil accordingly. Work the soil amendments down 12-18 inches prior to planting the tree. Make sure the sides of your hole are not hard but softened so the roots can extend laterally. Apple trees like well-drained, rich soil that will retain moisture. Make sure your tree is mulched well and the soil is well weeded. Do not plant the fruit tree in a wooded area. When you plant your tree, make sure that you do not bury the graft area but leave it at least two inches above the ground. Be aware of the spacing of your tree, realizing how large it is expected to get and give it plenty of room to perform.

Apples are grafted on a cold hardy rootstock, like the Siberian crabapple, which claims minus-60 degrees cold hardiness. Rootstocks are not chosen for their fruit but are chosen for cold hardiness, disease resistance, efficient yield production and tolerance of different soil conditions. Tree tags do not always tell you the zone the tree grows best in or the rootstock the tree is grown on. Our nurserymen and women are knowledgeable of the cultivars that grow well in this area, and before you buy, ask and research these important facts.

The Alaska Fruit Growers Association is a good resource. In the spring, the fruit growers conduct an apple grafting seminar where you can buy rootstocks for $3 and they provide the cuttings (scion) from mature apple trees from their orchards for you to graft to the rootstock. This was really a great workshop and all my grafts were successful with their instruction. Every August and September this group has garden tours of orchards around our area where you can actually see successfully grown apple trees. Membership is required to attend these tours but is definitely worth it.

Each variety needs a number of chill hours to set the fruit, temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees. The further north you go the higher the hours of chill time is needed. Of course this is totally out of our hands and can vary from year to year. Apples do require cross pollination for fruit set from another compatible apple tree in close proximity. Maybe in the future there will be a self-pollinating apple tree variety we can grow. Until then, you will need two different trees, for instance a crabapple and an apple tree.

The University of Alaska in Fairbanks is conducting studies on cultivars that are hardy here for us to grow. Currently the following apple cultivars are suggested as cold hardy here outdoors: Dutchess of Oldenberg, Goodland, Paulared, Yellow Transparent, Williams Pride, Zestar, State Fair, Norland, Parkland Rescue, Summer Red, Carroll and Heyer 12. There are trials going on inside high tunnels currently also at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As it turns out, it is not unusual for an apple tree to take five years to produce fruit. I definitely did not realize it took so long. Fruit growing is definitely not for an impatient gardener. Apple trees do require pruning yearly in the spring after they start producing fruit.

The imperiled honeybees are required for pollination of our trees and should not be wiped out by pesticides in the garden. Frequently, you will see that orchards have bee hives in their fields to help with the needed pollination of their trees which is essential. Honey bees, which are partners in the garden, evidently do their best work at 65 degrees and cold, windy weather can keep them from coming out of their hives, resulting in a decrease in pollination at the crucial time period. If you want to start an orchard or just have a couple of apple producing trees, educating yourself ahead of time is so important to the success of your project. I hope this discussion has been helpful to get you off on the right foot. Remember to stay calm and keep gardening and I look forward to seeing you around town.

Chris Wood is a certified master gardener and president of the Greater Eagle River Garden Club. Write to her at [email protected]

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