In praise of the apple seedling

One of our favourite books from Maine - the apple nerd state
One of our favourite books from Maine – the apple nerd state

If you’ve inherited a garden, or moved into a house with existing fruit trees, there’s a very good chance you won’t know what they are – because it’s a rare homeowner who keeps good enough records or labels to pass onto a new resident!

So, you’ll probably need to do some garden detective work to figure out what you’ve got.

One of the first things to look for, is whether a tree is a seedling, or a grafted tree. Not sure of the difference?

An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it's probably going to become less obvious with age
An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it’s probably going to become less obvious as the trunk thickens with age

Here’s a couple of tips that might help:

  • Look for a graft union, where the scion was grafted onto the rootstock. Any fruit tree you buy from a nursery will have been grafted (unless you’re buying rootstocks from a specialist rootstock nursery), but unfortunately the graft union may be hard to see in the adult tree. If you can see it (there’s a couple of examples in the photos above and below) – great! You know you’ve got a grafted tree, which means it’s a known variety, and then you can start trying to figure out which one. If you can’t see a graft union, that’s inconclusive evidence! It may be a seedling, or it may be a grafted tree where the union is no longer visible.
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
  • Another give-away is a tree having multiple trunks. Seedlings are often naturally multi-trunked, while grafted trees always have a single trunk. BUT, it’s very common (particularly if a tree hasn’t been well looked after) to see the original grafted trunk plus a number of suckers from below the graft union that have become extra trunks. One of the ways to spot this is to notice whether seasonal changes (blossom, or leaves changing colour in autumn, for example) look the same and happen at the same time on each trunk, and of course whether they all bear the same type of fruit (or any fruit at all).
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks

Traditionally in Australia (and more generally in the orchard world), seedlings have been thought of only as a source of rootstocks for grafting known varieties onto.

Seedlings themselves have been considered at best worthless, and at worst pest trees that must be chopped down and eradicated.

We noticed a much different approach to seedling apple trees when we visited America (and particularly in Maine, which must be the apple-nerd capital of the world), where they are more likely to be appreciated for their own potential:

A seedling apple is like a musical improvisation In the world of music, one parent would be the original composition and the second would be the musician. When the musician sets aside the printed page and plays the tune extemporaneously, the result is something new….You may or may not recognise the tune. It may be pleasant to the ear, or it may be discordant. Musical improvisations may be endlessly fresh and inventive…(t)hey may also be stale, cliche and uninteresting. However, whether you like them or not…each will be new and unique.

Same with apples. Some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting, while others will be quite wonderful. Each is an improvisation.

John Bunker, Apples and the Art of Detection
Nan Cobbey's huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it's in Africa, but it's actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From "Apples and the Art of Detection", by John Bunker
Nan Cobbey’s huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it’s in Africa, but it’s actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From “Apples and the Art of Detection”, by John Bunker

So, if a seedling tree is potentially a wonderful fruit tree in its own right, why is it important to know whether your tree is a seedling or a grafted tree?

Because (as John points out), “some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting” – or in other words, completely useless, whereas grafted varieties have all been chosen because they’ve been proved to grow apples with desirable characteristics.

If you’re aiming for fruit self-sufficiency (and if you’ve got room for a few trees, why wouldn’t you be?) then each tree needs to pull its weight by growing the varieties and quantities of fruit you want.

So if you really want to achieve fruit self-sufficiency, you need to know what you’re starting with (as explained in Grow A Year’s Supply of Fruit).

Because there’s no room in a productive and thriving food production garden for “stale and uninteresting” fruit!

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?

Worms in apples are scary and revolting – particularly if you only find half a worm, right?

A classic grub in the apple ... aka Codling Moth larvae
A classic grub in the apple … aka Codling Moth larvae

Apart from the visceral disgust of biting into an apple and finding that something beat you to it and is already living inside, it also downgrades the quality of the fruit.

Apples that have been infected with Codling moth are much less usable, and less valuable for all these reasons:

  • the apples don’t keep as well;
  • infected apples aren’t suitable for long term storage;
  • they’re more likely to be attacked by diseases (e.g. rots) and even other pests;
  • they can’t be sold commercially if infected;
  • they look bad so you don’t want to share them friends and family;
  • having to cut the affected part out before cooking or eating is very wasteful.
Apples riddled with the evidence of Codling moth infestation
Apples riddled with the evidence of Codling moth infestation

If the grubs have left the apple this can be even worse, as it tells you that the grubs were able to complete their life cycle and go on to breed again, perpetuating your Codling moth problem and increasing their population.

So, what to do?

Codling moth is one of the more challenging pests that fruit growers have to deal with, but don’t despair, there is a way! Here’s our 6-step plan for getting on top of them:

  1. First, find out whether Codling moth are a problem in your area. If you already have them in your apples, this one’s a no-brainer, but if you’re new to fruit growing you may need to ask around other fruit growers in your area to find out if it’s something you need to be prepared for.
  2. Learn how to identify them.
  3. Understand their life cycle. Good organic pest management depends on knowing your enemy! Every pest (and every disease for that matter) has at least one weak point in their life-cycle when it’s easy (or at least possible) to intervention that will interrupt them to reduce or prevent the damage they do, and over time to hopefully eradicate the problem.
  4. Familiarise yourself with the many tools you can use against Codling moth – including trapping, banding, pheromone ties, chickens, predator insects, etc.
  5. Decide which one will work best for you, and write your own Codling moth plan.
  6. Conquer the Codling moth!
Codling moth pupae and larve in a trap
Codling moth pupae and larve in a trap

These steps are covered in more detail in the Conquer Codling Moth short course, which also includes a step-by-step process for writing your own plan.

If you already have Codling moth in your apples and are not taking active steps to control them, they’re likely to get worse. Because they complete most of their life cycle inside the apple or hidden in the soil or the bark, they’re not easy for predators to find.

Unless you intervene to stack the odds against them, in un-managed apple trees the problem tends to grow.

Ignore them at your peril!

The monster tree that got away

Moving into a new property with existing fruit trees can be very exciting, with the promise of ready-made fruit harvests outside the back door without having to plant trees and wait years for them to mature.

The reality is often quite different, as it often turns out you’re inheriting problem fruit trees. You know the ones – the “monster” trees that have been abandoned, neglected or just unloved, and they get a little wild.

Getting them back under control is possible but needs a bit of specialist care – we call it renovation pruning. As the name suggests, it’s all about bringing trees back into good repair and productivity.

How would you prune trees like these?

Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years
Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years

This example is actually a whole lot of monster trees in an organic orchard that was left unpruned for a few years. They were neglected for years and ended up crowded, tangled, and full of blackberries.

Here’s another typical example of a backyard fruit tree that got away:

In both cases the trees are still healthy, and so the good news is it’s completely possible to bring them back into production and make them manageable again, so if you’ve inherited some fruit trees that haven’t been cared for for some time, don’t despair.

Here’s how we’d approach the first example (you can modify these instructions to suit your own situation of course):

  1. Firstly, remove all the blackberries. This can be a challenge because blackberries love to regrow, but a combination of grubbing out the canes, cutting the rest very low, and if possible following up with sheep or goats, or mowing regularly should gradually get rid of them. We wouldn’t use poison on them around fruit trees, because it’s not good for the soil.
  2. Start pruning by removing any dead wood from the trees.
  3. Decide what shape of tree you’d ultimately like to achieve (e.g. ‘vase’ or ‘central leader’), and select the permanent limbs you’re going to keep in the tree to give you the best approximation of that shape.
  4. Remove limbs you don’t want.
  5. Reduce the height of the tree by pruning each retained permanent limb down to a lateral that is at the right height to become the new ‘leader’ of that limb.
  6. Now do the regular maintenance pruning job on each limb. Starting from the top and working down to the bottom of the limb, make a decision about how to treat each lateral (or side branch), which boils down to either leaving them alone, shortening them or removing them.

Here’s the same trees after the first year’s renovation pruning – the blackberries have started to be removed, suckers have been removed, some limbs have been removed, and some lateral growth shortened. They’re starting to look like fruit trees again!

Apple trees after the first year's renovation pruning
Apple trees after the first year’s renovation pruning

Renovation pruning has many challenges, including the fact that when you remove a large amount of wood you’re likely to stimulate the tree to grow a whole lot of new wood to replace it, often at the expense of growing fruit.

As we explain in our Pruning by Numbers ebook the way to minimise the shock to the tree and help keep it calm and fruitful is to create a renovation pruning plan over a number of years – the larger the tree, the longer it might take you to finally get it under control.

A backyard plum tree after the first year's renovation pruning
A backyard plum tree after the first year’s renovation pruning