Thousands of crabapple trees arrived on pallets last month, destined to become the rootstock for orchardists in Interior and Southcentral Alaska and April apple tree grafting classes.
The 6-foot boxes of bare-root trees weigh between 100 and 200 pounds each. The trees, which had been purchased at an auction in October, were then dug from the nursery, stored over winter in a climate-controlled facility and, in March, trucked to Olympia, Washington, where they were put on a ship. The boxes were off-loaded in Anchorage, taken to a warehouse and then moved to a location where the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers could begin distribution and prepare for the group’s annual grafting workshop.
Five of the boxes were trucked to Steve Masterman, owner of Alaska Fruits in Ester. Steve has been teaching grafting classes through UAF Cooperative Extension Service’s Tanana District office for the past five years. The trees are mostly Siberian crabapples, an extremely winter-hardy apple with fragrant white flowers and small fruit that M. F. Babb described in a 1959 Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station bulletin as ranging from the size of a large garden pea to ¾ inches in diameter.
A winter-hardy rootstock is critical in Interior Alaska but if you want a larger fruit, a twig called a scion must be grafted on to the tree that is being used as the rootstock. This means cutting off almost the entire length of the stem. I’ve seen grown men flinch when told they need to thin their carrots, but show no trepidation when asked to lop off three years of growth on an apple tree so that they can graft on an 8-inch scion.
Apples must be grafted because the fruit that grows on trees planted from seed may not be worth eating. Over 100 varieties of apples are grown in Alaska but they are completely different than the varieties with which most of us are familiar. To be able to offer his students a number of different apple choices and to add to his own collection of over 200 varieties of fruits, Masterman begins gathering scion wood from Fairbanks locations in late March. Varieties of winter-hardy apples include Prairie Sun, Parkland, Clair 4 and Clair 9, named for Clair Lammers, who planted an orchard off Chena Hot Springs Road more than 30 years ago that his family still operates.
Grafting is not easy. It requires skill that comes with experience. I gave up grafting back when I was in my 20s. I have a bit of a fear of knives and now use my arthritis as an excuse to stand near the pot of hot grafting wax during Steve’s classes. It amazes me that each year Steve’s classes fill with nearly 100 people. I asked him, “Why do so many people want to learn to graft their own apple trees?” I expected the answer to be something like, “It’s difficult to find apple varieties that will ripen during our short season” or “When you purchase an apple tree from a greenhouse or nursery, often you don’t know if the rootstock is winter-hardy,” but no. What Masterman told me was, “People graft apple trees because it’s fun.” We were talking on the telephone but I could sense him grinning.
Steve will be teaching two apple grafting classes for beginners. One is from 6-9 p.m. April 25, and the other is at 10 a.m. on April 27. On April 28, anyone with grafting experience can join him from 2-5 p.m. in the Arctic Health Research Building on the UAF campus. Preregistration and payment are required with the Cooperative Extension Service at http://bit.ly/AppleGraft19. The cost is $30 and you’ll go home with apple trees to plant in your yard.
Julie Riley is horticulturist with UAF Cooperative Extension Service in the Tanana District Office in Fairbanks. Reach her at 907-230-7339 if you have questions about the upcoming apple grafting classes.