Grandma’s Apple Tree

It used to live in a little round fenced cage, hiding from the ravages of the white-tailed deer and bear that had free range of the barnyard before Mom, Kara, and I moved up north full-time. It hid there, its branches bent straight upwards, all by itself behind the garage.
“This tree is never going to make apples,” Grandma would complain each year. “We should just cut it down.”
Fortunately, we convinced her not to chop down the tree she had planted so many years ago, even though it had yet to bear fruit.
Instead, a neighbor friend came over to teach us about pruning and tending apple trees. We removed the cage, de-topped the gangly center, and began selectively pruning limbs and branch ends to encourage an outward instead of upward growth. Upward-pointing branches will not produce enough budding hormone to set good fruits as laterally oriented branches.
Setting buds is a complex process for trees. If all the earth’s history were compressed into an hour, flowering plants would only appear for the last 90 seconds. 130 million years ago, the first flowers appeared, and they revolutionized the world of plants. Now those flowers could make fruits and nuts and seeds that would help to start new plants far from the parent plant.
Of course, flowers do not accomplish this task on their own—they need helpers. Some flowers use the wind to pollinate, but most flowers need insects to carry the pollen from one bloom to the next, mixing genetics and fertilizing the bloom so that fruits can form. Apples, like many other fruiting crops such as pears and blueberries, need other nearby trees of their sort in order to effectively set fruits.
So, we planted two different variety of crabapple trees nearby, which flower profusely, to help Grandma’s apple tree thrive as well. We also started keeping honeybees and introducing blue orchard bees to increase pollination. The first time we had three apples on that tree was a cause for celebration! We made sure Grandma got all three of those first apples.
Then there were a dozen, then more, but sometimes a whole season would be a dud because the frosts came too late in the spring and froze out the blooms or it rained heavily all during the blooming season or it was too cold for the bees to fly. Farming can be a very delicate process, with the weather always calling the shots—and not always in your favor.
Two years ago, Grandma’s apple tree outdid itself, so weighed down with apples that many of its branches touched the ground. We had boxes and boxes, which filled our CSA shares for months and became pies and applesauce and preserves. We love mixing some of the red crabapples in for making applesauce because it adds a lovely pink color and flavor complexity.
But then last year was a dud. A late spring cold snap, too much rain, and likely exhaustion on the part of the tree all contributed to only a handful of fruits at harvest time. Grandma’s apple tree needed some TLC!
So that fall I pastured the laying hens under the orchard, where they scratched and pecked at grubs and worms and fertilized the ground. In the spring I brought the ducks through that area for extra soil nutrition boost. They watched me with a quizzical eye as I climbed the sturdy, thickened branches at trimming time.
I remember when I could put my hands around the trunk of this tree. Now it’s thick and gnarled, plenty stout enough for climbing. But as I prepared for the annual early spring trim, I noticed that some of the outer branches were dying, the bark sloughing with a blackish tinge.
I realized this likely signaled the end of the tree’s lifespan, but I decided to give it a good chance at surviving. Instead of the usual haircut and selective trim, I brought out the hand saw and cut out entire sections that showed signs of the blackening disease and hauled them away. By the time I was finished, a third of the apple tree’s canopy had been removed, allowing much more air and light into the remaining branches.
It really looked like I had murdered the tree! But I thought, well, give it a try and we’ll see how this year goes. If it can’t make it through its ailment, then we really will have to take it down, but here’s another chance.
As spring awakened the farm, Grandma’s apple tree and its flanking crabapples burst into full bloom. Sunny days brought out the blue orchard and bumble bees in full force. The trees were practically vibrating with their happy buzzing. Then came the waiting time after the flowers fade. Not every flower will necessarily become an apple. Sometimes a bloom may not have received enough pollination to fruit, and the tree must decide how many fruits it can support (which is often based on the health of its root system). Would there be apples this year?
And the answer is oh my goodness yes! The branches are loaded and bending downwards. Even with much of the tree removed, Grandma’s apple is just as full of fruit as two years ago, with glossy, waxy deep green leaves. It’s a testament to our stewardship not only of the animal kingdom on the farm but also the plant kingdom and the interrelationship of the two (with the blessings of the weather).
I’m looking forward to apple pie this fall! See you down on the farm sometime.