The ManyTracks Orchard
Four decades of Growing
in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
The very first planting on our new homestead was an apple tree. Several apple trees, and a pear, maybe something else. Purchased from a nursery downstate -- Macintosh, Winesap, Prairie Spy, Bartlett Pear -- it was what they recommended. We brought them north and planted them in the newly fenced (we did know about deer) cold and wind-swept (except from the west) garden-orchard area in 1978. We had no amendments to add to the old worn-out sod soil, no mulch to help the new trees get established, little water to help them thrive, no time to devote to the new orchard, and no knowledge of pruning. But most of those trees not only grew they lived to set fruit! They are amazing creatures. I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for them.
The Macintosh was not a good choice as it's not well adapted to this area, especially back then when the winter cold was more severe. I wouldn't plant a Macintosh now. I have a note of some fruit harvested in 1987 but then nothing. The Winesap could have been a good tree for here. I remember it fruited prolifically but the fruit was small. I didn't know about pruning or thinning for fruit size and it eventually disappeared from my scanty notes. The Bartlett Pear didn't make it past the first few winters. But the Prairie Spys. Oh those three wonderful hardy survivors, they live to this day. Well, actually, they turned out not to be Prairie Spys at all, but some other variety.
Fast forward and it now seems I spend more time researching the varieties I plant and graft than I do taking care of them! But I enjoy it and I feel comfortable with those I've chosen. I expect them to survive and thrive. I've learned to prune and graft and care for my trees, or rather I continue to learn as I expect I'll be doing that as long as I have trees to care for. We now have Haralson, Dudley, and Black Oxford producing, in addition to the not-Prairie-Spys, and another dozen or more that should be fruiting over the next six years or so. We continue to graft more every year, and plant. There is a lot of other fruit in my garden/orchard and it is much enjoyed and appreciated, but it is the apple that is our mainstay, the one that would be most sorely missed were it not a part of our lives, and our diet.
Prairie Spys. That's what we were told they were when we planted them almost 40 years ago. So that's what they were for all those years. Our large, standard, venerable, reliable (sort of) much appreciated PS apple trees, #'s 1, 2, and 3. They were the only apples we had other than wild ones for many years. Then a few years ago, through the miracle of the internet, I discovered that our trees were not what is called a Prairie Spy (though that certainly sounds like a very good variety). We had never seen nor tasted a Prairie Spy apple so had no reason up to then to question the variety name. I didn't know what ours were, but they were, and are, the top bananas in my orchard, and not just because of their age. The photo at the top of the page is of one of the trees in full bloom.
Other trees have joined them in giving us much appreciated fruit but these were our first and will always be first in my heart. The fruit is wonderful--sweet and juicy--delicious as sauce, for fresh eating, for fresh cider. They are a late summer apple, red, ripening in September, keeping only a month or two, susceptible to scab. A real Prairie Spy is a sweet-tart winter apple, prized for its keeping qualities and its resistance to scab. One thing they both have in common is their hardiness--ours certainly have proven their ability to survive in our zone 3 climate and with minimal care, whatever they are called. We are grafting a real (we hope!) PS this summer so someday we'll find out what they are like.
Our Non-Prairie Spy's (NPS's) grew to be of great size, beautiful but not very practical from a management standpoint. At some point I decided I did want to manage our orchard, for better fruit and healthier trees. I started the long education in the skill of pruning, by reading, guessing, and doing. New trees are all kept about 12 feet tall--what I can reach with my loppers from the top of my 8 ft ladder. But it was too late for the NPS's, though I did what I could. Most of the fruit was high in the top, less in quantity and quality than in earlier years, the top thick with branches out of reach that really needed thinning. When they did have a good year we had plenty for the compost pile and the wild creatures but also a good deal for us. But I knew they could be better. Two of the trees were still healthy, the third maybe not so. I decided it was time to bring them down and create, I hoped, a rejuvinated, strong, bearing tree.
All three trees had multiple large trunks thanks to the nursery cutting the central leader out of the young saplings, and no further shaping by me. So over the last six years Steve cut out one large trunk a year. NPS #1, the best of the trio, had a real nice young shoot growing fairly low in the tree that I encouraged into shape to be the replacement tree. The last large trunk was removed this past spring (2016) so the new young tree now stands clear and ready to begin its bearing life, maybe next summer or soon after. I'm anxiously watching for fruiting spurs.
NPS #2 trunks were cut back to secondary (and thirdary) branches, not as severe as #1, shooting out many suckers to be thinned and pruned to some semblance of a broad, low shape that I hope will agree with it. It's in the midst of shaping and the last old limb cutback will be done this coming spring. I'm hoping for some fruit this year--we so miss those NPS apples! NPS #3 was the least thriving of the three and didn't come out of the major cutback very well. It already had a lot of dead sides on its trunks and may not make it. It was planned to cut it down completely this year but then one strong shoot, low on the good side of one of the trunks, showed up to give it a possible reprieve. We'll see how it does but I'm cheering it on and give it a high-five every time I go by. [later update: It didn't survive so that tree is no more, but it served us well all those years it gave fruit. Now it sort of lives on as a nearby relative, root sucker that I've let grow to graft onto in a year or two.]
just what variety was our NPS? I searched now and then on the internet but
hadn't come up with a good match. I had this one photo of
baskets of the apples in the root cellar so I posted it along with a description
on the GrowingFruit forum and asked if anyone had an idea. And someone did!
BEACON, introduced by the Univ. of Minnesota in 1937. (Prairie Spy was also an
introduction by the Univ. of Minn.).
This year was the first harvest from this tree (not counting the one
apple it produced last year). It wasn’t a large crop, about 10#, but
every apple (even the ones half eaten by the jays) were very much
appreciated. The fruit ranged from small to medium size (the one in the
photo was the largest) and while they weren’t free from insect damage it
wasn’t significant. The fruit and the tree were quite healthy.
This apple probably won't win any awards for its name (unless your or a friend's name happens to be Dudley!) and you aren't likely to find it in many orchards today, at least not around here, but it's a real nice apple and we like it. Apparently it was once more common though I'd never heard of it. There is some question as to its parentage but it apparently came to be about 1877 in Castle Hill, Maine, a planted seed in John Wesley Dudley's orchard of either New Brunswick or Duchess, maybe crossed with Hyslop crab. We'll never know for sure but what matters is it grew out to be a good enough variety to be very popular in Maine at the turn of the century and is still around today. And, why I chose to plant one, it is hardy.
The fruit is on the tart side, firm and juicy enough for good fresh eating, nicely large for drying, makes good sauce (with sweetening). Red stripes and splashes on yellow-green background. A nice apple looking apple. It's said to be a decent keeper into winter but since it ripens in September when our root cellar is still warm I dry the majority of the crop that we don't eat. It hangs well on the tree for several weeks which is great for apple-a-day fresh eating, as long as the birds don't decide to help themselves.
Our tree came from Fedco Trees in Maine, grafted on standard Antonovka rootstock, planted in 2002. It should be a long lived tree. I like the form it takes--wide--beautiful and easy to pick. I'm keeping it pruned to about 12 ft tall; easier to do on a wide growing tree. Our first harvest was in 2009 -- 20 nice apples! And good tasting apples. The next year was a very good crop of nice large apples. Since then we've had moderate crops (along with no or sparse crops, too, thanks to late spring freezes) from early to late in September, and we've eaten, preserved and enjoyed a lot of Dudley's. It's a great standard now in our orchard.
This tangly row of seedling crabapples include originals we planted forty years ago. They
established and grew well with a nice abundance of varied offspring
(many of which I’m using as rootstock for our expanding orchard). I’ve
left the crabs pretty much alone all these years since they are quite
self-sufficient and I’ve always had plenty of regular eating apple trees
to keep me occupied. But the grafting bug bit a few years ago and since
then I can’t look at a wild (or tame) tree without wondering about the
possibilities of grafting a branch or two of some other variety to it. And this
fall I saw this row of crabs anew with that in mind. Mmmm. That
naturally small crab on the north end would be easy to reach to graft a
few shoots. It’s a wonderfully shaped tree, unusual in this world of
enthusiastic gangly seedlings. Plus it has maintained a comfortable space
around it, not crowded with growing suckers and offspring. Enough elbow
room for healthy living. This one is definitely on the list for a graft;
something with moderate vigor, maybe a named crab... Then again, it is a
beautiful pleasant shaped small tree. Maybe I’ll just leave it be.
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.