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on unknown rootstock, but possibly
Four decades of Growing
in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Prairie Spy?? Beacon??
1997 - 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 not too long ago I discovered that our trees were not what is called a Prairie Spy. 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 (since then decided they are Beacon) but they were, and are, the top bananas in my orchard, and not just because of their age. The photo above is of two of the trees in full bloom (2005), at the top in the snow shows the three trees in 2004. They are no long that large, and many other trees have joined in to provide our apples, but the two remaining originals are still my favorites.
Beacon North - April pruning...
Beacon South - April 8 - Phase 2 of my help-the-tree-recover (ideas based mainly on the California research article: Non-chemical control of Armillaria mellea infection of Prunus persica - First part - inside the dug-out area (left open all winter) I tossed in pruning “twigs” (thinner pieces cut to short lengths) plus some soil from under a healthy wild apple. I’ll add some more pruning pieces later.
Second part is a Winecap Mushroom “bed” around the tree, mulching the sod. Will add purchased spawn when freezes are likely over. Using what I have, from the bottom: cardboard - old rotting hardwood branches (to hold the cardboard down since it was windy but figure they might be useful) - pruning twigs/small branches - buckwheat straw/hay from last season - some wood chips from last year - hardwood rough sawdust from fall sawing. I’m pretty sure I can get some this-year’s roadside chips so I’ll add that and more pruning stuff later. Basically a make-do hodge-podge of ingredients that I hope the Winecaps will “make-do” with.
I also pruned the tree to make sure it has plenty of air circulation. Third part - yet to be done - is to entice some wild TurkeyTail mushrooms onto the dead part of the stump. I happen to have some growing on a low ground level apple stump. Haven’t figured out just how to “move” it but that’s next. I’m thinking to scrape off all I can into a bucket, mash it up maybe with some sawdust, mush it into available crevises. We’re into a rainy spell now which I figure is good time to do it.
Onward and upward.
Beacon North - End April shape pruned & reduce crossing/close branches. Still rather a tangle. Going toward Goodland on S qtr of tree. Looking healthy though. Had light blossom set. Had a rare terrible FB year and found several strikes during/late summer, mostly upright shoots. Pruned off the ones I could reach. Late fall saw there was more. Took off a cpl large upward growing branches. Will clear more when prune late winter.
Beacon South - April - cut off large lower south limb and top down to ladder height. Some crossing, etc. branches.
Mid June noticed top leaves still not fully open and blooms barely - bottom and others fully open. Wondered if connection to ground not enough to sustain the tree? Decided to cut off additional top tier. Maybe that would help - somewhat smaller amount to maintain.
Fruit! End August start dropping some ripe, some not ripe, apples. Highly varied ripening. Good apples. Fresh eating med-lg, smalls in sauce. Sept.7 dropping several (plus) a day, look very good. Sept. 17 freeze forecast [was 24 deg] so picked rest, exc a few smalls, Connie basket full. More than I thought. really nice apples. Total harvest about 45#! Mid Oct. sauced the remaining stored apples. Pretty firm and not and not bad eating, but not crisp or as flavorful. Just a few rot spots.
For some years there have been plentiful pretty clumps of orange mushrooms growing at base of tree, around the dead stump (about 2/3) (north side where new tree is growing has live bark to ground). I hadn't paid much attention except to admire them. Then in fall someone on the GrowingFruit forum mentioned Honey Mushrooms, and that you certainly didn't want them in your orchard. Oh?? I looked them up. The mushrooms were gone now, except for some dried/frozen ones but based on photos and description that was indeed what we had here - Armillaria mellea - Honey Fungus, root rot fungus. Mycellium feeds on dead wood, then on into live wood, eventually killing the tree. No known cure. Oh great. I didn't have to look far to see that the area around the stump was full of it.
Almost all report were gloom & doom type - it's common all over. But one good trial in California gave some ideas - and hope. I picked up what I could from it and came up with my plan. I would dig around, removing sod and dirt down to main roots. Then Steve would carve out with the chainsaw all the dead wood he could. Come spring, surround tree with fresh prunings and stuff from under healthy woods apple tree, hoping to get a competing mycellium going. Encourage the tree all I can. It was a chance. When I looked carefully at the tree it definitely showing signs of stress - small splits in the bark and woodpecker holes.
Early Dec. continued dry and mild - no snow. With shovel and trowel I set to clearing the sod from around the stump/tree. Not so easy with the thick grass and clumps of suckers, trying not to nick or damage live wood or live roots. I found some dried up mushrooms. Where no suckers it wasn't too bad, down and out about a shovel's worth. Then to remove clumps of suckers, without damaging live roots. Trowel, loppers, an old hatchet and mallet, folding saw, whisk broom. Slow work but eventually got down to main live stump and major live roots. Moved all I dug out to the field away from trees. Down about 5" I found gravel and stones I'd put around the base of the tree so many years ago. The root flair and some large live roots emerged. Amazing how much the surrounding soil had built up. Being within, then at the edge, of the garden it was in the richest, probably dampest, soil of any tree in the orchard, with thick sod over decades of growth.
Steve then went at it with the chainsaw, 2 sessions, lopping of large chunks of the dead stump (beautiful stained wood!), then carefully carving out, and down, all he could up to (and over) live wood, smoothing all so there were no "rain catchers". I think the ants are not going to be happy about this! But we are - it looks good (relatively speaking). I cleared up all debris (dumping it in the middle of the field). That's all we can do, leaving it open to the dry air (until it gets buried in snow) for the winter. I hope the cold will help knock down the fungus.
2019 - The Beacons are Back! What a treat this year to have apples too numerous to count on our venerable old trees. Mostly Beacon-north, which makes sense considering it is older wood. But newer-tree Beacon-south made a significant contribution. It has been 12 years since we had a reasonable harvest from these trees. It was well worth the wait. I'm so glad our renovation worked. We ate our fill of fresh Beacons, made a lot of tasty, wonderfully pink, applesauce, and, along with Dudley, two delicious batches of cider. The trees were happy and healthy as well, finally redeveloping their individual shapes.
Like last year, Beacon-north's fruit was mainly on the older north side with the original scaffold limb but there was some fruit on the newer wood on the rest of the tree as well. It was a very good harvest of 76#! Almost all over 5 days the third week of September. Beautiful fruit, clean, with no skin issues. Interestingly, the fruit on the newer wood was a full two weeks or so later in ripening than the main harvest from the older wood.
Young Beacon-south did well, too, considering its age. I didn't think it had that much fruit until I picked it - a very respectable (and appreciated!) 31#! They were ready about ten days later than Beacon-north's fruit and almost all had significant watercore. I was rather bummed by this and figured I'd just have to throw them all in the compost, which I did the first drops when I discovered this. A little watercore is fine, except that it makes the fruit not store well which isn't much of an issue with Beacon as they are not long storing apples anyway. It makes a rather translucent area around the core but it also gives the fruit additional sweetness. But this fruit had what I'd call advanced watercore with brown areas spreading out and noticeable discoloration on the skin. I figured this was rot. All those apples. But it was usually on just half the apple so I thought I'd cut them in half and use the "good" half for cider, getting something from the harvest. So I started cutting then actually tried eating one. To my surprise they did not have any kind of "rot" taste, they were actually quite good! I wouldn't choose them over a clean Beacon apple for fresh eating but for sauce or cider they would work just fine. I'd read about watercore being sought after in some circles but didn't really think it would be an asset. Well, it was just fine as it turned out. They all went into cider, and very good sweet cider they made, too!
Why the younger tree's apples had watercore and the older tree apples didn't I don't know. From what I've read, researchers don't really know why it happens. Most apples can get it and some varieties do it more than others. I've seen it in years past in the Beacons, though not like this. Since I don't harvest these apples until they fall (since that traditionally has been when they are ripe and best flavor) it's possible for some reason the younger tree simply didn't drop its fruit when ripe as the older tree did and it was a case of over-mature fruit when I finally harvested. Though the fruit didn't look ripe earlier, and in fact it never did get that over-all bright red. It will be interesting to see what happens in future years. But all in all, it was a very good year for the Beacon apples.
2018 late August - 20 apples! From the old-wood tree (Beacon north). This is the one that still has an original trunk, though severely cut back, and one original scaffold. Everything else is new growth from the last few years. With judicious pruning the tree is starting to gain a semblance of order, and it repaid us by giving a small crop of beautiful, healthy apples, all from the old scaffold branches. I was surprised to have red ripe fruit cheek to cheek with unripe fruit (you can see in the photo the ripe apples behind the greener not-ripe fruit). Then I remembered that this was how this variety does it - ripening over a many week period, which works out great for us. For fresh eating the fruit is best ripe from the tree and doesn't store in that condition for very long (though it certainly is still eatable later; it's just not as crispy juicy). Once it gets going it is a generous producer so there are plenty ripe at one time for processing. I'm sure that time will come. But for this year we thoroughly enjoyed our 20 apples one-by-one as they ripened.
The now young tree (Beacon south) didn't give us any apples but that's OK, as it's still maturing. It had a good year though and is looking handsome and healthy, building up to the time when it will be back in production. I didn't do much pruning, and won't until it is in full production.
2017 September 17 - Hurray! We once again have apples from our two old/young Beacon trees. It wasn't a big harvest, two apples from each tree, but these are the first we've had after we had cut back the trees to rejuvenate and bring them down in size. Now I know there will be more in future years and we're very happy about that. The trees are looking good, and so were the apples.
1978 - 2016 -- Prairie Spy?? Beacon??
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. 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 left is of two of the trees in full bloom (2005), above in the snow shows the three trees in 2004.
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 in their early years. 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 do 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 rejuvenated, 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. The largest tree originally, which was just south of the garden and 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. It is in essence a young tree now though on 40 yr old roots.
The second tree, by the north fence, had its multi-trunks cut way back to secondary (and third) branches, not as severe as the 'new-tree' above but still a significant and large reduction in wood. It responded, understandably, by shooting out very 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 that shaping and the last old limb cutback will be done this coming spring. I'm hoping for some fruit this year -- we so miss these apples! The third tree near the windmill was the least thriving of the three and didn't come out of the major cutback very well at all. It already had a lot of dead sides on its trunks and may not make it. I had 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, a root sucker that I've let grow to graft onto in a year or two.]
just what variety was our NPS's? 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.).
appreciate links to our site www.ManyTracks.com from appropriate sites, and we thank you for
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.