Grafting apple trees onto specific rootstocks for size control, early bearing, and pest and disease resistance has been practiced for hundreds of years. This practice was formalized in Europe during the 1800s with the selection of distinct rootstock cultivars. By the 1970s and 80s apple rootstock development peaked with research programs in new regions including Russia and the United States (notably the Cornell/USDA research station in Geneva, NY). Despite this, the diversity of rootstocks today remains extremely limited. A review of nurseries typically reveals readily available sources only of the Geneva selections, the Malling (England) rootstocks, or the Russian BUD rootstocks. This represents rootstocks selected at only three locations, optimized for three climates, three soil types, and common production challenges found in three regions. While good efforts have been made to evaluate the adaptability of rootstocks beyond the research stations where they were selected, screening usually takes place where the apple industry is already established (and where previous Geneva, Malling, and Russian rootstocks were already successful). This does little to expand the range of rootstock options for new regions and new climates. The result is that aspiring apple growers are often forced to artificially re-create optimal growing conditions for the rootstocks available to them. Irrigation systems, drain tile, even the placement of apple trees on elevated beds are just a few of the common ways producers modify their land to sustain non-locally adapted rootstocks. We believe this approach is flawed. Rather than altering land and water to meet the needs of a crop, an agro-ecological approach should foster crops that are adapted to local conditions. Our project proposes to develop exactly such an option for the maritime Pacific Northwest. Six species in the Malus genus are native to North America. In the West this includes Malus fusca (the Pacific crabapple), a species that is abundant in maritime climates extending from Alaska to Northern California. Unique among apple species, Malus fusca exhibits a wide-range of adaptability to common maritime site conditions: thriving in hydric and wetland soils (including saltwater estuaries), as well as in heavy clay soils, and poorly drained upland sites. It is considered a keystone native species in both high rainfall climates such as coastal mountain rainforests, and in lowland rainshadow environments such as the Puget Sound ‘banana belt’ where local rainfall averages may total less than 20 inches annually. Periodically amateur pomologists and backyard orchardists in the Northwest have dabbled with the use of Malus fusca as a rootstock for table apple varieties. Anecdotally, these novelty grafts have been largely successful, apparently thriving even in conditions where traditional apple rootstocks do not, such as wet meadows. Unfortunately there is no actual research demonstrating how widely compatible Malus fusca is with various apple varieties. Through this project we will establish a research block of Malus fusca rootstocks, testing at least 40 high value apple varieties for grafting compatibility over a three-year period. By successfully demonstrating high levels of grafting compatibility with multiple apple varieties, this project has the potential to: Provide significant new economic opportunities for farmers in western California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska by offering a viable apple rootstock for wet and poorly drained locations – in many of these regions urbanization has consumed the best agricultural lands, squeezing farmers onto poorly drained and other sub-optimal lands; Eliminate the need to drain wet farm fields for crop production – a goal aligned with USDA conservation programs; Encourage greater adoption of perennial agriculture and the associated benefits to carbon sequestration and soil and water conservation; Provide a fully fire blight-resistant rootstock – Malus fusca has documented polygenic resistance to fire blight; Foster a more ‘native’ and ecologically appropriate crop system, potentially supporting native soil biodiversity; Support more localized apple production near major cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Juneau. The research component of this project will be conducted at our farm located on Washington’s Whidbey Island, the center of Malus fusca’s native range, and will be supported by a robust educational program that includes an ongoing project blog on our farm website, the development of a conference poster and workshop session, and a bulletin summarizing project results distributed in partnership with Washington State University Extension. These outreach resources will be promoted through farm and apple industry media. This project is led by farmer and ecologist Eric Lee-Mäder. Eric holds a masters degree from the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture where he studied commercial fruit production and tree nursery management. His professional background includes previous work as a beekeeper, an Extension educator, and crop consultant to the native plant nursery industry. He currently co-directs the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program (www.xerces.org) where he works with farmers, companies, and government agencies to enhance biodiversity in agricultural lands. Eric is the author of several books including the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators, and Farming with Beneficial Insects. Through his current position at Xerces, Eric has collaborated on multiple highly successful SARE projects in all four SARE regions, impacting tens-of-thousands of acres and reaching thousands of farmers and agency professionals. This project is supported by technical advisor Dr. Carol Miles of Washington State University. Dr. Miles currently leads research and extension in cider apple production in Western Washington, including orchard establishment economics, apple variety trials, and cider quality evaluation. Along with grafting and horticulture-related technical support, Dr. Miles will assist with the dissemination of project findings.
Activities for this project include: Year 1. 1. January – December 2017: Launch a project blog on our farm website and perform regular updates (www.NorthwestMeadowscapes.com). To develop a blog audience we will create a press release for distribution to farm and apple industry media. Additionally we will conduct a survey via the blog to capture basic audience information and interests. 2. January – February 2017: Pre-order bare root Malus fusca seedlings from supplier native plant nurseries.
3. February – September 2017: Prepare the research plot, including a) removal of two dead trees, b) mowing and herbicide treatments to remove weedy vegetation, c) re-seeding with a permanent orchard cover crop (e.g. meadow barley and other site-adapted native grasses), and d) clean-up the old field road to the research site. 4. June – August 2017: Protect the research plot by installing deer fencing prior to planting. Year 2.
1. January – February 2018: Collect scion wood from apple industry contacts, commercial sources, and research station orchards. Note that we will test at least 40 scion varieties (10 replicates of each) with an emphasis on varieties in high demand by Seattle and Portland markets. These include cider varieties such as Wickson, Dabinett, Bedan, Binet Rouge, and Amere de Berthencourt, as well as heirloom table apples, such as Spitzenberg and Ashmead’s Kernel (based upon scion wood availability). 2. March – April 2018: Conduct bench grafting and planting of seedlings. 3. April – September 2018: Manage trees for establishment success, including the installation of rodent-guards. 4. May – October 2018: Perform monthly evaluations of grafting success, recording percent success by variety. 5. January – December 2018: Post regular blog updates, and conduct a second annual blog survey to assess audience engagement. Year 3. 1. April – October 2019: Perform monthly evaluations of grafting success, recording results by variety.
2. January – December 2019: Post regular blog updates. Additionally we will post a project summary at the end of the year, along with a final survey to capture producer adoption and interest.
3. November – December 2019: Develop a poster, workshop abstract, and bulletin documenting the compatibility of various scion varieties. The first of these two products will be submitted as conference proposals at major West Coast farm conferences including the 2019 Washington Tilth Alliance conference, Oregon’s Organicology and California’s EcoFarm conference. The bulletin will be available as a free download on our website and distributed at conferences. Additionally, the bulletin and findings will be promoted through a press release to farm and apple industry media. Beyond the end of SARE funding, we will continue to assess additional traits of Malus fusca as a rootstock, including suckering, graft union strength, and growth rates. Those results will continue to be publicly shared.
To evaluate the grafting compatibility of Malus fusca rootstocks with the domestic apple (Malus pumila) we are conducting replicated grafting trials of 40 to 46 apple varieties (with 10 replicates of each variety). Those varieties include high demand cider apples provided by the Washington State University Northwest Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Washington: Amere de Berthcourt, Blanc Mollet, De Bouteville, Brown Snout, Brown Thorn, Bulmer’s Norman, Cimetiere, Court Pendu Rose, Dabinett, Domaines, Frequin Rouge, Jouveaux, Medaille D’Or, Mettais, Michelin, Muscadet de Dieppe, Muscat de Bernay, Peau de Vache, Reine des Pommes, Vilberie, and Zabergau Reinette.
Additionally, as of the January 2018 reporting we are expecting a second batch of scion varieties from Dr. Thomas Chao, at the USDA’s Apple Genetic Resources Collection at Cornell University, consisting of: Sangre de Toro, Raxao, Blanquina, Teorica, Xuanina, Vedialona, Coloradona, Solarina, De la Riega, Collaos, Perico, Maria Elena, Reineta do Caravia, Repinaldo do Liebana, Pepa, Peil de Sapa, Bedan des Parts, Manchurian, Wickson, Binet Rouge, Calville Blanc, Nehou, Dolgo, Kerry Pippin, and Irish Peach.
Note that in the original proposal we had targeted only 40 varieties for grafting trails, but we have sought out six additional varieties as a back-up against grafting errors to ensure that we still meet the original project target. Additionally, we had originally planned on only 400 total grafts, but the rootstock nursery offered us a significant price break for 500 rootstocks (actually making that amount less expensive than 400) so we ordered 500 rootstocks which again will help mitigate any grafting errors and ensure that we meet the original project targets.
The Malus fusca rootstocks consist of seed-grown plants produced by a local native plant container nursery. They are 3-year transplants, having previously been harvested as bare root plants in 2016, and replanted in the field during 2017, before being re-dug in the fall. The result of this transplanting is larger caliper plants with well-developed root systems and an overall height of 18 to 36 inches. While the scion wood is being harvested and moved into cold storage at the time of the January 2018 reporting, the rootstocks are not scheduled for delivery from the nursery until March 2018. We will be contacting the nursery in an attempt to negotiate earlier delivery so that winter grafting can commence as soon as possible. Because of our region’s temperate winter climate planting can begin in mid to late winter.
Additional planting materials have been ordered and are anticipated for delivery in late January or early February 2018.
Once grafted and field planted, we will conduct monthly evaluations of grafting success over the livespan of this project, noting percent grafting success by variety to document the tolerance of various apple varieties to Malus fusca as a rootstock. Note that we have deliberately focused this project on antique and heirloom apple varieties (including heirloom cider varieties) since these offer a clear niche market opportunity for small-, midsized-, and new apple producers. Given the large-scale of establish commercial apple production, it seemed unlikely that popular dessert apple varieties such as Honeycrisp could offer an economical business opportunity for new apple producers on a new, still largely untested rootstock that is not yet widely available from commercial rootstock producers.
Our planned layout for test orchard consists of 50-foot long rows of trees, with 4-foot spacing between them and 12-foot wide alleys. We settled upon this layout after consulting with several sources, including Washington State University’s cider apple production specialists. If the majority of the grafts survive, this layout would be compatible with a hedge-style of production in which the trees are sheared with a sicklebar or hedge clipper in the spring to both maintain row configuration and to thin the apple crop. Additionally, this orchard style anticipates advancements in mechanical harvesting technology including trunk shaking and ground harvesting methods which may become more commonplace in the future.
As of December 2017, most of the new orchard block preparation has been conducted, including site clearing with a brush hog, removal of several dead trees, and clearing of the field road to the research site.
As of December 2017, we have made exceptionally good progress on this project. The site preparation has proceeded largely on course with our original plans, scion wood and rootstocks have been secured for grafting which is beginning in early 2018.
One significant and unexpected challenge during summer 2017 was an ongoing period of unexpected tractor breakdowns during the preparation of the new orchard site. The thick, rank vegetation over-extended the tractor and brush hog capacity and more than doubled the amount of time we planned to spend preparing the site. Additionally, large quantities of dust from the brush hogging clogged the tractor’s air intake causing overheating and requiring us to disassemble and clean various engine parts.
Later stages of the site preparation in Fall 2017 proceeded more easily, with us switching to a small, but very reliable two-wheel walk behind tractor for some additional mowing with a sicklebar and cultivation to prepare rows for planting.
One site preparation activity that is behind schedule is the construction of the deer fence. This task was delayed due to new deer fence design options that we discovered during summer 2017 through conversations with other local farmers. Ultimately we have been weighing the pros and cons of two different options and are narrowing down our decision as of January 2018. Fortunately, when we plant, our new trees will be immediately protected with grow tubes so we have a small window of additional time before the trees leaf out of the tubes and become susceptible to deer damage.
Because grafting and planting have not yet occurred as of the January 2018 reporting, initial grafting success findings will be forthcoming.
Educational & Outreach Activities
As of the first project reporting period we have had a very successful start to our education and outreach efforts. In summer 2017 we began developing the basic web site for our project blog (located at: https://northwestmeadowscapes.com/pages/pacific-crabapple-project), and in October, following the conclusion of major site work, we began developing and posting regular updates to the project blog.
Once we were satisfied with the blog appearance, formatting, and functionality, we immediately developed and distributed a project press release for distribution within the apple industry, with copies sent to various trade magazines such as Good Fruit, Fruit Growers News, Just Picked, Cider Craft, Modern Farmer, Acres USA, and Mother Earth News. Following on this press release, Just Picked, the journal of the Organic Fruit Growers Association ran a small article highlighting the project (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c6509_966c8b7fe896495897a5519ba4107fb4.pdf).
Additionally, to further promote the project and the project blog, we have worked to highlight it on social media, including the Facebook page of the North American Fruit Explorers Association (NAFEX), as well as on our own farm Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/northwestmeadowscapes).
Reviewing analytics provided by Facebook, our project post reached 114 people. Interesting, only 67 people follow our farm’s Facebook page, meaning the project overview was shared with 47 additional people beyond our ongoing followers. Moreover, a review of our blog analytics shows 72 unique individual visitors. While the precision of those numbers is not always perfect (for example our website analytics may not be distinguishing between human and robot visitors), it does suggest at least some active human audience for the project.
This audience has been further confirmed by an ongoing email inquiry from a Canadian farmer located near us (on an adjacent island in Puget Sound, located in Canadian waters). That farmer was specifically seeking out solutions to apple production on a poorly drained site and was very interested in the potential of using Malus fusca rootstock. Moreover, that farmer has been interested in comparing notes on scion varieties that are suitable for our local growing conditions (some varieties are locally very susceptible to apple anthracnose). Through an on-going conversation we have been learning more from them about what varieties seem to have anthracnose resistance as well as sharing some variety information with them that they were not previously aware of.
Only one task with our education and outreach plan is behind schedule which is the development of a reader poll for our blog to better understand audience interests, attitudes, and change in practices based upon this project. Progress on the poll fell behind schedule due to a much more intensive and time consuming site preparation process than we anticipated which took time away from this part of our outreach plan. As soon as planting is complete in early 2018, we will re-prioritize this task.
Over the next year we will continue to highlight project progress on our blog and if there are significant initial findings we will communicate them in a follow-up press release. Looking ahead in Year 3, project results will be summarized in a poster and submitted to several key farm conferences for poster and workshop sessions.
At our own farm (two farmers) we have developed more familiarity and greater competence in orchard block establishment, scion wood selection, and grafting tools.
Through email exchange with another farmer who follows our blog, we have learned more about scion varieties with good disease resistance for our region (apple anthracnose is a widespread condition in our climate). Additionally we were able to share knowledge of several disease resistant varieties with the other farmer that they did not previously know about. Through this ongoing exchange we have both walked away with more information. This other farmer (located on an island near us in the Salish Sea) continues to follow our blog and is enthusiastic about seeing our results and hopes to replicate any successful findings on their land.
We continue to be very excited about the potential economic and environmental benefits of this project. In our own case, this project holds the potential to diversify our revenue stream with a new crop. If apple production is found to be viable using Malus fusca rootstocks, we will expand production onto a larger-scale alley cropping system integrated into our native grass and wildflower seed production (our core business).
Beyond our farm, this project may provide significant new economic opportunities for farmers across western California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska by offering a viable apple rootstock for wet and poorly drained locations – in many of these regions urbanization has consumed the best agricultural lands, squeezing farmers onto poorly drained and other sub-optimal lands.
Moreover, if successful, Malus fusca rootstock could:
- Eliminate the need to drain wet farm fields for crop production – a goal aligned with USDA conservation programs;
- Encourage greater adoption of perennial agriculture and the associated benefits to carbon sequestration and soil and water conservation;
- Provide a fully fire blight-resistant rootstock – Malus fusca has documented polygenic resistance to fire blight;
- Foster a more ‘native’ and ecologically appropriate crop system, potentially supporting native soil biodiversity;
- Support more localized/urban apple production near major cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Juneau.
As of January 2016, we continue to be on track in our project progress and optimistic that we will continue to meet the majority of project milestones.
Overall all phases of this project continue you be a success. Site preparation, materials sourcing, and outreach are largely on track.
One standout highlight of the first year has been ongoing dialog with a Canadian farmer who reads our blog and has been inspired to explore this idea on his own land. Among many more extensive comments and questions about suitable scion varieties, Dal Delmonico of Saltspring Island, British Columbia writes “I appreciate all your efforts to develop alternative locally hardy rootstocks…I think your project is fantastic and wish you great success.” These comments were included in the context of a discussion about the challenges that Dal has had in growing apples on poorly drained soils. He reports that he is excited to see our results and hopes that we can point him toward some successful rootstock/scion combinations at the conclusion of our project.
Reflecting on the first year of this project, we have made good progress the majority of tasks and remain on track to complete the project on time and on budget.
One major challenge which arose early in the project was a much more extensive and exhausting site preparation process than we anticipated (our time invested into this stage was more than double our original estimate). This challenge arose from very rank, overgrown vegetation in the planting are which bogged down the brush hog and resulted in a tractor breakdown and necessary repairs. Covering our staff time for this ended up being more expensive than we had planned. Despite this setback, we were able to get the area cleared and ready for planting.
One new opportunity that arose was greater than expected availability of scion varieties to work with. The generosity and assistance of Dr. Carol Miles at Washington State University and Dr. Thomas Chao at the USDA’s Apple Genetic Resources Collection has helped us access more scion varieties than we anticipated and at a low cost.