- Fruits: apples
- Crop Production: grafting, varieties and cultivars
- Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
- Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
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.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.