If Johnny Appleseed were planting apples in 2014, he would be planting dwarf or semi-dwarf trees grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks instead of apple seeds from a leather satchel. Grafting is like plant surgery for horticulturists, connecting the growing tissues of one plant to another.
Be the Johnny Appleseed of your neighborhood this spring and plant an apple tree for your family and the squirrels for years to come. Buy fruit trees or order whips from the Internet. Whips are dormant bare root trees planted in early spring.
When planting trees, it's important to place them in wide, shallow holes, never covering the top of the root ball more than 1 inch. Trim long or broken roots. Mix compost with existing soil and replace in planting hole while gradually adding water, known as the slurry method. University of Illinois Extension Local Foods and Systems Educator Bill Davison adds decaying leaves or wood chips to introduce mychorrizal spores and “mimic a woodland setting.” Mychorrizal fungi have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with plant roots in the natural world. The watering needs for the first three to five years of a tree is 1 inch of rainfall or 5 gallons per week.
Today's Johnny Appleseed also would come back to visit his plants to train them to produce more fruit. He would bend branches by hanging clothes pins or weights or place toothpicks or pieces of wood to make the branch angles around 45 to 65 degrees. He would leave one leading branch and competing branches would be removed. Lateral branches would be spaced every 18 inches. No vertical branches would be allowed to grow because they will not produce fruit. Appleseed would remove over sized lateral branches, 90-degree-angle lateral branches and lateral branches that are directly across from each other on the trunk.
After planting, the modern-day Appleseed would create a ring around the tree with pea gravel or mulch to maintain moisture and eliminate weeds. And he would never allow mulch to set up against the base of the tree bark. However, during the winter months, placing a spiral tree guard to prevent rabbits from dining on your tree makes sense. Stakes can be beneficial for early root growth and to prevent breakage at graft unions during heavy fruit load. The rootstock and variety determine whether the stakes can be kept or removed after the tree is established.
Appleseed would then enjoy a bounty of large apples and be the star of any summer picnic. For more information on growing apples, go to http://urbanext.illinois.edu/apples.
Photo Credit Kelly Allsup