Grafting antique apples keeps old varieties growing
CAMPTON HILLS – The antique apple varieties were pretty old.
There was Annie Elizabeth, dating back to 1857 in England, good for eating and cooking. The Baldwin, from 1740 in Massachuetts, Golden Russet from the late 1700s in New Jersey – good for eating, cooking and making cider. Also the Hamilton from 1867 in the south and the oldest, Fameuse/Snow, from 1700 in Vermont and New York.
These were the varieties of antique or heirloom apple grafts that Garfield Farm Museum in Campton Hills offered to nearly 50 people Sunday at its 26th Annual Antique Apple Tree Grafting Seminar.
Grafting, said Dan Bussey, orchard manager for the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, is the fifth oldest profession, as it allows the heirloom apples to stay in cultivation. The exchange is a non-profit of gardeners who preserve seeds from heirloom flowers, vegetables and herbs.
The trick, as Bussey explained, is the heirloom apple cutting is grafted onto a root stock that makes the apple more hardy, and controls its size so it does not turn into a towering tree that requires a ladder to harvest the apples.
The downside is the smaller the tree has a shorter lifespan, about 20 years, so he – and the farm museum – encourages the public to learn how to graft these old varieties in order to keep them cultivated, Bussey said.
"Unfortunately over the years, a lot of varieties were lost," Bussey said. "The numbers when I started working [at the Seed Savers orchard] were down to 550 varieties. I'm already back up to 750 varieties from what I collected last year and more so this year again."
Apples are an ancient cultivar, he said. One of the odest is the Dasio from Italy, dating back to 450 A.D.
Bussey said his goal is also to make fruit-growing fun.
"Apples, to me, are just one of the most perfect fruits that you can do so many things with," Bussey said. "You can eat the apples, bake them, dry them, make cider, make hard cider, distill it and make brandy. You take the prunings [and] use the wood to either heat your home or use it in a smoker to smoke meats."
The method of grafting is to take the root stock, slice a piece off at an oblong length to expose the cambium, a layer inside the bark where the active growing occurs, Bussey demonstrated. The graft and the cutting from one of the antique varieties are then pressed together, tied with a bit of rubber and sealed with wax.
This is patience: It will take five to seven years to get an apple from that grafted tree.
He also suggested making sure the buds of the graft were pointing up – so the branches grow out, not down.
Jack and Susan O'Brien of Geneva came to the seminar to learn how to start an heirloom apple tree in their yard. They'd already planted a Macintosh apple tree from a hardware store last year.
"I like apples and I like to cook," Jack O'Brien said.
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