Because we needed (yet) more cider apple trees

This month has been hard on the ranch-hold budget. First I ordered 500 custom-grafted cider apple trees for 2014. Yes, we have 100+ in the ground and another 100+ on order for this coming April. Yes, we need more. Then today I mailed a check to Earth Tools BCS for a rotary plow attachment for the walking tractor. All planned expenses, but it is a big chunk of change out of the saddlebag.

The plow is scheduled to arrive in mid-March. No point in having it now to store while the ground is still frozen. We will use it to prep garden space, but more importantly to manage the irrigation flows from the main ditch to wherever we need it to go. In the park, Wayne uses a “marker” to drag a custom-welded implement with teeth down the rows of trees, the teeth cutting little channels to water each tree. He also has the use of a government-owned 90 hp tractor to drag it with. We have an 11 HP Honda engine, but the plow should create a furrow just about anywhere we want it. I’ll post an unboxing when we fire it up next month.

Buying the plow was easy (can’t say enough good things about the Earth Tools folks). Deciding which apple tree varieties to plant on the dozen or so likely rootstocks was far more complex. Multiply the fruiting wood choices to the rootstock options and there are literally tens of thousands of possible combinations. Limiting it to cider varieties brings it down to just a few hundred. That still too many possible ways to say “or, or, or.” R calls it “oring” and it drives him nuts when I do it discussing the dinner menu, and that decision is limited to what’s in the fridge. Give it up, there is no way to optimize a solution, especially with so many unknowns about how cider fruit will grow in our locale (the Mormon pioneer lore, if they grew cider varieties, is lost or obscure).

There is some urgency to this process. Because these trees will be grafted for us, the good folks at Cummins Nursery have to go out into the cold and collect the scions (the fruiting part of the grafted tree), and they have to do it right now while the tree is dormant. Nature enforces a limit on procrastination here, and if I miss her deadline, it could delay my trees for an entire year.

And I self-imposed some other limits. These trees are going onto a nearby but not quite adjacent bit of land. We call it the Apricot parcel, an original name for ann old alfalfa field with a single apricot tree, no? With the trees outside the front door, in what we call the Kingbird orchard, I can get a hose to them to spot-water in between irrigation turns. New plantings may need extra water in the hottest weeks of summer for a couple of years while getting established. We haven’t access to any culinary water over on the Apricot parcel. That means hauling it over in IBCs or some other improvised solution. That period of my life needs to be as short as possible. So we are planting the Apricot parcel out all at once.

And while the Kingbird orchard is partially a study plot of a half a dozen rootstocks that haven’t been grown here and too many varieties to easily manage, I’m not willing to add that level of complexity to another orchard. I set a limit of 8-10 cider varieties on a single rootstock choice. Then I called Alan at Cummins Nursery.

One of the great things about working with people who know more than you do is they will help you, if you let them. Alan asked me a bunch of questions about our land and came up with a suggestion for a rootstock that hadn’t even occurred to me, the MM106. It used to be more popular than it is now. It is susceptible to crown rot, a problem of orchards in wet climates, like the east coast. Standing water is not our problem here in the high deseret! So they don’t offer any trees in their catalog grafted to it. But they can get the rootstock for us and it has features that we want: tolerance for alkaline soils, good “anchorage” which means our Torrey winds won’t uproot them, and the right compromise between height, longevity and precociousness (earliness to start bearing fruit) for our goals. So while Alan went to source 500 MM106 rootstocks, I had to come up with the final, really final, list of scions.

The first thing to consider is what will ripen here before it gets too cold in the fall. A Granny Smith takes a couple months longer to ripen than a Gravenstein. The benchmark is that we know our neighbors regularly harvest crops of Golden Delicious apples. Then consider the bloomtime. Later is better in a place liable to be hit by a late frost. We will lose some years’ crops to frost, there’s no doubt, but you can improve your chances by choosing later blooming varieties. And then the trees have to bloom at the same time to pollinate each other. Few apples are self-fertile, and they need a different variety nearby. Some, the ones with triploid genes, won’t pollinate anything, so you need a pollinator for the triploid and another for the pollinator.

For the cider-making part of the program, you want to have a balance of acidity, sugar and tannin in your fruit. Sugar makes the alcohol, acidity and tannin the flavor. English and French cider apples are classified as sweet (low acidity, low tannins), sharp (high acidity, low tannins), bittersweet (low acidity, high tannins) and bittersharp (high in both tannin and acidity). We have the sweetness factor well covered in the Kingbird orchard and can probably source other aromatic apples locally, so I concentrated on a mix of the other three kinds and some all-American blends. Figuring all this out involved a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet and several iterations.

To throw one more variable into the mix, I set my heart on at least one cider apple whose juice is red. This is, after all, the heart of redrock country, how could we not? So it was easy to start the list with 50 Redfields.

Eventually, this options got whittled down. We may throw in a few more crabapples at some point to further insure pollination, but it’s a reasonable selection:

Brown’s apple 50 Sharp (some call it a bittersharp)
Centennial Crab 25 University of Minnesota, 1957, bittersweet
Dabinett 50 English, bittersweet, reliable
Frequin Rouge 25 French, bittersharp, early harvest with Somerset Redstreak
Harrison 50 Rediscovered American heirloom from New Jersey, early 1800s, blend with Campfield or Graniwinkle
Kingston Black 50 English, late 1800s, bittersharp, can make a single varietal cider
Newtown Pippin 25 New York, early 1800s, also called the Albemarle Pippin, can make a single varietal cider
Redfield 50 New York, 1939, bittersharp, red juice, West County Cider is making a single varietal cider
Roxbury Russet 50 Massachusetts, around 1650, sharp, can make a single varietal cider
Somerset Redstreak 50 English, mild bittersweet or bittershapr, early
Virginia Crab 25 Virginia, 1700s, planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Albemarle CiderWorks has made a single varietal cider
Campfield or Graniwinkle 50 Both from New Jersey, before 1817, traditionally blended with Harrison. We have a few Graniwinkles in the Kingbird orchard.

Done, decided, the list emailed off to Alan for 500 trees. We won’t know if it turns out well for at least 5 years. I say this a lot about this entire cider enterprise: “We expect that not everything we try will work, but something will, and then we’ll know what to do next.” That leaves 14 months to sharpen those shovels for the mother of all planting parties. You can put that on your calendar for April 2014.

6 Comments

  1. Schedule soon. I’ve got some travel in April…

  2. Jacky King

    Hello Ann,
    You may already be aware of some, many, or all of the items in this comment but I am including them just in case. I ran across your page while looking up some cider apple information for my work at WA State U Mount Vernon where we have been doing research in hard apple cider since 2002. See our cider web page http://extension.wsu.edu/maritimefruit/Pages/Cider.aspx for information on our program. Also we cooperate with the Northwest Cider Association http://www.nwcider.com/ Although most of the members are in western WA, OR, and BC one is in Montana – you might be interested in contact with them as there are both established and startup cideries among the members, some of whom started out as career-change growers. CiderCon, a national meeting of cider makers and growers, just concluded in Chicago (Feb 6-8) and there is a report by Nikki Rockwell, cider researcher at Michigan State here http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/hard_cider_and_perry_industry_growing_across_the_united_states that gives a short outline. One of the board of directors for the newly formed U.S.Association of Cidermakers http://www.angryorchard.com/USACM-press-release.pdf is from Colorado.
    As you may have guessed, I am an enthusiast for cider and cider making, for the preservation of cider apples both for their individual qualities and their contribution to genetic diversity, and for wide cooperation with anyone and everyone involved in the art and craft of cider making. Best wishes for you and your enterprise in the years ahead.

    • Jacky,

      Great information for the community and future enthusiasts who find this page. We hope to make it to WSU sometime to see all the good things you are doing out there, maybe sometime when Peter Mitchell is doing his advanced class.

  3. April 2014? A year out?