Spring is here. Yeah, it might snow here or there, or even fall below freezing, but spring is well underway. I just pulled my maple taps last Wednesday. Maple sugaring requires freezing nights and warm days. The season is finished when either the buds swell, freezing and thawing does not occur, or motivation to burn more sapwood for tree sugar fizzles out. In this case, a little bit of the latter two. Easter came early this year, which meant sugaring had to end by April 1st for me. Also, the lows were no longer freezing anyway, which reduces pressure inside the tree that causes sap flow. Besides, I heard my first set of spring peepers the other day; a sure sign of the maple season’s end, and a transition from late winter into early spring.
Spring is also a great time for planting. The ground is moist from winter’s receding snow-line. Trees are easily transplanted while in a dormant state as well. However, there is far more to planting trees than simply digging a hole, as many of us have found out the hard way; especially when it comes to apple trees. If trees are planted properly, they must still be protected; otherwise they’re just simply herbivore- bait. Voles may not find your young, newly planted apple tree this spring, but, when next winter’s snow falls and accumulates, they’ll be busy excavating tunnels – safely beneath the snow – for a snack on your trees. Voles chew through the bark to find the cambium layer. In doing so, they often girdle the tree. And don’t forget about those rabbits either; they too feed on the cambium. Instead of using tunnels, rabbits can snowshoe over the snow to access your trees. As the snow depth piles up, the higher they can reach.
Gone are the days when my grandfather could simply plant an apple tree and scaffold its branches low to the ground for easy picking. Today, trees have to be put in cages, tubes, or inside minimum security, eight foot fences to keep them safe from deer, and deer love apple tree buds.
Trees also have to be protected from humans. Over-zealous landscapers often kill or weaken trees by girdling their stems where weeds grow; mulch is often a good remedy. Hot summer days mixed with a family on vacation can also spell disaster for young and water-dependent trees. Besides weather, humans and herbivores are a wide variety of insects and diseases that can feed on your weakened little tree like a revolving buffet line.
So what to do? You can sympathize with your local orchardist and buy apples; thankful that it’s someone else’s problem. Or you can continue forward, adapt, and overcome these 21st century problems of deer, voles, and men. My depression-era grandfather used and reused what he had to solve various carpentry problems, plumbing, and more. Sometimes buying new is the way to go, but sometimes isn’t. Instead of planting a new tree, look around and see what is already growing. Do you already have an old apple tree growing nearby? What about a crabapple tree whose flowers never impressed you anyway? What about thorn-apple?
If so, maybe you can graft your favorite apple variety upon one of these pre-existing trees. Older trees have well-established root systems, have proven resistant to insects and diseases, are cold hardy, contain mature bark that serve as a barrier to voles and rabbits, and are higher than the five foot deer-browse line. Old apple trees can be renovated or restored using grafting practices, just as my grandfather did. Or you can try using a crabapple or thornapple as “rootstock.” Often young planted trees fail more so due to environmental conditions such as too little or too much soil moisture. Older trees have proven themselves and can be used to grow apples of your choosing.
For more information about Catskill Forest Association’s Apple Tree Grafting program, visit our website at www.catskillforest.org for contact information.