The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Is it the apple or the tree?

Zestar applesMark likes apples the way I like peaches --- he figures even a substandard apple is better than nothing.  While I wait for the Winesaps to show up at the fruit stand, he works his way through supermarket apples, trying variety after variety in hopes that one will finally make the cut.

And, to my astonishment, one did.  The Zestar apples Mark brought home from the grocery store last week taste like homegrown, unpasteurized apple cider, but with the crisp crunch Mark craves.  Sweet and sour at the same time, the variety even won me over!

But was it the apple or the tree?  Always the sleuth, I was struck by the Zestar's sticker, Fowler Farmswhich wasn't as slick and professional looking as usual.  It turns out our Zestars came from a family farm in New York state that's been in operation for 150 years.  There, apples are grown using a method that I'd never heard of before --- the super spindle system.

This system (and its relatives, the tall spindle, slender spindle, and vertical axis) uses dwarf trees and crams them so close together they're mere vertical sticks.  In addition to bearing quickly (you can expect 15 to 20 apples the second year), trees planted in the super spindle Super spindlesystem don't shade any part of the tree, so fruits get full sunlight that leads to optimal flavor.

Like any orchard system, super spindle has its downfalls --- in this case, fiddliness.  I haven't had any luck with dwarf fruit trees in the past, which I suspect is because I expected them to live in poor soil areas without irrigation.  When you plant trees two feet apart in the super spindle system, you have to treat your orchard like a high value vegetable garden, giving it constant care.

But those Zestar apples tasted so good, and I have a spot just the right size to try a row of super spindle apple trees.  So I think I'll give it a shot --- stay tuned for more data on the system as it progresses!

Our chicken waterer steals the secrets of industrial chicken-farmers and brings the good parts to the backyard.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I am so happy with this post. I appreciate your sleuthing because of what you found out. This time of year I get seriously hungry for apples: I crave them like crazy and I really think it is seasonal. I am glad you tracked these down. I hope to eat one soon.
Comment by Maggie Hess Thu Sep 13 12:08:40 2012
Omg that is in my neck of the woods. I actually used to work there about 18 years ago in the packing warehouse.
Comment by Irma Thu Sep 13 13:19:18 2012
That is one variety on my list to acquire. We have church friends who run a fruit nursery for ones adapted to our NM mountain micro-climate and that is one they sell. I hope to acquire it in the spring. The spindle growing method would probably not be a plus here as our problem is often too much sunshine.
Comment by Tisha Thu Sep 13 13:36:06 2012
I know you want to try out new ways, but, to me, the worth of an apple tree is also spiritual, so is in its having space around it. Somehow it sort of sounds like the spindle approach becomes an apple-tree hedge.
Comment by adrianne Thu Sep 13 13:48:26 2012
Mom, I hear you saying that you can label "spiritual" on something that is otherwise less effective an therefore justify it. I disagree, though I am eternally spiritual. I think finding logic and truth ultimately bring you to an even more spiritual place. I assume Anna has researched to find more knowledge on this subject than your interpretation of the tree's innermost desires. Love you both, Maggie
Comment by Maggie Thu Sep 13 16:57:48 2012

Irma --- You can't stop there. What did you think of the farm, the apples, the farmers?

Tisha --- The one thing I'm concerned about with Zestar is that they're not as resistant to cedar apple rust as some varieties are. That probably isn't a problem in your low humidity location, though!

Mom --- I do have reservations about the system, although not about the spirituality of the tree. In addition to requiring monthly supervision, dwarf tree roots are much less extensive, so the trees aren't going to reach as widely to find micronutrients, which could affect flavor. I figure it's worth experimenting with, though, especially since I've run out of room for full size trees unless I start clearing more of the woods. :-)

Maggie --- Don't give me too much credit. :-) I'm still researching, and I won't really know what I think for maybe five or ten years, until I can harvest an apple from a semi-spindle and one from a semi-standard tree from our same yard and compare and contrast. (That makes me think I should use some of the same varieties in the two places. Hmmmm....)

Comment by anna Thu Sep 13 19:17:02 2012
Wow! I love the idea of using dwarf trees, if only I had known about this before I went through the trouble of planting and training my espalier fruit trees. Too late now to start over.
Comment by zimmy Thu Sep 13 21:14:53 2012

"Oh, the Lord's been good to me. And so I thank the Lord For giving me the things I need: The sun, the rain and the appleseed; Oh, the Lord's been good to me"

We own a small apple orchard and this is our kids favorite prayer. Your post reminded me of it :)

Comment by Canoearoo Thu Sep 13 21:35:58 2012

Zestar is a new release from the University of Minnesota. They limited the orchards allowed to grow it and seriously limited distrbution the first two years of commercial release. The orchards local to the UofM had a fit! They said they were only willing to work with established orchards that were willing to grow it in a "certain way" on "good soil" etc. etc. that would bring out the "best flavor" ie the commercial success of the "zestar" brand name because the U of M paid for patent an license on all of the above were the primary goal.

Not to disrespect their breeding program nor the skill of their hort. dept. but that there are some serious commercial goals behind zestar. It is, a zone 3/4 hardy apple and one that has been very quickly added to the repertoire of growers around here. If you can get ahold of prairie spy, I'd highly recommend that. Most nurseries have "northern spy" but not "prairie spy" It's a very crisp apple with a couple of different levels to its flavor and is a definite winter keeper - holds well in a root cellar. Might find it with a local grower, never at the supermarket. Well worth the time to grow, and a step up from honeycrisp, rivalling pink lady in my mouth... :D

Comment by c. Fri Sep 14 00:20:00 2012

Its the Apple tree, silly! ;)

If there is one thing I have learned from growing apples in Florida; its the whole tree that needs to be considered. Your apple variety and your m111 rootstock of course.

If your going to stick your apple on some poor sorry excuse of a rootstock, your going to pay for that in major TLC. One dry spell, one bug attack, your trees will be hard pressed just to survive with all your care. Dwarf roots are bred for one thing. High yield(poor quality),dead orchards. Where everything can be pumped onto the small root zone, and sprays distributed evenly throughout the thin rows.

The thing is, you don't have to use dwarf roots to keep your trees small. Even on near standard roots, like m111, you could easily keep your trees under 8 feet and as narrow as you want with prunning. You keep the hardiness and adaptability though.

All of my trees are on m111, and I don't use a ladder to harvest them. My closest plantings are just 4 feet apart, flat against a fence.

With good roots, come good apples!

Comment by T Fri Sep 14 02:02:25 2012

Looks like a modified Espalier pattern except the trees are much closer together like you described. This is what I'm currently planning all the way around my fence. From talking to growers and my research, this is the best way for me to utilize my 1/2 acre yard.

I just found a horse farm with 30 yards of horse manure/compost that is aged from 2-8 years with about 20 yards of 0-1 year old manure also. I'm dieing to start getting my truck over there and hauling it all in!

Comment by Marco Fri Sep 14 06:16:28 2012

I love seeing so many differing points of views on the method! I suspect you're all right, at least in part. :-) Here are a couple of specifics that jumped out at me:

C, I was struck by your note that the University of Minnesota is only allowing orchards with "good soil" to grow Zestar. Although I can see why certain orchards would be pissed off, I can totally understand that --- it could be the soil more than the variety or the tree I'm tasting.

T, My experience with dwarf trees has lined up with what you've said. (Although I've only tried two trees in the past, so my sample size is small.) But I've also never treated a dwarf tree like part of the vegetable garden rather than like, well, a tree. :-) I should probably see if I can squeeze in a few full-size trees in my spindle planting to compare and contrast.

Comment by anna Fri Sep 14 07:16:12 2012
Gosh that was 18 years ago and only for season. Idk what to say I worked in the warehouse putting apples in a box. It was ok, didn't pay much so when they laid me off I went to work somewhere else without looking back. I did like being able to take free apples home people were friendly but at that age I was only concerned with a paycheck. I never got to work in the feilds. Sorry
Comment by Irma Fri Sep 14 08:29:17 2012
Irma --- Thanks for the followup! No worries that you don't know more --- I thought it was worth a shot to ask.
Comment by anna Fri Sep 14 13:09:21 2012

Anna - I think the trouble with the U of M restrictions might be settled and the restrictions might be lifted by now. I do think that there was quite enough of a backlash to put the heat on their bumms to make them offer it up to more nurseries and more orchards.

I do apologize for the link in the subject line of my previous post, obviously I was copy/pasting for a totally different subject matter and missed that I'd made a mistake here. Please feel free to remove it.

Comment by c. Sun Sep 16 11:03:37 2012
C, No worries about the link! I can't really go in and change the subject, but I'm sure it won't bother anyone. (I almost deleted it as spam was the only problem. :-) )
Comment by anna Sun Sep 16 13:57:30 2012

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