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

Three new high-density apple experiments

Dwarf apple rootballAlthough it's a little premature to count our two-year-old high-density apple experiment as a success (since frost nipped all of the blooms this spring), I'm feeling very positive about the system. Planting the apple trees close together allows me to try out lots of different varieties, which in turn makes it easy to select varieties that resist cedar apple rust and our other local bugaboos. The high-density row doesn't take up much precious garden space, and the summer pruning (although frequent) is simple and fun. No wonder Mark and I chose to plant two more high-density apple rows this fall!

With this second planting, I'm experimenting in three different directions. Two years ago, I mostly chose trees grafted onto Bud 9, M26, and Geneva 11 rootstock, meaning that the trees are true dwarfs, but I also included two trees on a semi-dwarf (MM111) rootstock. The semidwarf trees grew very well...but they've already gotten quite a bit bigger than their neighbors. So, when I grafted Planting an apple treeonto MM111 for some of this year's new trees, I expanded the within-row spacing to 6 feet, hoping that the additional elbow room will help our semidwarf apples achieve their full potential while still toeing the high-density line. I also plan to train the MM111 trees' limbs down considerably below the horizontal this time around, which I was a bit more cautious about in previous years but which I've since decided is definitely a good option for high-density apples in the backyard.

I also opted to branch out and try yet another rootstock this year --- M7, which will produce trees midway in size between the true dwarfs on Bud 9 and the semidwarfs on MM111. My M7 trees went into the ground at 53-inch spacing but will otherwise be treated the same as the MM111 trees. I'll be curious to see, over the next few years, which rootstock turns out to be the best fit for high-density plantings on our farm. It's a bit of a tradeoff --- the more dwarfing the rootstock, the more precocious the tree, meaning that we'll get more fruits faster. But, at the same time, truly dwarf rootstocks have a hard time growing if you don't give them constant TLC, and a few of the trees in my original planting (on Geneva-11 or Bud 9 rootstock) did fail to thrive. Hopefully, either the M7 or MM111 trees (or both) will provide a happy middle ground --- apple trees that do pretty well without watering and other bonus attention, but that also produce within a few years after planting.

Espaliering an apple

I've read lots of good and bad about espaliers (my third high-density apple experiment), so I earmarked only one tree for this final endeavor. I settled on an informal design set against the south side of our front porch and began by bending the young tree so the top was nearly horizontal. As watersprouts inevitably pop up from the flattened trunk, I'll probably bend them at a 45-degree angle to create a type of lattice pattern...or whatever seems to make sense from the growth pattern of the tree. Since I'm far from confident that my espalier will thrive, though, I chose our Chestnut Crab for the experiment ---after all, I'm mostly growing this sweet crabapple variety out of sentimental attachment to a similar tree of my youth, so I won't feel too bad if I don't get high yields.

I'll keep you posted on all three new plantings in the years ahead...and hopefully will be able to report in summer 2015 about our first big crop from our older high-density planting. In the meantime, stay tuned for another post about next year's high-density experiment, which will veer off in yet another direction.

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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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Where do you get your information on the various pruning techniques for high density planting? Other than espalier I have not been able to find much information.
Comment by Patrick Tue Dec 2 16:04:56 2014
Patrick --- I'm still learning through trial and error because, like you, I didn't find too many resources. That said, This post (and it's links) might help you get started. As you play around with the techniques, you'll start to get a feel for what works for your trees. (One of these days I want to write an ebook on this topic, but I'm not quite there yet....)
Comment by anna Tue Dec 2 20:43:21 2014
I've decided to go with M111 rootstock for my apples. I'm very interested in your experiment with training the branches below horizontal. Do you feel it necessary to stake your M111 trees? Looking forward to your updates!
Comment by Michaelann Wed Feb 11 18:41:45 2015

Michealann --- The MM111 trees I put in the high-density area (meaning I'm pruning and training them quite small) I went ahead and staked because their neighbors were staked and it would have looked odd to leave them out. I don't think they really needed the stakes though.

Training the branches below horizontal has been working out well on some older high-density apples. I was a bit tentative about it at first and let some be horizontal to a bit above horizontal, and if anything, I wish I'd gone lower with everyone. I haven't seen a lot of water sprouts (the one problem you might have), although the more vigorous trees on MM111 are tougher to keep in line than the true dwarfs.

Comment by anna Thu Feb 12 11:54:11 2015

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