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Dodge City Daily Globe - Dodge City, KS
  • Oak Duke: Mid-winter is the time to trim wild apple trees

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  • Last year was a great year for apples, the best year in quite a while. Many of the older apple trees covered the ground with apples to the delight of wildlife, and a joy to those of us who like to walk through the woods in the fall and sample apples from the different trees.
    They say there are over 7,500 different cultivars of apples (2,500 here in the U.S.), and judging by the variety on our hills, I believe it.
    Some old apple trees, even now in mid-winter, are still carrying their fruit, though now soft, brown and partially fermented. They fall sporadically and attract whitetails, grouse and other critters that clean them up quickly.
    “As American as apple pie ...”
    Actually, apples are not indigenous to America any more than we are.
    The only native apple tree is the crab apple.
    Before the European colonists and missionaries put their black boots down on the New England rocks, there was not a single apple, not one apple along the North American coast, the entire continent or even the Western Hemisphere for that matter.
    Now, 300 years later, there are over 2,500 different varieties growing from “sea to shining sea.”
    Apples, perhaps the most ubiquitous fruit, originated in Kazakhstan, halfway around the world. Kazakhstan is one of the “new” countries, south of Russia and north of Iran, geographically determined after the fracturing of the USSR.
    So apples came here as immigrants, just like all our ancestors, and at the same time. Apples migrated here in pockets, bags, packs and hands, in the bottom of barrels and in ship’s holds. That’s what makes them so peculiarly American. Just like us.
    Many trees were meticulously and carefully planted, the seeds given to certain indigenous tribes with an agrarian interest. And those trees were carefully planted and groomed. Indeed, evolving into huge orchards, such as in the case of the Seneca Iroquois in the Genesee River Valley, coming from the French missionaries.
    And as we all know, after eating, the handy fruit’s fertile seeds, packed into the core, are often chucked off the side of a path.
    Talk about a successful strategy for seed dispersal!
    Indigenous wildlife — whitetail, grouse, raccoons, bear and squirrels — all relish apples.
    Apple trees increased their variety and population, sprouting and spreading their limbs as farms and settlements reached across the United States, in part in Western New York and Ohio by John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed). However, apple trees do not do well in the warmer climates in the Southern U.S., especially the subtropical zone states such as Florida and southern Louisiana, as they need cooler weather to thrive.
    As the woodlands and trees slowly reclaimed old family farms and cleared lands, these same apple trees which once stood young and vigorous next to a barn or farmhouse are now slowly being choked within second-growth woodlots.
    Page 2 of 3 - The farm’s outbuildings slowly crumble, discarded machinery rusts into the ground. But the apple trees get bigger and older and increasingly more shaded by the younger trees’ faster growth and expanding canopies.
    Shade is bad for apples. They don’t like it.
    Late winter is a good time to get out and literally give these old trees a hand. This wintertime work will literally bear fruit and help wildlife. As a bonus, whitetails munch the pruned twigs and limbs down to a pencil-sized diameter. January and February are ideal times to prune and train neglected apple trees, not only for better fruit and the overall appearance of the landscape, but for the health of the tree.
    First, trim out competing trees and brush when starting out to help one of these old neglected malus.
    Seems like a heavily flowering apple tree in May can give pause to even the hardest heart, most preoccupied mind, obsessed turkey hunter or focused fisherman.
    Trees should be pruned and trained while dormant in the dead of winter. And once their competition is removed, the tree’s own limbs need to be worked on because it actually shades itself.
    There are rules and aphorisms about pruning apple trees. One of my favorites is: “You know an apple tree is pruned just right if you can throw a cat through the branches.”
    But a general, oft-quoted rule is the “rule of thirds.” And that is prune back a third of the tree each year for three years.
    One of the first things to attack with the pruning cutters and bow saw are dead branches. Old branches, especially broken by snow, wind, ice, or even a bumper crop of apples in a prior year, give pathways and entrance to all sorts of debilitating critters from bacteria to fungal colonists, all looking for a home and a place to set up shop.
    The real key to good apple production, throughout the entire tree, is for it to have even sunlight distribution.
    We’ve all seen old apple trees with all the fruit on one side, or in a couple places on the tree.
    This is a potential disaster for the tree just waiting to happen. Sometimes, the weight of the fruit breaks the limb!
    All that needs to be done is a bit of judicious pruning, first to the competition (other nearby trees and bushes) and then to the tree, itself.
    Apple trees should be pruned, starting at the top first. There, they are often excessively vigorous and produce few apples, being overly concerned with leaf and wood growth. Apples there are big, soft and sparse.
    At the bottom of the tree, in the lowest layers, it’s just the opposite; usually, they are smaller, hard and bunched. Branches are overly dense and shade each other too much there. The best apples are most often found in between the two extremes.
    Page 3 of 3 - Oak Duke is an outdoors columnist based in upstate New York.
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