How to Create Trees of Life: Our Delicious, Forbidden Heritage

Did you know you’ve been eating clones?  Did you know the making of these clones is something we Mainers have been doing for a long time?  Did you know the clones we used to make before the homogenization of the industrial food system used to taste a lot better?  I’m speaking of course about apples.

I guarantee Adam and Eve weren’t tempted by a red delicious (sic) from South America, China or the west coast of North America.  But if they stumbled upon one of the hundreds of heirloom apple varieties traditionally cultivated here in the Northeast, who could blame them for caving to temptation?

Apples from the local orchard, several varieties.

Apples from the local orchard, several varieties.

If you’ve never tasted an heirloom eating apple, fresh from the autumn tree; the still firm keeper apple, the sweetness of which has only intensified after months in the root cellar, you have no idea what you’re missing.  Depending on the type of person you are, that could be a good thing.  If you’re the type of person who would rather not know, the type for whom ignorance is bliss, you can slowly back away from your computer, never think about this again and live the rest of your life suffering through (I mean happily eating) the tasteless, mealy, often bruised from shipping, soaked in pesticides of growth and diesel fuel of transit, ‘apples’ to which you’re accustomed.

However, if you’ve spent your life thinking keeping the doctor away is not worth the cost of an apple a day, and wondered how that saying ever got established, that’s probably because you’ve spent your life eating the apples I just described.  Heirloom apples are a whole different ball of sin.  Not only can you take a bite yourself, you can propagate your favorite forbidden fruit and grow it in your back yard.

Once you’ve been to the local orchard (mark your calendar and book vacation time now for next September – October) you will have a good idea of the types of apples that tickle your fancy.

If, like me, you’ve already done this and indeed make it a yearly ritual, congratulations, you’re ready to start your own home orchard.  In order to do so, you need root-stock.

These are only in water for a few minutes during grafting.

These are only in water for a few minutes during grafting.

Every edible apple variety you consume, whether you bought it at the grocery store or the local family orchard, is a sort of clone.  If you want a Macintosh apple tree you won’t get it by planting the seed from a Macintosh apple.  I don’t have time to explain this.  Take my word for it or google it.  You have to take a cutting from a Macintosh apple tree and graft that cutting onto a hearty root-stock.  The root-stock you use depends on the qualities you want, most importantly, size.  Standard, Dwarf or Semi-Dwarf.


Because I graft and sell trees to Fedco Trees I use the root-stock they recommend and can get.  Malus Antonovka for Standard and so far M111 for Semi-Dwarf.  I haven’t had reason or occasion to try others but these two have done well for me so far.

Next you need scion.


Scion is wood from the tree that produces the apples you like and it is connected, or grafted, to the root-stock.

There are a lot of ways to obtain scions.  If you find a tree that produces apples you like, you can get a cutting.  Always make sure you obtain permission from the landowner and be respectful throughout the process.  Also remember you hardly need any wood to make a successful graft.  The really good grafters can do it with just one bud’s worth.  I use two buds per graft just to be sure.


You can also go to the Scion Exchange which I wrote about recently.  It’s past for this year but it’s a yearly event at MOFGA.  Put it on the calendar and check it out.


You can also purchase scion just like root-stock.  Along with the free pieces I get from the Scion Exchange, I get some from Fedco Trees because I graft for them and its easiest.  I know they sell it in their catalog though it may be too late to order from them this season.  There are several nurseries around the country and you can probably find one online.  It’s a good idea to concentrate on those found in your hardiness zone and get scion and root-stock that is proven to perform well in that zone.

If you don’t know how to graft you can learn from books, videos, the internet, take a class or find someone who is willing to teach you.  I took that route.  I have a friend who showed me how to graft out of the goodness of his heart and I have since paid it forward with several others.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m very good at grafting (based on percentage of ‘takes’ – not based on speed) but not yet great at raising the trees.

Grafting supplies.  The coffee is key.

Grafting supplies. The coffee is key.

Grafting is making a union between your scion and root-stock.  If you don’t know how trees grow and repair themselves grafting is counter-intuitive and you’ll be very, very lucky if you get any grafts to take.  This is because everything important to grafting happens in the cambium which is the thin layer of living tissue just beneath the bark.  You need to get the cambium of your scion to line up with the cambium of your root-stock.  Nothing else has to touch or be lined up though the graft will be more secure during its fragile first year if you can line everything else up as well.

I first learned how to graft using the whip and tongue technique and that’s still what I use when bench grafting (as opposed to grafting onto an already planted, mature tree).  You slice the scion and root stock at steep vertical angles (hopefully identical on each piece), put a vertical cleft through the pith of each piece and then mate the two together at the clefts, making sure the cambium is touching in as many places as possible.

Then wrap the graft site with tape, I use pvc because everything else was sold out last time I stocked up.  There are more benign tapes.  Top the scion with some sort of grafting wax.  I use Treekote only because that’s what I was taught to use and it’s always worked well.  If it ain’t broke and all that.

Once you’ve grafted (throughout the process actually) you need to keep the tree’s roots moist until planting season.  I use damp sawdust and keep watering it as needed.  You also need to keep them from freezing.  I put mine in the root cellar.  This time of year I begin bringing them outside everyday when its warm and not windy.  This will trigger the tree that it’s time to break dormancy.  It will begin transferring energy from its roots to its body, realize you’ve cut its body off and start meshing with the new body you gave it (scion).

Sometimes the new ones are good too.

Sometimes the new ones are good too.

Until the graft is fully formed you need to be very careful handling the tree.  When I put my trees into the sawdust in buckets I handle them by the crown as much as possible (the part that is just above the soil level when planted), bunch them together so the grafts aren’t touching and pack the sawdust around them.

Busy 011

When the weather and soil have warmed up enough you can plant your trees.  Make sure you do some research about planting, spacing and care of fruit trees.  You can’t just go dig a small hole in the lawn and expect your tree to do well, or even live for that matter.  They don’t compete well with grass or weeds when they’re tiny and creatures that like to live in grass (voles and mice) will thank you for the wonderful food you’ve just given them.  You won’t thank them when they kill your new fruit tree by girdling the bark and cambium.

You need to keep grass and weeds from the base of your tree (I’ve found thick layers of wood chips do this best, dig a larger hole for it than you think you’ll need and give it a good, firm foundation of fertility.  Fedco Trees has a good starting guide in their catalog and you can find lots of information online about how to plant and care for your tree.

Depending on the root-stock and scion variety you chose, as well as your soil, light and climate conditions, you can expect your tree to start bearing fruit in 5-15 years.  Yes, that’s a while.  Get on it!  There is no time like the present for you to start thinking about your own orchard.  And there is no time like the present to consider how far in advance your friendly, neighborhood orchard family had to plan and how many years they’ve cared for their trees, in order to make your first bite of a locally grown, Maine apple everything you dreamed it would be.

So this spring, start your own orchard.  This fall, visit the little family orchards in your area, thank them for all they’ve done and are doing, be respectful of their land and their trees and start getting your fruit from them.  I think you’ll thank them.  Based on my taste experience, Eve was just guilty of sound judgement.  Local Food.  Eat well – be well.






Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.