Nikiski's apple expert helps others branch out

Seeds of wisdom

Posted: Monday, May 06, 2002

Eleven central Kenai Peninsula residents trekked out to Nikiski Saturday morning, to take part in a yearly ritual involving genetic manipulation, limb splicing, cross breeding and other scientific mumbo jumbo.

It sounds like it could be a Dr. Frankenstein experiment, but the man in charge of the event wasn't a mad scientist -- it was Mike O'Brien, Nikiski's resident expert on orchards, and the creations being produced were definitely not monstrous -- they were homegrown apple trees.

O'Brien held his annual apple grafting class at his orchard. The class teaches participants how to graft together branches of trees and gives O'Brien a chance to share his wealth of agricultural knowledge with fellow apple tree enthusiasts.

"It's nice giving these classes," he said. "For someone who really enjoys growing trees, it's nice to see people get into it. Some are more into it than others and those are the ones you connect with."

O'Brien has been "into it" since 1971, when he first began raising and grafting apple trees in Anchorage. What began as a hobby has blossomed into a business and a determination to develop a good-sized, tasty variety of apple that is hardy enough to thrive in Alaska's challenging agricultural environment.

O'Brien is coming ever closer to his goal. His 2.5 acres of fenced orchards, complete with its own beehives, off Island Lake Road produce 1,000 pounds of apples a year, he said. And he has come up with four varieties of apple that meet his taste standards. Now all he has to do is get his trees to mass produce those apples.

The process of grafting and cross-pollinating trees to create a particular apple is a tricky one that requires patience, a great deal of trial and error and the ability to learn from one's successes and mistakes. On Saturday, O'Brien spent four hours sharing the knowledge he's gained from his many years of experience with this process.

Tim Stumo of Sterling came to the class hoping to pick up some tips for growing apple trees in Alaska and to learn the grafting process.

"That's why I'm here, to learn," he said. "I always figured I could do it, but I wanted to see somebody else do it."

Stumo grew apple trees in northern Minnesota before he moved to Sterling two years ago, he said.

"I putz around a little bit," he said. "I just got four trees planted last year and they're doing OK."

The class began inside the house, with O'Brien explaining the ins and outs of growing and grafting apple trees and displaying some of the tools of the trade. The lecture touched on a wide variety of topics, from choices in fertilizer to obtaining proper pH levels in the soil, and even pest control.

"The first thing a person should do if they're planting trees is make a fence," O'Brien said.

His own orchard is encircled by an eight-foot fence to keep out all matter of pests, including moose, bears and snowmachiners. He also recommended putting arbor guard -- a plastic sheath that wraps around the trunk of a tree -- on trees during the winter to protect against voles, shrews and rabbits.

"It's a never-ending battle to keep everything out," he said.


Mark Stynsberg uses a razor knife to trim a root before attaching it to an apple tree branch. Stynsberg was one of about a dozen people who learned grafting techniques from O'Brien.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Making sure trees have enough heat to grow was another topic covered. Ironically enough, it is not the cold Alaska winters that pose a threat to fruit trees. O'Brien mentioned one tree variety he grows that can withstand temperatures of minus 50. It is the lack of warmth in the summer that causes the problem.

"You want as much heat as you can get," he said.

O'Brien explained that fruit trees need a certain amount of heat in the summer to grow, take nutrients from the soil and produce fruit. He recommended using an insulating fabric as ground cover and providing windbreaks around the trees, if not constructing full out greenhouses as he has.

After the inside session, O'Brien took the class out to the orchard to do some grafting.

He had a bucket full of rootstocks -- a plant with roots and a basic stem but no branches --soaking in water for the class to use. The rootstocks were grown from crab apple seeds. O'Brien uses crab apple roots for grafting new trees because of their hardiness, he said.

"Most people think 'crab apples' and pucker up, but they're really as good as any variety we have," O'Brien assured the class.

He took the visitors into the orchard to cut scion wood from the tried-and-true varieties of apple trees in the orchard -- Norland and Parkland trees. Scion wood is a three- to five-inch section of single-season growth wood cut from one tree and grafted onto another.

Then it was time for O'Brien to demonstrate the grafting process.

"Now we're going to make a tree," he told his guests.

He first demonstrated a bench graft. The first step is preparing the scion wood by removing all but one bud. Next O'Brien used a utility knife and made a whip cut at the end of the scion wood, which is an angled cut like sharpening a stake. Then he made a tongue by slicing the knife into the middle of the cut.

The top of the rootstock stem was cut in the same way. O'Brien joined the two together by interlocking the tongues and wrapping the grafted area with masking tape. The scion wood is dipped in melted wax, heated to 55 to 60 degrees, up past the grafted section to seal the area and keep sap from running out. After that, the area is painted with a grafting sealant, the plant is tagged and it is put back into the bucket to soak.

"So that's all there is to that," O'Brien said, telling his audience to try it themselves. "I can go through it again, and I'll be right here if there's any questions."

After everyone had successfully bench grafted two trees, which they later took home with them, O'Brien demonstrated the field graft and had people try that, as well. A field graft is similar to a bench graft, except the scion wood is grafted on to a branch of an existing tree. Only the grafting sealant is used to protect this graft.

"Now is a good time to do field grafts because the energy coming up from the roots will heal anything you put on there," O'Brien said.

A field graft has a lower chance of surviving than a bench graft -- 75 percent vs. 90 percent -- but if successful, it can make different varieties of apples grow on one tree, which is what Ami Rediske of Nikiski was hoping for.


Apples hang from one of O'Brien's trees several autumns ago.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Rediske has an apple tree in her yard that came from her father's homestead 35 years ago, she said.

"I want to graft a few big apples onto it," she said. "I would love to have several different big apples growing on that tree. That would be fun."

O'Brien told the class they could buy and take home the crab apple trees they grafted onto if they wanted to, or any other type of tree they wanted. Stumo said he should get one of the Norlands or Parklands because they bear fruit within a year, whereas the trees he has at home aren't bearing yet.

"I might get one for my little ones," he said. "They're getting tired of waiting and helping and mulching and not getting an apple."

By the time class was winding down O'Brien had provided his students with invaluable information, trees of their own to plant, an invitation to come back in mid-September during apple-tasting season and, last but not least, words of encouragement.

"It's tough to grow the stuff here, but it can be done," he said. "... I know for sure that the ones you did today will work."

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