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The ManyTracks Orchard


Beautiful in Blossom, Handsome in Winter,
Elegant in Leaf, and Delicious in Fruit

photo apple tree in fruit

Four decades of Growing Good Food in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts



Black Oxford





The very first planting on our new homestead was an apple tree. Several apple trees, and a pear, maybe something else. Purchased from a nursery downstate -- Macintosh, Winesap, Prairie Spy, Bartlett Pear -- it was what they recommended. We brought them north and planted them in the newly fenced (we did know about deer) cold and wind-swept (except from the west) garden-orchard area in 1978. We had no amendments to add to the old worn-out sod soil, no mulch to help the new trees get established, little water to help them thrive, no time to devote to the new orchard, and no knowledge of pruning. But most of those trees not only grew they lived to set fruit! They are amazing creatures. I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for them.

The Macintosh was not a good choice as it's not well adapted to this area, especially back then when the winter cold was more severe. I wouldn't plant a Macintosh now. I have a note of some fruit harvested in 1987 but then nothing. The Winesap could have been a good tree for here. I remember it fruited prolifically but the fruit was small. I didn't know about pruning or thinning for fruit size and it eventually disappeared from my scanty notes. The Bartlett Pear didn't make it past the first few winters. But the Prairie Spys. Oh those three wonderful hardy survivors, they live to this day. Well, actually, they turned out not to be Prairie Spys at all, but some other variety.

Fast forward and it now seems I spend more time researching the varieties I plant and graft than I do taking care of them! But I enjoy it and I feel comfortable with those I've chosen. I expect them to survive and thrive. I've learned to prune and graft and care for my trees, or rather I continue to learn as I expect I'll be doing that as long as I have trees to care for. We now have Haralson, Dudley, and Black Oxford producing, in addition to the not-Prairie-Spys, and another dozen or more that should be fruiting over the next six years or so. We continue to graft more every year, and plant. There is a lot of other fruit in my garden/orchard and it is much enjoyed and appreciated, but it is the apple that is our mainstay, the one that would be most sorely missed were it not a part of our lives, and our diet.

 Prairie Spy??

Prairie Spys. That's what we were told they were when we planted them almost 40 years ago. So that's what they were for all those years. Our large, standard, venerable, reliable (sort of) much appreciated PS apple trees, #'s 1, 2, and 3. They were the only apples we had other than wild ones for many years. Then a few years ago, through the miracle of the internet, I discovered that our trees were not what is called a Prairie Spy (though that certainly sounds like a very good variety). We had never seen nor tasted a Prairie Spy apple so had no reason up to then to question the variety name. I didn't know what ours were, but they were, and are, the top bananas in my orchard, and not just because of their age. Theapples in pile photo at the top of the page is of one of the trees in full bloom.

Other trees have joined them in giving us much appreciated fruit but these were our first and will always be first in my heart. The fruit is wonderful--sweet and juicy--delicious as sauce, for fresh eating, for fresh cider. They are a late summer apple, red, ripening in September, keeping only a month or two, susceptible to scab. A real Prairie Spy is a sweet-tart winter apple, prized for its keeping qualities and its resistance to scab. One thing they both have in common is their hardiness--ours certainly have proven their ability to survive in our zone 3 climate and with minimal care, whatever they are called. We are grafting a real (we hope!) PS this summer so someday we'll find out what they are like.

photo apple tree early springOur Non-Prairie Spy's (NPS's) grew to be of great size, beautiful but not very practical from a management standpoint. At some point I decided I did want to manage our orchard, for better fruit and healthier trees. I started the long education in the skill of pruning, by reading, guessing, and doing. New trees are all kept about 12 feet tall--what I can reach with my loppers from the top of my 8 ft ladder. But it was too late for the NPS's,  though I did what I could. Most of the fruit was high in the top, less in quantity and quality than in earlier years, the top thick with branches out of reach that really needed thinning. When they did have a good year we had plenty for the compost pile and the wild creatures but also a good deal for us. But I knew they could be better. Two of the trees were still healthy, the third maybe not so. I decided it was time to bring them down and create, I hoped, a rejuvinated, strong, bearing tree.photo old new apple tree

All three trees had multiple large trunks thanks to the nursery cutting the central leader out of the young saplings, and no further shaping by me. So over the last six years Steve cut out one large trunk a year. NPS #1, the best of the trio, had a real nice young shoot growing fairly low in the tree that I encouraged into shape to be the replacement tree. The last large trunk was removed this past spring (2016) so the new young tree now stands clear and ready to begin its bearing life, maybe next summer or soon after. I'm anxiously watching for fruiting spurs.

NPS #2 trunks were cut back to secondary (and thirdary) branches, not as severe as #1, shooting out many suckers to be thinned and pruned to some semblance of a broad, low shape that I hope will agree with it. It's in the midst of shaping and the last old limb cutback will be done this coming spring. I'm hoping for some fruit this year--we so miss those NPS apples! NPS #3 was the least thriving of the three and didn't come out of the major cutback very well. It already had a lot of dead sides on its trunks and may not make it. It was planned to cut it down completely this year but then one strong shoot, low on the good side of one of the trunks, showed up to give it a possible reprieve. We'll see how it does but I'm cheering it on and give it a high-five every time I go by. [later update: It didn't survive so that tree is no more, but it served us well all those years it gave fruit. Now it sort of lives on as a nearby relative, root sucker that I've let grow to graft onto in a year or two.]

photo apples in baskets in root cellarBut just what variety was our NPS? I searched now and then on the internet but hadn't come up with a good match. I had this one photo of baskets of the apples in the root cellar so I posted it along with a description on the GrowingFruit forum and asked if anyone had an idea. And someone did! BEACON, introduced by the Univ. of Minnesota in 1937. (Prairie Spy was also an introduction by the Univ. of Minn.).

I had run across Beacon before and considered it. But the UofMinn. photo really didn’t look like ours, nor was their description real close. But with that suggestion I did some more searching and found several sites with photos and descriptions that fit our apples right on. With an apple that has been around as long as this one there is sure to be quite a bit of variety. And all apples have their own innate variety, growing and showing up differently in different parts of the country and different orchards. But all the accounts I could find does point to our apples being Beacons. 

In the most important of ways the name doesn’t matter. I couldn’t have asked for a better apple for us for all these years. We have a great deal of appreciation for these three trees.  The years they produced they fed us well. We are going to be so happy when we they give us fruit once again. They are indeed Beacons in so many ways. But it will take awhile to change the name in my mind. To us I think they will be PS's for a good many years yet. At least until our new real PS starts bearing!

Black Oxford Apple - 11-26-2016   
(blog post)

Black Oxford FruitToday we ate our last stored Black Oxford apple. It was wonderful. A little rubbery due to (1) having been picked too early, the end of Sept., thanks to a marauding flock of bluejays that came through and did their best to devour the crop before I got to them, and (2) an unusually warm fall so that our root cellar didn’t cool down until just a few weeks ago. But the flavor was Just Right -- not too dry, not too juicy, just enough sweet, just enough tart. Great for slicing up and leaving out on the table for pass-by snacking.

This year was the first harvest from this tree (not counting the one apple it produced last year). It wasn’t a large crop, about 10#, but every apple (even the ones half eaten by the jays) were very much appreciated. The fruit ranged from small to medium size (the one in the photo was the largest) and while they weren’t free from insect damage it wasn’tBlack Oxford tree significant. The fruit and the tree were quite healthy.

The tree was planted in 2002, purchased from Fedco. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best formed little tree and I didn’t help any with my pruning decisions over the years. I think that is why it was so long to bear fruit. But it looks nice now (if one doesn’t mind the strongly angled trunk) and seems to be happy. I know I am! I really like this apple and look forward to future harvests. Hopefully, next time I can let the fruit mature on the tree a little longer before picking.

Dudley Winter

Dudley tree winterThis apple probably won't win any awards for its name (unless your or a friend's name happens to be Dudley!) and you aren't likely to find it in many orchards today, at least not around here, but it's a real nice apple and we like it. Apparently it was once more common though I'd never heard of it. There is some question as to its parentage but it apparently came to be about 1877 in Castle Hill, Maine, a planted seed in John Wesley Dudley's orchard of either New Brunswick or Duchess, maybe crossed with Hyslop crab. We'll never know for sure but what matters is it grew out to  be a good enough variety to be very popular in Maine at the turn of the century and is still around today. And, why I chose to plant one, it is hardy. Dudley winter fruit

The fruit is on the tart side, firm and juicy enough for good fresh eating, nicely large for drying, makes good sauce (with sweetening). Red stripes and splashes on yellow-green background. A nice apple looking apple. It's said to be a decent keeper into winter but since it ripens in September when our root cellar is still warm I dry the majority of the crop that we don't eat. It hangs well on the tree for several weeks which is great for apple-a-day fresh eating, as long as the birds don't decide to help themselves.Dudley Winter seedling

Our tree came from Fedco Trees in Maine, grafted on standard Antonovka rootstock, planted in 2002. It should be a long lived tree. I like the form it takes--wide--beautiful and easy to pick. I'm keeping it pruned to about 12 ft tall; easier to do on a wide growing tree. Our first harvest was in 2009 -- 20 nice apples! And good tasting apples. TheDudley blossoms next year was a very good crop of nice large apples. Since then we've had moderate crops (along with no or sparse crops, too, thanks to late spring freezes) from early to late in September, and we've eaten, preserved and enjoyed a lot of Dudley's. It's a great standard now in our orchard.  


Wild Crabapples - 11-30-2016  
(blog post)

The last day of November and it is a beautiful day, relatively speaking -- above freezing, mild wind, bare ground, no precipitation, and we’re home. An extra gift day of enjoying working outside. And I worked on a project I’d thought of many times for many years, but being low priority I just hadn’t gotten to it. But this was the day. I could work on weeding the garden but the ground is really too wet to make that much fun. Besides, I’ve had fruit trees on my mind recently so this was a great project for me.

photo Crabapple tree - north This tangly row of seedling crabapples include originals we planted forty years ago. They established and grew well with a nice abundance of varied offspring (many of which I’m using as rootstock for our expanding orchard). I’ve left the crabs pretty much alone all these years since they are quite self-sufficient and I’ve always had plenty of regular eating apple trees to keep me occupied. But the grafting bug bit a few years ago and since then I can’t look at a wild (or tame) tree without wondering about the possibilities of grafting a branch or two of some other variety to it. And this fall I saw this row of crabs anew with that in mind. Mmmm. That naturally small crab on the north end would be easy to reach to graft a few shoots. It’s a wonderfully shaped tree, unusual in this world of enthusiastic gangly seedlings. Plus it has maintained a comfortable space around it, not crowded with growing suckers and offspring. Enough elbow room for healthy living. This one is definitely on the list for a graft; something with moderate vigor, maybe a named crab... Then again, it is a beautiful pleasant shaped small tree. Maybe I’ll just leave it be.

Then there are the rest of the crew in the row. Diversity is the keyword here and they revel in diversity--and close companionship. Very close. What a tangle. Some have small maybe half inch red fruit (not bad flavor when really ripe but not enough size or flesh to appeal to most humans. The others are larger, almost one inch, dull yellow, with more flesh but little flavor. Birds and deer, and likely squirrels and chipmunks, love them both. The trees could have used some help many years ago but there is nothing like ‘now’ to do whatever inspires to be done. And I was inspired. The tree on the south end of the line is a good one for grafting--not too large with a lot of appropriate growth to graft to. It will get good sun for ripening an apple we’d be happy to eat. So the first order of business is to clean out around him, for his comfort as well as the grafter’s ease.

photo Crabapple tree - south Being a popular bird cafeteria there are plenty of wild black cherries and even more autumn olives growing underneath and around. We had cut out a few large cherries a few years ago so there were plenty of sprouts to lop and saw down. I didn’t try to cut out all the autumn olives; this is a free-growing area beside our driveway and mostly left to do what comes natural (not that the autumn olives are what one would call “natural” here, but they are well established so we’ve come to terms with them and only cut down those that are in our active areas). Between the loppers and a small folding pruning saw it was a pleasant few hours work. This southernmost crab was easy enough to clear around and I could imagine its relief at having room to spread its wings and grow in a more pleasant fashion. It may take awhile and in the late winter/early spring I’ll see what I can do to help it out with a bit of pruning and maybe tying some branches out to encourage outward instead of upward growth. And, of course, a graft or two!

 I’ve started working on the tangle between these two trees but there is much yet to be done. I interrupted Steve from cutting up cookstove wood to cut out a couple mid-size trees with the chainsaw. Then much work with loppers and handsaw actually getting the trees out of the tangle. It was a challenge to keep an eye on who was whom to make sure I was removing the tree I wanted. Regular apple branches are a neat-nick piler’s nightmare but these crab branches are ten times worse! The many wild cherry shoots made a nice shortphoto Crabapple tree non-obstrusive pile. The first few crab branches dwarfed that pile. I don’t mind brush piles; we have them all over. The little critters and birds love them as do the hunters (both furred and feathered). But this pile is not going to be subtle. I can only hope the snow breaks it down some over winter. And one certainly has no need for going to a “fitness center” in town to build up muscles if you have crab apple branches to wrestle with.

The initial thinning and clearing is done. Enough to get a better feel for who needs to go and who to stay. While I was working the large flock of Cedar Waxwings who have been hanging around feasting on the crab apples (mostly the ones in the garden area--which are my next crab taming project) landed briefly in the trees to give me their opinions. They are so cheery and beautiful, and such a challenge when it comes to getting the edible berries before they do. They are the reason we have cages on our strawberries and blueberries come harvest time. But these crabapples high on the tree are their crop, shared with the robins (if any are left) and others. Lower fruit are pretty much the deers'. I thought I was going to leave the old original tree in the center of the patch but once I got into it I think this one will need to come down. It has several large branches broken off high up and much dead wood. It’s a hard decision. But the younger trees wrapped around and among each other are in good shape and producing, with many new seedlings coming up nearby, so we will take the old tree out. The challenge will be to bring it down without damaging the other trees. So now I wait for a good day for Steve and I to work on it together. I’d like to get it done before winter really sets in so these trees can start their recovery in the very early spring. I know all this clearing has been hard on them but I hope they will enjoy the better air circulation and sun. And I’ve found a good number of nice little seedlings to transplant to the next new orchard for grafting!


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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.

updated 01/16/2017

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