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Genetically Modified Apples: Arctic ™

And so, the genetically modified food developers have gotten around to introducing apples now. If you have any reservations about gm food, listen up. If you are one of the supporters of gm crops because it will aid in producing better fruit, you may want to keep reading also.

The soon to be released Arctic apple series (trademarked of course, though Arctic is also the name of a specific heirloom variety) has been designed to grow better without toxic pesticides, right? Nope. And although there are higher levels of vitamin C in the Arctic tm versions, it was not the main focus of the program. (Keep in mind also that there are plenty of non-gmo apples with much higher vitamin C, some superior to oranges).

The new and improved apples (like newly enhanced Granny Smith and Golden Delicious in the Arctic series) are worth genetic tinkering because….ready….the flesh doesn’t brown.

So, where we used to leave out a half eaten apple for a while, and watched to our horror that it turned tan colored, now we can pick it up again at the end of the day to finish eating it in all its white fleshed glory. Sure we could have engaged in the monumental act of eating a whole apple, but now we don’t have to. Though non-gmo apples like Cortland do not brown, they don’t have the wonderful benefit of royalties garnered from a trademarked product. So, it would seem that in the early stages of gm tree fruits, the approach is marketing appeal and cosmetics.

The following is part of  a letter from organic growers in Canada:

Fred Danenhower, President, Similkameen Okanagan Organic Treefruit Growers Association, Cawston, BC

July 2012

“I am writing this letter as president of the Similkameen Okanagan Organic Treefruit Growers Association regarding the CFIA application GD 743 and GS 784 – the request for approval of the sale/distribution of the Arctic tree/apple. We request that the following points be considered in evaluating it.

Loss of Organic Production

The inevitable measureable impact of the “Arctic” apple on the local economy will be a loss of at least $4,000,000 annually. Because of cross-pollination [bees fly as much as 4 miles from a hive], organic producers will not get certification. This will cost organic tree fruit growers in the Okanagan-Similkameen (based on 16,000 bins of apple production) $2,500,000 in revenue annually . The Cawston Cold Storage Packinghouse will close: they cannot remain open running just soft fruit, costing local jobs and eliminating a payroll approaching $1,500,000. Next to School District #53, CCS is the biggest employer in the Similkameen. It is unclear, whether the other two organic packing sheds, Harkers and Organics Plus can stay open but in any scenario the loss of organic apples will result in job cuts. The total impact on the economy, the loss to suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, truckers, local business, is hard to gauge but will be in the millions.”

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Wild Plants in the Orchard

Red Berried Elder in Flower at Walden Heights Nursery

More in the growing list of plants to keep in the landscape. Along with acting as nectaries for beneficial insects, native and other wild plants are crucial to the ecosystem due to their ability to accumulate and distribute a multitude of nutrients, improve soil structure, and distract pest species. They also add to the beauty of the surroundings, don’t they?

Baneberry flower at Walden Heights (actaea pachypoda, a. rubra)

Baneberry plants sport beautiful red or white berries later in the season which although toxic to humans, are enjoyed by many bird species.

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum)

A native of the lily family, Trillium is also known as stinking  benjamin due to its faint carrion odor which attracts small flies (its pollinators). Seeds are enjoyed and dispersed by small mammals, ants, yellow jackets and others.  Plants need to reach an age of 15 years before they bloom. Plants can live for up to 30 years. They are indicators of rich moist soils.

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Bald Faced Hornet Observation Hive

bald faced hornet nest at Walden Heights

We were lucky enough to have a nest of bald faced hornets select the outside wall of our apple house as their site. We were also lucky enough to have zero stings. It survived all season, even after heavy rains damaged the hive with runoff, the wasps repairing the best they could. The hive was attached to a gutter and wood support. The insects were happy to have the plastic serve as wall on the viewing side, and seemed unfazed by human presence.

We have kept the hive to display in our future nature museum. (Wasps and hornets abandon summer hives before onset of winter, all except mated queens die off naturally).

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Pileated Woodpecker

pileated woodpecker at Walden Heights

The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

At least one couple takes up residence here each year, likely due to their great fondness for grapes. We are happy to have them, despite their appetite, since they eat almost exclusively from this towering 25 foot pair of King of the North vines by the chicken coop. (They eat about one of the 3 or 4 bushels we get from these vines).

With a near 30 inch wingspan and flashy red white and black attire, who wouldn’t want them around. Their vocalizing is every bit as boisterous as the local crow population.

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Turkey Chicks in the Orchard

We stumbled upon this happy little clutch of chick this past summer, happily lounging right on the orchard path. Keeping from overly manicuring your farm allows all kinds of furry and feathered folks to feel secure. Mother was nearby, trying her best to lure us away (faking unjury a bit, and scolding). After snapping a few photos, we let them be. The group moved from the path the next day, but likely are shacking up somewhere on the farm.

turkey chicks at Walden Heights
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Ants attack caterpillar – video

We shot a few minutes of footage of ants attacking (and eventually killing) a caterpillar many times their size. Ants are problematic in the orchard in many instances, from farming aphids to biting humans. They do occasionally shine, however, as is shown in this video dispatching a hungry caterpillar. Lepidopteran larvae can be a large orchard problem, and every little bit counts when it comes to keeping their numbers in check.


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Lecture and Discussion in Peacham

We held one of our workshops on the 25th of July (2013) at the Peacham Library here in Vt. “Growing Organic Fruit in the Northeast Kingdom” was the focus this time around. We had a nice turnout, and a lot of folks had some very good questions and insights. As is usual the information we give is welcomed but I always think people come to these things to get direct questions answered, since books don’t do that so well. I think fun was had by all, so we will certainly do it again.

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Holy Harvests

Big year this year for fruit. After months of berry picking the freezers are chockablock full, so folks can order frozen fruit directly. It never seems to end though (in a good way). Picking tree fruit and grapes now. Most of the apples we have decided to press to cider to sell this coming week (chime in if you want to order). Organic cider in these parts is generally nonexistent, so we are going this route. It is about satisfying a communities need, not just making a buck. So, the squeezings will all be ready for the event on the 5th and 6th.

Final picking of fruit will go right into the snows of next month, but then processing will begin. We hope to offer some boiled cider/apple molasses, jellies and some other goodies, along with putting up things for the homestead. Then with the cold weather we will see if we can write a bit about the things we did all summer…a period which leaves little time for writing.

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Bloomin' Snow

It was a beautiful sight Sunday morning, a dramatic display of white amid the apple trees. Blossoms galore, right Todd? Um, well yes, but they were barely discernible behind the blanket of snow. So on the eve of the 25th of May and a month of warm temps we received here in Walden just under 5 inches of snow.

It was pretty, no doubt about it when we woke up Sun am, pink and white blossoms, green lush leaves and a thick covering of wet snow. However, heavy wet snows and ample foliage do not mix, the result of which was broken limbs galore and many young trees in the nursery broken in half. There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. One, good tree structure (namely wide crotch angles) keeps those limbs from breaking under stress be it snow or crops. Secondly, young trees need to be staked for the first couple of years during the snowy months. The storm also did in another fleet of bud 9 dwarf trees we had in as a test (dwarf trees are awful for anyone needing a carefree existence).  Lastly I’d say that the weather has been weird, now it is getting weirder. Places in Vermont passed the record for the wettest May in recorded history. May also is becoming a thunderstorm month in the region, which is another in a long list of anomalies.

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A bloomin good scene in 2013

The first off the mark for apple blooms this year are the Selkirk crabs and the sister trees Norland and Parkland, all showing 100 percent bloom on the 18th of May. Selkirk is a gorgeous purple blossom, Norland and Parkland (part of the same Canadian breeding program) are huge white blossoms with a tinge of peach color. All three of these trees, oddly, bloom very early but are among the most cold hardy of any apple tree. The rest of the apples are just beginning their flower show, a magnificent one this year. Pears, having begun on the 11th are still strong, as are the sour cherries. American plums and hybrids are almost degraded/pollinated. Juneberry trees are done, but saskatoons still hanging in there. Gooseberry and currants all in bloom for the last week and still going. Lilacs still waiting.

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Scionwood 2013

We have collected scionwood for this spring’s dispersal. We will keep it available- in cold storage- for about a month. Be aware some varieties sell out quickly, the list will be updated on the scionwood and seed link as often as I can get to it. We are the only certified organic source in the country to our knowledge, and still the least expensive. Rootstock is available in limited amounts.

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Climatic Changes

Climatic change is becoming a large part of the discussion of fruit hardiness. I have been looking at records this week and found some interesting stuff. Here in Vermont we had the wettest year (2011), unprecedented periods of low snow cover (2011, 2012), average higher daytime and lower nighttime temps (2011), latest snow on record (2011), and record highs in mid November (2012). 2012 was the warmest year on record, while having lows in the mid 30’s below zero in 2011. Maple sugar season is now 3 weeks shorter than in the 1960’s. This year (2013) Vt. State legislative joint hearings are being held on the impacts of climate change on business (including but not exclusive to agriculture). The spring temperature swings in the last two years have been devastating to fruit growing in the northeast.

We will constantly remind growers that climatic change can lead to erratic local conditions in temperature, precipitation and other influencing factors on hardiness like snow cover and wind. Temperature swings and early thaws are normally far more damaging than noteworthy low (or high) temperatures.

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These are pictures of the stages of the Monarch. The first one is a chrysalis we collected on a little tree and brought onto our porch. The next picture is of the adult. We let her go after her wings dried off. There are Monarchs here because we let the milkweed grow, since it is their food source. They are cool, aren’t they?

Monarch Chrysalis
Adult Monarch
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Scionwood Collecting

Collecting scionwood properly can increase the success rate of grafting.  This post will identify the type of wood you are looking for, and why scrutiny is important.

This first photo shows the final product, a length of new growth wood about a foot long (30.48cm).

A good length of scionwood

Getting to this point is as follows:

  1. Get out there and collect, looking for good healthy material. Avoid any noticeable pathogenic organisms like cankers, fungal bodies, etc. We are after growth from last season only, anything older will likely result in failure. In the following photo, notice the ripples in the bark near the base of this scion which divides this past year’s growth from the previous year’s.

    Cut just below dividing line of year 1 and year2 wood

a.   In terms of length, the longer the better. Thickness follows in suit with length generally, but with caliper you will want to look for sizes that accommodate your rootstock size.

b.  The next  (top) photo  shows a nice branch with 12 inches of new growth.  Often this wood is at the periphery, but with strongly pruned trees, candidates are abundant in all areas of the tree. Keep in mind some wood from very low down in seedling trees may be juvenile in nature and should be avoided. These “watersprouts” may take longer to bear, though in grafted trees, which is what we all generally are dealing with, this is less the case.  The bottom image shows a poor choice of wood on the tree, having no useable wood at all. This branch has had its tip dieback in the growing season from insect damage, and side growth is composed of fruit spurs. Fruit spurs are not eligible for grafting, as they are less likely to result in shoot-like growth , and the possible blooming will drain the scion of moisture and nutrients (removing the blossoms has not been shown to negate the problem appreciably).

A good one
A bad one
  1. Next are two examples of wood of poor choice: (ruler in photo is in inches)    

            a. The image on the top is a length only 2 inches long. Since buds on the distal end (toward the tip) are usually less developed, succulent or prone to cold injury, and since buds on the proximal end (toward the base) are usually small and tardy in growing. The section of wood here shows little choices remaining.

             b.  The lower example is shorter still, with spurs and spurlike growth without a useable amount of internodal space.  The internode is simply the space between the buds, which becomes important in grafting because it is the area where the cut is made. The longer the cut, the more cambial contact is allowed for, and thus great chance for union to be made. (More on this point in the grafting posts).

Poor scion selections

This final image gives us an idea of the minimal caliper and the optimal internodal spacing. In this specimen an oblique cut of nearly an inch can be made for a whip graft. The buds are apparently healthy, without being so protruding as to break off during grafting or transport.

Nice buds and internodal spaces

Finally, the timing of gathering will depend on the climate of the area. Here in the northeast of the US we are collecting during pruning time, which is generally from February through May. Ideally, collection like pruning should be attempted after the coldest days have passed but safely before growth has begun. A point to keep in mind is the closer you can time it to coincide with the actual grafting the better due to keeping things fresh. Although wood can be kept for many months under moist refrigeration, there is less to go awry when the duration is shorter in storage. Collecting during above freezing temps will both be more comfortable an undertaking, and be kinder to the health of the tree. Collecting too late in the season may allow for scion growth before graft healing has occurred. Scions with buds opening are likely to result in failure. For more information on actual grafting, please watch our video in the video section or on youtube (english speed graft).


Scionwood must remain turgid (full of moisture), but without being drenched in water. The easiest method is to place them in a zip-lock or twist tied plastic bag with a few damp paper towels around them or beside them. Damp means rinsed then wrung out, not dripping. Put the bag in the bottom level of the refrigerator, checking periodically to make sure the towel is damp, and the scions are plump and not molding. They will keep for up to 6 months if payed attention to.

 This is also the method for mailing wood to us for grafting, remembering to add padding around the bag (ie- crumpled newspaper is fine) and send in a box.

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Farm Polyculture Imagery

Here is a Walden Heights Nursery and Orchard view from a couple of years back. Taken from a precarious position of the peak of our house roof, it does offer a decent example of mixed species. We are looking at apple trees, blueberry bushes, siberian pea shrub, sour cherry, american and european plums, grapes, hops, mixed herb garden, tilled garden beds, strawberry, all flanked by commercial nursery and mixed forest. Notice some of the light terracing on the right side, to add nutrient/moisture retention and easier workability in the garden and bushfruit areas.

Walden Heights. The Side Yard
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Weather anomolies 2

Ok it is Jan 10th (2012) and we are waiting for the bill chills. We saw about 15 below last week, but that was the roughest of the season. There is still time for the deep temperature plummets, but it is making me nervous, I’d hate to loose my bragging rights. The trend the last few years has been ,overall, milder despite snaps in the last few years near 40 below so we are still in the game. Apparently there have been revisions to the zone charting in the US, placing alot of formerly zone 3 regions at 4. But since snow cover has been poorer and riddled with warmer spells, the likely cold plunges could be disasterous to growers. The irony is the new zone 4’s could be worse off than zone 2’s as regards cold damage to plants. Complicated isn’t it.

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Apple Tasting 2012

This past October’s apple tasting was another success. At rough count we had around 200 guests, maybe more. At hand were 125 plus apple varieties to taste, 15 varieties of grapes, as well as a wide selection of single variety ciders to sample. We also had a small workshop on fall apple planting and plant care, and self guided tours of the orchards. A few folks left with some trees, plants or fruit, but mostly it was a family friendly party, even if it was accidentally educational. For those who spent the time with us, thanks for coming, for those who didn’t…where were you? We will have one again next fall, so keep your eye on the events link on the website.

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Weather Anomolies update

The premature growth on most species has led to some marginal damage. Following record breaking warm temps this spring, some freezing temperatures ruptured cells in new growth. Leaves damaged were on most species, but not all individual plants. Pear, apple, currants, gooseberries, cherries, plums, aronia, juneberry, and lilac all showed damage. Plants seem to have recovered, but the affected tissue has wilted and decayed or displayed “black tip”. Dissected flower buds on pear appear no worse for the wear, thankfully.

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First blooms of 2012

May 7th is the 2012 date for the first apple blossom, though on a single tree so far. The rest of the apples are still in wait. European Pears and American Plums have their first blooms out or are close. David Pear (ussuriensis cross) has been in flowere since April 24.

Others of note: Nanking cherries open on 4-23, native Juneberries the next day. Other phenological markers that week were violets, bluets, and were all preceded by coltsfoot. Dandelions made their debut about Mayday.

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Weather Anomolies

The unprecedented warm weather over the last two weeks has initiated premature budbreak in nearly all the fruit species here in Walden. Temperatures tonight of 6 degrees will spell trouble we fear. We have greentip on a fair amount of apples and pears, but the furthest advance is on black currant and gooseberry with leaf emergence (half inch green). We will post the results of this global warming experiment soon.