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Growing Alaska: Planting the right variety of fruit trees for the climate

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 3:36 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Though many might not think of it, fruit trees do quite well in Alaska if you plant the right variety for the right climate.

“Here in Alaska, of course, the varieties of apples that we grow, that are successful here, most of those are varieties that have been developed in Canada or the high plains of the United States like North Dakota, South Dakota,” said Mark Wolbers, president of the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association. “Because our season is short, and even though with climate change our season has lengthened it out a couple weeks, still for predictability, the apples that do the best, are going to really be dependent on your climate. Are you near the inlet? Are you up on the hillside? Because that’s going to mean you really need to be thinking about short-season apples.”

Wolbers has studied his local climate and tracked the temperatures to know what apples will do best in his area of town.

“I’m just real curious why things survive here, why they thrive, and what are the conditions they’re doing that under?” Wolbers said.

An interesting aspect about apples is the seeds of an apple don’t reproduce that apple.

“If you take a seed from that honey crisp and plant it, you won’t get a honey crisp,” Wolbers said. “Because you have different parents. You got a tree, you got a bee flying around, going to another tree, coming back and pollinating. Now you’ve got genes from this tree and this tree mixed. Those seeds now are not going to be the original.

“Every honey crisp apple that you have comes from a single apple that has been developed and has since been cloned,” Wolbers said. “So once you have developed an apple, now it’s just cloned and cloned and cloned.”

That cloning is done by grafting — attaching a branch of the tree that bears the apple you want to an existing tree or root stock.

While this might seem like a lot for the average person, Wolbers said the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association can help.

“That’s one of the activities we do in the spring. We hold pruning workshops to teach people how to prune their trees. We hold a grafting workshop, when there’s not a pandemic going on, we hold a grafting workshop,” Wolbers said.

For Wolbers, it’s about the beauty of the apple trees and, of course, the fruit.

“I was born and raised in Michigan and so I grew up with apples and apple cider and sour cherries. Michigan is the capital of the pie cherry,” Wolbers said. “And so I loved Alaska but the thing that was missing culturally in my life was apples and cherries.”

Last year, Wolbers said he grew 300 pounds of apples.

“You can do a lot with apples. You can make apple cider, you can dry apples, you can make applesauce, and if you pick the right varieties, you can store them in your refrigerator and we were eating fresh apples out of our refrigerator through January,” he said.

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