After a 36-year banking career, Ed Clayton decided to become a farmer but instead of grain or livestock, he wanted an extra challenge.
I just wanted to prove to people that you can grow good apples in Manitoba, said the 70-year-old as he guided visitors through his operation on Open Farm Day.
In 1996, after moving with his wife Marilyn to a quarter section of rolling hills in the southwest corner of the province, the former branch manager started managing branches of a different kind.
First, he planted spruce and poplar shelterbelts around a site near his house and then in 2001 started experimenting with a variety of apple buds grafted onto rooting stock.
The first year, my wife and I grafted about 400 trees, but we only had about a 40 per cent success rate, said Clayton. Now I have an 85 per cent success rate.
He now has about 50 different varieties, sourced mainly from the University of Saskatchewan, but is still keen on trying new types on his Oxbow clay-loam soil.
Grafting new trees is painstaking work and it can take years to see the full result, he said.
First, a tiny sliver of bark is cut away from a carefully chosen branch on the dwarf rooting stock, usually in July. Then, a bud from a selected variety is cut and placed in position to fit the cut and held tight with rubber bands.
If the leaf falls off after about two weeks signalling dormancy that means the graft took, and will likely grow. If it stays on, it s probably a miss.
When the weather warms up in spring but before the leaves start growing the rest of the branches are pruned away to force the rootstock to devote all of its energy into the new bud.
That way, if it wants to live, it will have to use that bud, Clayton said.
For people who just want to have a few apple trees in their yard, Clayton recommends buying well-started three-year-old trees that can be planted and produce fruit straight away. Grafting usually means waiting about five years, but is much cheaper about 90 cents per stem and 40 cents per bud versus $75 for an established tree.
If Clayton doesn t like the result, he can simply cut it off and try a different variety by chopping off the old and forcing the rooting stock to send up new suckers to receive fresh grafts.
Once a good variety is found, buds can be taken off of it and grafted onto rooting stock to make even more trees for virtually no cost.
An orchard can be grown on virtually any kind of soil, with no added fertility. The key to success is good drainage, with rolling hills ideal. Clayton doesn t cultivate between rows, but does mow to keep the grass down.
He learned the tricks of the orchard trade by attending seminars at U of S and from the Internet. Apple trees can be productive for up to 60 years, making the return on investment from a few dollars for rooting stock and buds a very attractive proposition, he said. He sells his apples at farmers markets and stores, as well as U-pick for $1.50 per pound. A recent trip to Brandon saw 180 pounds of apples sold for $2 per pound.
One concern for all orchardists is the risk of fireblight, as well as other diseases and pests. The best biosecurity is to be far away from other orchards. Another preventive measure he takes is to never throw waste store-bought apples into his compost pile.
Other risks include drought or hail, which could ruin a year s production, as well as winterkill from an early frost.
His orchard, which has a six-foot- high page wire fence to keep out deer, is also host to cranberries, haskap berries, Evans cherries, and seabuckthorn, a common shelterbelt species. In winter, the sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridges love the latter s tart yellow berries, he said, and the juice, with a dash of vodka and a sugar cube, makes a tasty tipple. daniel. [email protected]