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My plan to grow hundreds of apple trees for free

 
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So, here is the plan.  Feel free to shoot holes in it.

The land I purchased has some very large apple trees on it.  All of them are okay tasting, but nothing great.  The thing is, they are clearly adapted to living right where they are, and some of them have been living there for many years.  My idea is to take cuttings from those trees, grow them for a couple years, and then graft scions from my better tasting trees, as well as from great tasting trees of friends and neighbors.  I have purchased honey crisp and other apples from before I formulated this plan that are now fruit bearing.  I should be able to grow all apples trees I want from known great-tasting trees grafted on to root stock from my own, wild-grown trees.

I've never heard of anyone doing this or recommending it.  Am I missing something?  Or is this something lots of people already do and I just haven't heard about it?  It seems a great way to get all the trees I could ever want free, that are already adapted to my very harsh winter and heavy clay conditions.  Thoughts?
 
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Sounds like a great plan Trace!

I plan to do something similar too!

It seems like rooting the cuttings from the big trees is the most difficult part. This could possibly be done using softwood or hardwood cuttings, depending on how easily the individual types of apple trees root, or even by a root cutting, which may be the easiest route for cuttings.

I'm going to try to air layer mine, and see how it works.

I'm really interested to try growing some varieties on their own roots too, which seems to offer a lot of neat benefits, and it also saves time and avoids having to graft!

Some people say that it takes too long to get an apple harvest this way, and the trees won't produce apples for a long time. However if it's a vigorous tree on its own roots or on a vigorous rootstock, it should grow quicker than apple trees on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock, reaching a larger size quicker.

There are also strategies like pulling the limbs down and mulching with natural mulches that minimize nitrogen, to encourage earlier fruiting.

I think this is a great plan and hope you have lots of new apple trees soon!
 
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Your limiting factor is the ability to take cutting to create root stocks. This is not done commercially because apple cuttings have low success rate, and the alternative. Is super easy and reliable.

Typically they take a tree and cut it down to ground level. The tree will tend to sprout dozens on new shoots from the old stem. After cutting it down mound it up with damp sawdust to around 12 inches deep. A plastic bucket with the bottom cut out works well. Come back in the winter and the new growth will be around 2ft high (or more) and each will have extensively rooted into the sawdust. Just brush the sawdust aside and snip the main stems down nice and low.

Best bit is you can repeat the same process each year with the exact same root stock.
 
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Hi Trace,

Will the rootstock be of the size you want, and are those established rootstocks truly resistant to the diseases that can be prevalent in your area? Do you want full size trees? If I recall correctly you have experienced winters that have dropped to -40 F.  Those harsh winters won't leave you many options for for varieties, if your selecting for varieties that can withstand the extreem end of known minimum temperatures in your area. I say this because healthy established trees are more hardy then trees you're trying to establish, so it may be wise to error on the side of caution. Less tolorant varieties known to do fine in zone 4b, may be best kept in a greenhouse over winter, or protected somehow untill they get established for a few years after grafting.

Have you looked into some of the newer disease resistant rootstocks in the Geneva line? They are pretty good for diseases resistance though may not be as cold hardy in comparison to other rootstock lines. Im sure other lines like Budagovski may be more cold tolorant due to region of development, though if I recall the Budagovski lines don't have the same disease resistant combinations as the Geneva line.

You can search out online, various charts of apple varieties that show various diseases resistance, pollen/bloom cycle, pollination potential and cold hardiness. You can also search out charts that show various rootstocks, their various disease resistance, the mature size, how precocious they are, how the graft effects fruit size, and root development of the rootstock determining if trellises are needed.

All my resurch on this is unavailable to me at this time, so I'm just going off recollection of the basics. There are if I recall 3 or 4 varieties of scion that should be fine at -35 F and one at -40 F which also all have excellent disease resistance. If you're going to stick with your average zone rating -25 F that opens you up to most apple species. My personal recommendation is the King apple variety, but unfortunately its only hold hardy to zone 5. Regardless of scion varieties you choose, its best to research any diseases that variety is susceptible to, and compare it to the disease prevalence in your area.

Regardless of recollection, here is a snippet of an article on zone three apple varieties:

Apple Trees for Zone 3

A bit more difficult to find than some other apples that grow in zone 3, Dutchess of Oldenberg is an heirloom apple that was once the darling of English orchards. It ripens early in September with medium sized apples that are sweet-tart and great for eating fresh, for sauce or other dishes. They do not keep long and won’t store for more than 6 weeks, however. This cultivar bears fruit 5 years after planting.

Goodland apples grow to around 15 feet in height and 12 feet across. This red apple has pale yellow striping and is a medium to large crisp, juicy apple. The fruit is ripe in mid-August through September and is delicious eaten fresh, for apple sauce and fruit leather. Goodland apples do store well and bear 3 years from planting.

Harcout apples are large, red juicy apples with a sweet-tart flavor. These apples ripen in mid-September and are great fresh, for baking or pressing into juice or cider and store very well.

Honeycrisp, a variety that is commonly found in the supermarket, is a late season apple that is both sweet and tart. It stores well and can be eaten fresh or in baked goods.

The Macoun apple is a late season apple that grows in zone 3 and is best eaten out of hand. This is a McIntosh-style apple.

Norkent apples look much like Golden Delicious with a tinge of a red blush. It also has the apple/pear flavor of the Golden Delicious and is great eaten fresh or cooked. The medium to large fruit ripen in early September. This annual bearing tree bears fruit a year earlier than other apple cultivars and is hardy to zone 2. The tree will bear fruit 3 years from planting.

Spartan apples are late season, cold hardy apples that are delicious fresh, cooked or juiced. It bears lots of crimson-maroon apples that are crunchy and sweet and easy to grow.

Sweet Sixteen is a medium size, crisp and juicy apple with a very unusual flavor – a bit of cherry with spices and vanilla. This cultivar takes longer to bear than other cultivars, sometimes up to 5 years from planting. Harvest is in mid-September and can be eaten fresh or used in cooking.

Wolf River is another late season apple that is disease resistant and is perfect for use in cooking or juicing.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Cold Hardy Apples: Choosing Apple Trees That Grow In Zone 3 https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/gardening-by-zone/zone-3/cold-hardy-apples-in-zone-3.htm

Hope that helps!
 
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I say try it.  Another good way to do it is to create small beds and do mass apple seed plantings.  

I'm a really big fan of Skillcult.  This guy is super knowledgable and he's doing it.  

I'm personally using Kazakhstan apple seeds and it's variants, like the Liberty apple.  These apples are resistant to CAR which I have pretty bad.   I would not take cuttings from most common apples because they get decimated.  I'm going for genetic diversity.  I know the apples won't be the same as the parent.  

 
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Air layering is a similar process to the one Michael describes, but it involves wounding a living branch then wrapping the wound in a moist medium.
often the medium is peat moss and willow water or a rooting hormone is added.




 
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Trace, is the tree grafted onto root stock?  Where on the tree are you going to take cuttings from?
 
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I think it's a good idea. I'd also grow a bunch of seedlings too and graft onto those. Cuttings can be tricky (at least for me) so doing both will guarantee a bunch of them
 
Trace Oswald
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Steve Thorn wrote:
I'm going to try to air layer mine, and see how it works.  

I'm really interested to try growing some varieties on their own roots too, which seems to offer a lot of neat benefits, and it also saves time and avoids having to graft!  



Steve, I think I’ll try some air layering too.  My usual strategy is to try everything and hopefully something will work.  I also ordered 400 Antonovka seeds.  I’ll grow some of those out and use some for root stock in the future.

Michael Cox wrote:
Your limiting factor is the ability to take cutting to create root stocks. This is not done commercially because apple cuttings have low success rate, and the alternative. Is super easy and reliable.

Typically they take a tree and cut it down to ground level. The tree will tend to sprout dozens on new shoots from the old stem. After cutting it down mound it up with damp sawdust to around 12 inches deep. A plastic bucket with the bottom cut out works well. Come back in the winter and the new growth will be around 2ft high (or more) and each will have extensively rooted into the sawdust. Just brush the sawdust aside and snip the main stems down nice and low.


Michael, I’ve never heard of that way of doing it, but I have a couple of trees that I need to remove anyway, so I’ll certainly give it a try, thank you.

R. Steele wrote:
Will the rootstock be of the size you want, and are those established rootstocks truly resistant to the diseases that can be prevalent in your area? Do you want full size trees? If I recall correctly you have experienced winters that have dropped to -40 F.  Those harsh winters won't leave you many options for for varieties, if your selecting for varieties that can withstand the extreem end of known minimum temperatures in your area. I say this because healthy established trees are more hardy then trees you're trying to establish, so it may be wise to error on the side of caution. Less tolorant varieties known to do fine in zone 4b, may be best kept in a greenhouse over winter, or protected somehow untill they get established for a few years after grafting. …



R., I think using dwarfing root stock is a mistake for cold climates.  I’m no expert, but it seems that standard trees are much hardier and stronger than dwarf trees, so I use standard trees and prune them to keep them smaller, or just let them grow into whatever size they want to be.
I think if I use the trees that grew up wild on my property, they should be hardy enough for this climate.  Many of them are pretty old and large, so they have been there a long time.  It may be that they got lucky and had a few years with easy winters to get established, or maybe they are just hardy enough to make it here.  Time will tell.
We have pretty extreme winters here, but there are lots of apple trees around, so I’m just going to try a lot of them.  I have some of the ones you mentioned.  There is a very large u-pick-em apple tree orchard near me that has been there since before I was born, so I plan on getting scions there.  I don’t expect heavy losses, by I am planting zone 3 trees as well, just in case we get a really severe winter (or several).

Scott Foster wrote:
I say try it.  Another good way to do it is to create small beds and do mass apple seed plantings.  

I'm a really big fan of Skillcult.  This guy is super knowledgable and he's doing it.  

I'm personally using Kazakhstan apple seeds and it's variants, like the Liberty apple.  These apples are resistant to CAR which I have pretty bad.   I would not take cuttings from most common apples because they get decimated.  I'm going for genetic diversity.  I know the apples won't be the same as the parent.  



I’m glad you mentioned that.  My trees have CAR too.  I’ve been removing cedar trees, but I can’t remove all of them for miles around, so CAR resistant varieties are going to be a necessity I think.  I’ll look into those varieties you mentioned.

William Bronson wrote:
Air layering is a similar process to the one Michael describes, but it involves wounding a living branch then wrapping the wound in a moist medium.
often the medium is peat moss and willow water or a rooting hormone is added.


William, I hadn’t thought of trying willow water for air layering.  I have willow growing here, so I can try that as well, thank you.
 
Trace Oswald
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Timothy Markus wrote:Trace, is the tree grafted onto root stock?  Where on the tree are you going to take cuttings from?



I have a bunch of apples that grew on their own root stock from way back when.  I want to use those to create my root stock, and then use scions of named varieties grafted onto them.  I'm going to try taking softwood cuttings from new growth this year.  If it doesn't work well, as seems to be the consensus, hopefully some of the other methods will work.
 
Trace Oswald
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James Landreth wrote:I think it's a good idea. I'd also grow a bunch of seedlings too and graft onto those. Cuttings can be tricky (at least for me) so doing both will guarantee a bunch of them



Great minds James :)  I ordered 400 seeds to use for root stock as well.  My contingency plan.
 
James Landreth
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Where will you be planting the trees? Are you giving them out or selling them or something?
 
Trace Oswald
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James Landreth wrote:Where will you be planting the trees? Are you giving them out or selling them or something?



I want to plant 20 or 30 more on my land.  After that, I'll probably just give them to anyone that wants them.  There are only two of us to feed.  Two people can only eat so many apples :)  
 
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I tried rooting cuttings from known root stock (left overs from grafting).  All 22 leafed out but didn't root out.  I tried air layering with rooting hormone on three root stock suckers on a mature apple and none took.

I think either stool layering the trees you're going to cut or planting a thousand seeds from the apples of those trees would be the best way.  Then graft the desired cultivars onto the ones that make it.

I agree with the larger trees handling the cold better.  At least anecdotally based on what older homesteaders tell me.
 
Trace Oswald
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Mike Jay wrote:I tried rooting cuttings from known root stock (left overs from grafting).  All 22 leafed out but didn't root out.  I tried air layering with rooting hormone on three root stock suckers on a mature apple and none took.

I think either stool layering the trees you're going to cut or planting a thousand seeds from the apples of those trees would be the best way.  Then graft the desired cultivars onto the ones that make it.

I agree with the larger trees handling the cold better.  At least anecdotally based on what older homesteaders tell me.



Mike, thanks for sharing your experience.  It sounds like cuttings may not be the way to go.  
 
Mike Jay
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Apple cutting propagation may work, I just wouldn't bank on it working 100%.  It could just be that under ideal situations, apple cutting have a 10% success rate.  Maybe I missed a detail and that's why I got 0/22.  Do you know if your existing trees are grafted or seed grown?  If grafted, cuttings won't have the same disease resistance or root health that the parent plant has.
 
Trace Oswald
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Mike Jay wrote:Apple cutting propagation may work, I just wouldn't bank on it working 100%.  It could just be that under ideal situations, apple cutting have a 10% success rate.  Maybe I missed a detail and that's why I got 0/22.  Do you know if your existing trees are grafted or seed grown?  If grafted, cuttings won't have the same disease resistance or root health that the parent plant has.



I'm almost certain they were planted by birds,  or by the cattle that used to be on the land 20 years ago.  
 
R. Steele
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Trace,

I think the Antonovka root stock will be best if you really don't mind the maintenance of dealing with full size trees. As a Arborist who has worked years in the business, and doing countless orchards year after year. I personally would avoid full size trees at all cost, unless it was absolutely necessary to use them. The rate of growth they can put on in a year, is more then healthy to remove annually, to maintain an easily workable size, and many studies in arboriculture have revealed over prunning is detramental to the health of the tree; then if you miss a year, big wounds and double stress.

I have found mixed reviews in studies on the cold hardiness of dwarf and semi dwarf trees in zone 3, but the poor condition of the rootstock on arrival was thought to be an issue before grafting even occured in one study. I also didn't see any proceedures to strengthen/protect the new grafts before letting them experience the full effect of winter. It was Liberty scion tested which is a good disease resistant variety to consider.

Any way hears my point, if you see any benefit to semi dwarf stock in reduced maintenance. Imagine a weak bare root rootstock shows up in poor condition, then gets planted in the feild and isn't even recovered from that initial shock to build strength, before grafting on a new scion, busting the top to near ground level; then while at its weakest state of health the season ends, so it needs to shut down for winter without adequate stores of sugar for winter survival. That's a recipe for disaster in my humble opinion.

I think the process in commercial orchard operations is rushed. Remember in commercial studies, they don't buy established grafted trees, they buy bare root rootstock, plant it early spring before dormancy break, then late spring early summer do the graft leaving the new graft weak going into winter. My suggestion, plant the rootstock, let it establish for a year, then the following spring/early summer do the grafts giving the now established rootstock with new scion graft, a full growing season to develop its health back before winter. I also would advocate for providing some winter protection that first year after graft. Which is why establishing the initial rootstock in a container will alow for greenhouse protection untill the tree shows good health and vigor. Once the grafts are established they will be strong.

I'll do more checking of trials if you want. As I'm confident there may be some good disease resistant semi dwarf rootstocks, that will work in your area. If it's just understood the shock and recovery process in the establishment and grafting phase, to minimizing stacking the stresses which inhibit the young trees adequate sugar production for winter storage in the early establishment.

Let me know if you would value semi dwarf rootstock that works, and I will do some in depth research for you. New trails are always revealing new things, but you have to dig deep...lol!
 
Trace Oswald
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R., that's very generous of you.  I'm not at all opposed to semi- dwarf trees,  I've just read and been told they they aren't as strong.  I'm certainly willing to try it.  I'm not a commercial grower and have no intention of becoming one. I just want to feed my family and friends good healthy food,  and I love the idea of the food forest with its initial work up front and many years of benefits.

My father planted blueberries, a lot of them,  for his mother when he was 15 years old.  He is 70 now and has never once fertilized, watered, pruned,  or maintained those blueberries in any way.  They are a jungle now,  and everyone in the family has been eating all the blueberries they want every year,  with more left over than we want to freeze. 55 years he has been harvesting from one day of planting.  That's my goal.  My young food forest area is approximately 2 acres,  and I have at least 8 more acres i can convert if i run out of room. I have lots of room for testing things.
 
James Landreth
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Trace Oswald wrote:R., that's very generous of you.  I'm not at all opposed to semi- dwarf trees,  I've just read and been told they they aren't as strong.  I'm certainly willing to try it.  I'm not a commercial grower and have no intention of becoming one. I just want to feed my family and friends good healthy food,  and I love the idea of the food forest with its initial work up front and many years of benefits.

My father planted blueberries, a lot of them,  for his mother when he was 15 years old.  He is 70 now and has never once fertilized, watered, pruned,  or maintained those blueberries in any way.  They are a jungle now,  and everyone in the family has been eating all the blueberries they want every year,  with more left over than we want to freeze. 55 years he has been harvesting from one day of planting.  That's my goal.  My young food forest area is approximately 2 acres,  and I have at least 8 more acres i can convert if i run out of room. I have lots of room for testing things.




I have about that much acreage and I find that as I get further afield, standard fruit trees and nuts are more appealing. They're drought tolerant once established, hardy, and long lived. They provide a living tower of bee forage year after year too. I suppose it also depends on what you want them for. Past a certain point I will only need so much fruit and will feed a lot to livestock possibly. In that case standards make sense, because they're tough and you can run cattle or pigs between them. If protecting them is an issue four t posts and some wire should do it. Don't get me wrong, I love semi dwarf trees, but I also find value in the standards. I'd hate to have to get on a ladder to pick all my fruit though
 
R. Steele
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Hi Trace,

The best no trellis, disease resistant, deep rooted, cold hardy, semi dwarf rootstock variety I came up with was the Geneva line 890. G890 is a semi dwarfing rootstock that produces a tree similar in size to M7, ranging in mature size from 55% to 75% compared to mature seedling size, depending on the vigor of the individual scions grafted. The only hang up of this rootstock is its vigor. It's vigorous, meaning when grafted especially to Honeycrisp scion, under certian stress or certain nutrient imbalances, it may result in a Bitter pit out break.

The vigor of a rootstock can increase susceptibility of bitter pit, because the rootstock will be aggressive at finding water and absorbing nutrients. You think being vigorous would be a good thing for a rootstock. Unfortunately for some named scion cultivars like Honeycrisp this can be a disadvantage when dealing with its Bitter pit susceptibility. Of course research is still ongoing, to figure out the best way to remedy Bitter pit, with rootstock selection thought to play a potential part.

Bitter pit is characterized by lesions that results from lack of calcium in the fruit, cell membranes needed to maintain the cellar integrity, which as a result from the lack of calcium in fruit tissues, causes lesions and potentially necrosis in the fruit.

Honeycrisp is a highly susceptible variety to bitter pit, and anything that can effect calcium transfer or absorption of calcium into the fruit, may cause an onset or outbreak of bitter pit. So in less vigorous rootstocks drought stress can can likely cause Bitter pit. In more vigorous rootstocks over irrigation, to much potassium, magnesium or phosphorus, can all interfere with or compeat with calcium transfer to fruit. Which may increase potential for Bitter pit, then of course a general lack of calcium, can also lead to increased outbreaks of bitter pit.

Hope that helps.

 
Michael Cox
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One interesting observation I picked up elsewhere is that dwarfing rootstocks need lots of TLC - a strong stake, a weed and grass free area etc...

If you plant a much more vigorous tree in the same location but don't give it the TLC then the conditions will restrict it's growth and you will still get a smaller tree, but it will need less attention.
 
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Last year I needed a spot to plant a bunch of seed, so I just busted sod, cut comfrey for edging and planted without any amendments.   Not the best plan but I didn't want to wait another year.  I planted all kinds of perennial flower seeds and, mulberry cuttings among the pear seeds.  The second picture is of the pear bed.  The pear bed is an excellent example of how stuff wants to live.  I did absolutely nothing to amend this bed.    I was kind of nervous to use wood chips before the seeds sprouted.
IMG_8494.JPG
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The first batch of Kazakhstan apples grown indoor from seed and transplanted outside
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Un amended bed that I started last year. I planted out 100 + pear seeds from a 80+ year old tree in my yard.
 
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I love standard apple trees but they do need climbing to pick most of the fruit, however there's also plenty on lower branches one can reach as well, the higher ones can be left as fodder or collected for processing when they fall.  We pick standards by having one person up in the tree climbing around in it and one on the ground catching the apples the climber throws, but these trees are 70 years old so have no problems taking a persons weight.
All the new trees I have planted are on mm106 which are nowhere near as big as a standard topping out around 12ft tall, but still big enough to look after themselves. And big enough to be able to get a mower under them.
 
Trace Oswald
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Thanks to everyone for their inputs.  R., especially, thanks for the research.  I'll keep everyone posted on this experiment as it continues.  I'll probably trial several of the things mentioned in this thread.  I should end up with lots of apple trees for sure :)
 
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Given enough time, I think your plan of taking cuttings, rooting them, and then grafting would work. However, it would take a long time to get an orchard full of apples.  By spending $100 on root stock, you could probably cut two years off the timeline since. Spending another $200 to get already grafted mail order trees could shave another two years off the timeline. I'm a cheap SOP, but since I figured I'd easily get more than $75 a year worth of fruit out of my trees the choice was easy (not even factoring the amount of work I saved by not having to protect the young trees for an extra four years).
 
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My cherry and plum trees drop tons of seedlings in my yard. I've been potting them up as rootstock for some of the food forests I'm involved in. They'll be standards but at least they're free. And standard cherries are great timber as well as food for birds and bees
 
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John Wolfram wrote:Given enough time, I think your plan of taking cuttings, rooting them, and then grafting would work. However, it would take a long time to get an orchard full of apples.  By spending $100 on root stock, you could probably cut two years off the timeline since. Spending another $200 to get already grafted mail order trees could shave another two years off the timeline. I'm a cheap SOP, but since I figured I'd easily get more than $75 a year worth of fruit out of my trees the choice was easy (not even factoring the amount of work I saved by not having to protect the young trees for an extra four years).



John, I have quite a few trees that I purchased for that very reason.  I didn't want to wait forever to have fruit trees producing :)  Now that I have some in place, I'm just working out the best way to make more (LOTS more), for low cost.

James Landreth wrote:My cherry and plum trees drop tons of seedlings in my yard. I've been potting them up as rootstock for some of the food forests I'm involved in. They'll be standards but at least they're free. And standard cherries are great timber as well as food for birds and bees



I'm adding a lot of cherries this year.  A few plum, peach, and apricot trees will go in this year or next.  In a year or two, I'll probably start a thread called "My plan to grow hundreds of cherry trees for free". I may start a whole series :)
 
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