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M360 Apple

Article written by Robert Davidson.  We are interested in this apple because it came out of southern Alberta where it is often harder to grow things than farther north.  Robert came to the farm and "sold" us on the apple.

M360 Apple by Robert Davidson....An apple for the prairies

I like pie.  More specifically, I like apple pie… for breakfast.  I know, it is not orthodox, but I’m reformed.  Not for me some over-processed, sugared cereal, or the heavy excess of bacon and eggs.  There is nothing as exciting as waking up, hungry, and looking forward to a delicious piece of apple pie.

But if you are going to have apple pie for breakfast, then there must be apple pie around to have for breakfast.  Either you make it, or you buy it.  I have tried buying it.  I’ll admit, I have had some that were bought at farmer’s markets that were good, and I have had the occasional one from a restaurant that passed muster, but expecting that these outlets could supply this little peculiarity of mine is stretching credulity, especially since I live in a small town that only has a summer farmer’s market, and restaurants that have rarely survived long on the cutting edge of culinary excellence and never with apple pie.  This has left only one viable alternative – make them!

Logically, one only has to go to the nearest grocery store, buy some apples, a few spices the mixings of flour and lard (or butter or margarine or some fat substitute), look up a suitable recipe and make them.  Ah, yes!  So easy!  There is some practise involved, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an expert to act as the guide during these first endeavours.  This I had, under the watchful eyes of my mother, but with a certain amount of practise another problem appeared.  I became somewhat of a connoisseur.  I became picky.  I learned more about the finer points of crust and fillings, and one thing that I found that I could not purchase, in these western margins of the Canadian prairies, was an excellent pie apple.

My next quest was a good apple for the prairies - well, not exactly a good apple, but an excellent apple - on a tree that would survive the rigours of growing and thriving on this Chinook-prone region of the prairies.  I had been seduced by the potential of the newly released apples from Morden, which were developed under the prairie hardy fruit program, and bought Norland and Parkland apple trees.

In the course of the next few years, when these trees finally began to produce, I found that I was disappointed.  Thought the trees did produce apples they were not the worlds best.  The Norland apples were good – good for eating off the tree, good for sauce, and good for cooking, but they were not great.  The Parkland apples were much smaller than expected, and though they were nice and crisp and juicy, they were not a good cooking apple.

It was while I was looking for Goodland apple, which is a later ripening, and larger apple that is supposed to store well and is excellent for cooking, that I lucked in.  While I was visiting my Mother in Coaldale, the town that I grew up near, that my wife and I stopped in at the Coaldale nursery.  Being somewhat loquacious (talk a lot), I had been expressing to the owner my disappointments and my quest for an excellent apple.  Being somewhat of a fruit nut who had no business running a nursery on the prairies, with his visions of bounty everywhere, the owner, who happened to be a transplanted Dutchman, suggested a much better apple than Goodland.

It was called M-360, the number that it was given when it was planted at the nursery at Morden as part of the program to develop hardy fruits for the prairies.  It was being grown at Coaldale, since this nursery was one of the test sites for the program.  It was not for sale, but the owner was so impressed with the fruit that he began expanding his supply.  If I had not been so interested and talkative, and he so keen, I would not have ended up with the apple, but I did.

 My wonderful tree looked like a child’s copy of a cross – one straight stem with two opposing, bare branches.  It did require a lot of trust, to imagine that this stick was going to eventually become an apple producer, and it was not, as it turned out, without trials and tribulations.

 When the tree put out its first crop of bloom, three or four years later, it still looked somewhat like a cross, but one that had acquired a spiky hairdo.  Here’s where I made my first mistake.  Though I thinned the apples, which were all concentrated on the main stem, I never counted how many were left, and I never compensated for an early, sticky snow while the leaves on the tree were still green and the apples on.

The centre stem broke.  There were 26 apples on it above the break.  Too many!  So the work began again to try and make the remains into a decent tree.  Luckily many of the suckers that grew the next year went straight up, so I had lots of choices for a new central leader.  More lucky, I had not removed the original stick arms which were, ultimately, too close to the ground to leave on a mature, fruiting tree.

With a little study, I learned that the trick of owning a good fruiting tree is in the planting then the pruning of the tree.  Due to the risk from Chinooks and bright sun on snow in spring, it is wise to position and prune the tree to compensate.  The tree should be planted in a site that gets a little protection from the mid-afternoon sun in the late winter and early spring so that the bark is not thawed then frozen repeatedly.  The best position for this is on a northeast slope.  Since this best position is rarely available, the next best idea is to plant it on the east side of your house.  If this is not possible, you might plant an evergreen tree to the southwest of the fruit tree.  If none of these methods is possible, wrap the lower trunk with a reflecting collar, or paint it white with a latex paint or with whitewash.

Organic-rich mulch under the tree will protect the root system, moderating the temperature (warmer in winter, cooler in summer), and help retain moisture, which will also aid the tree in surviving the rigours of this northern climate.  If the mulch is compost, it will also provide a slow release fertilizer resulting in a healthier tree, which, again, will aid in the tree surviving and producing well.

If the tree is planted so that the lowest branch that is to be kept is facing the southwest, it will also help to shade the trunk.  This may be a little difficult to determine if the tree you start with is only a few feet tall, but this small tree, in the course of growing, will eventually put a branch out in the right direction within a reasonable distance of the desired height.

When pruning your young tree, you should keep in mind that the apples grow on fruiting spurs, which are short side branches from the main branches.  Their number and close spacing can identify these buds.  With some careful observation, you will notice that the flower buds are fatter and grouped differently than the leaf buds.  As the tree matures, the best fruiting spurs to retain are those that are parallel to the ground, or angled slightly upward.  These spurs can be encouraged by removal of less desirable growth.

Years later, when I had my own specimen back to a tree, had finally removed those original two branches, and had gotten it to assume a somewhat round form I managed to partially crack one of the main trunks off with too great a weight of apples.  Then, one rainy year, it got fire blight in two of my pruning cuts where I had taken suckers off of the main stem.  Luckily, it recovered from both mishaps.

So it was quite a few years before I got a decent chance to rate the apples, but the wait was worth it.  The real surprise was the size.  They were like a store-bought MacIntosh in size and shape, with a green-yellow skin overlain with a blush of red where the sun touched them most.  They were tart in taste.  Ah, the pie they do make!  The flesh is very white and slow to brown when pealed.  The slices retain their shape when cooked and the flavour is drawn out.  A bit of Heaven!

It was only a year or so later that I found out another strength of the fruit.  It lasts extremely well in storage, providing the humidity is kept high (over 90%) and the temperature near freezing (5C).  This is easiest to do if the apples are individually wrapped in newspaper and stored in a cardboard box in a cold room.  Even a cement basement floor will keep them cool enough so that they last a long time.  Another option is to get a grocery store to save the boxes that they come in, with the indented layer partitions.  These boxes make it much easier to check individual apples for spoilage.

The first time I had enough to store some, they lasted for nearly six months.  Another surprise was the aroma that the apples emit when they are stored.  After a week or so in storage, the tantalizing hints of apple begin to waft from the storage box.  In another week or so, the smell is nearly overwhelming, bringing on visions of Jonney Appleseed, corncob pipes, hoedowns, and Thanksgiving feasts.

At this point, the apples become quite acceptable for eating out of hand, for they are much sweeter than when picked off the tree.  They are still best peeled and cored, for the skin area is more tart.

Over the years, I have also found out some of the trees faults.  It requires a little more pruning than most of the Morden release apples to keep it from getting too tall.  It has never failed to set fruit for me, but this ability often means that it sets fruit over a very long period (up to 6 weeks for the worst year), which means that all the fruit does not ripen at the same time.  This fault may be serious for a commercial grower, but could be considered an advantage for a home grower, since fruit can be picked from the tree for a month or more, spreading out the bounty.

If you intend to store a number of the apples, it is better to pick these ones before they are fully ripe.  You can tell this stage with two tests.  The easiest is to cut an apple to look at the pips (seeds) in the centre.  If they are just turning brown, the apple is about right for picking.  At this stage, the very green colour of the apple will be changing to slightly yellow (something that is easier to see with practise).

The fruit normally ripens early enough to not risk damage from severe early frost, but some is often late enough to build up extra sweetness and size by being left on the tree well into fall.  These late apples can be very delicious, right from the tree.  The apple is one of the biggest ones that I have seen growing on the prairies, running from 7 – 8 cm (~3 inches), but can easily be forced to 10 cm by a little more rigorous fruit pruning.

The tree usually sets way too many apples.  Most should be removed, which can be a chore, for the tree does not drop as many as it should, and can break (Ha!).  Nearly all (except one … maybe two, at the base) of the apples should be removed from one year old wood, for the branches are not able to take the weight of the big apples which can grace them on a good year.  It is wise to count the number of apples on a branch and reduce the number to about one a foot, especially when the tree is young.

The fruit is not able to adapt to some of our extreme temperature conditions.  It survives the effects of sudden snow and cold in the middle of summer, but the hardening of the skin, as a consequence of the cold, often causes the apple to blow up when it warms back up.  The resultant mess usually continues to grow, the cracks turning to blackened chasms in the final fruit, if rot does not get it first.  These fruit should be removed, to give the lucky ones that did not blow up more of a chance.

            Hail is another misfortune that the fruit has a hard time dealing with.  It is wise, if possible, to remove most of the worst damaged fruit if the hail damage is bad, and hope that there is only one hailstorm per summer.  Some years, that means that there are very few apples left, but boy will they be big.

 My tree is now 18 years old.  It normally produces between 30 to 50 kg of fruit.  I have never had too many.  What I do not use myself are in high demand amongst my friends and family.  I usually save some of the biggest and best for later eating, then prepare apple pie mix with the best of the rest.  The usable scrubs are used to make apple-pear wine and fruit leather.

 Now, you may ask, since I have ranted and raved so much about this apple. “Where can I buy it?”  Well, you might get lucky and get it from the Coaldale nursery, but I have never checked back to see if they still have it.  After checking with the Morden Research Station on the patent or marketing rights to it and being told it would be alright, I have begun to produce a supply of them by grafting scions onto either Thunderchild crab or semi-dwarfing Siberian Crab seedlings.  Both of these rootstocks are hardy on the prairie.  Those on the Thunderchild will produce a fairly large tree, but it should have greater resistance to fireblight than the Siberian Crab grafts.

 These clones of the original tree take about 5 years to flower.  Though it is tempting, do not let the original flowers set fruit for the young tree is not strong enough for the weight of the apples.  The next year, if it also flowers and sets fruit, leave only a few apples at the base of the largest branches.  As the tree gets bigger and stronger, and sets more fruit on spurs rather than on the main branches, you can leave more fruit.  It is wise to leave only one on the end of branches, though the tree may set 5 or 6 fruit, for the weight will permanently bend the branches down, even if it does not break them.  Thin the rest of the clusters to one apple; it may mean fewer apples, but they will be much bigger (if they survive to harvesting).

Then, as you may have noted if you have been counting the years, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. 


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