Project takes root at USM

Posted on January 20, 2014 in Sustainability and ME
By USM Free Press

By: Tyler Kidder

Here at USM we are always working to lighten our carbon footprint in creative ways including establishing sustainable landscapes right on our campuses.

In the spring of 2011, the Office of Sustainability teamed up with the Grounds Department and the Department of Environmental Science and Policy to plant a small heirloom fruit orchard on the hill behind Robie Andrews Hall on the Gorham campus.

Hardy apple rootstocks (baby trees selected for size and ability to survive Maine’s climate) were generously donated by the UMaine Cooperative Extension Service and planted by staff, faculty and student volunteers for Earth Day. A year later, scions (budding branches taken from apple trees of desired varieties) were grafted onto the rootstock and some whole trees were planted to replace rootstocks that had not survived the winter. Apple and other fruit trees are not usually planted from seed. This is because the apple blossoms are pollinated by another type of tree to create the seeds so a seed from a honeycrisp apple may yield a tree that is a cross between honeycrisp and crabapple for example. Instead of taking this risk, apple growers clone or graft trees from other successful varieties.

The orchard was planted on the the slope that was home to an apple orchard in the last century on the Gorham campus. Historical sources indicate that apple orchards had been in existence for many years prior to the creation of the Gorham campus as we know it today when the land was part of the McLellan Farm. Photographs from as early as 1916, document the small apple orchard of interest, which, given the size of the trees, was in existence since the late 1800s. Four trees from this period remain and one still bears apples! Apples were grown all over the state of Maine during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and our state continues to produce lots of varieties of the favorite cold-climate snacking and cooking fruit.

We chose apple varieties that represent hardy heirloom and regional apple types and demonstrate desirable characteristics ranging from taste and texture to keeping ability and disease resistance. Types of apples in the USM orchard include Black Oxford (A Maine Heritage Apple), Duchess, Fameuse, Wealthy, Pumpkin Sweet, Honeycrisp, Sweet 16 and Liberty. The trees are currently planted close together and those that thrive will be spaced appropriately for their mature size in the next year or two.

The various varieties were grafted on to three different sized rootstocks and, as they mature, the trees will be three different sizes: semi-dwarf (8-12 feet tall), semi-standard (10-15 ft tall), and standard (up to 25 ft tall). The trees can be expected to bear fruit in five to ten years depending on the variety and the trees can live up to 50 years for dwarf varieties and up to 100 years for the standard sized trees.

This orchard is to be used as a living, learning laboratory for all members of the USM community and the surrounding area. No chemical pesticides, insecticides or fertilizers will be used on these trees. In the spring of 2014 we will be grafting again to replace those grafts that did not survive. We also plan to add companion plants to the orchard to support the growth of the trees, attract pollinators and deter pests.

All are welcome to visit the orchard anytime. In the current season you may be underwhelmed when you find a only a collection of bare sticks, but that is what sapling apples look like in winter. If you would like to help us maintain the orchard or learn to graft scions, email me. Then, in five years, you can be one of the first to taste an USM apple! Visit our orchard info page for photos, a plan of the orchard showing varieties of apples, and instructions on how to graft: http://usm.maine.edu/sustainability/usm-gorham-orchard.

Tyler Kidder is the Assistant Director for Sustainable Programs. Email her at tkidder@usm.maine.edu.