How to plant an apple tree this year

With the new spring snow, and late evening UPS delivery, it was like Christmas March 23.

Three “whips,” yearling, unbranched trees, arrived swaddled in cardboard: a Pink Ume Apricot, a Hudson Golden Gem Apple and a Peregrine Peach.

As soon as the snow melts, they will be planted alongside the 38 other uncommon fruit trees here.

A bit of evolutionary history

Of the three trees, the history of the apple is most familiar, though all three fruits originated in the same region, Central Asia and, more specifically, at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains in southern Kazakhstan.

Except for differences in rainfall, Kazakhstan and Connecticut share the same monthly ranges in temperatures.

The Tien Shan, the Pamir, Kunlun and Himalayan mountains were formed 50 million years ago when, in geological terms, the Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia creating the four maintain ranges, each with peaks over 20,000 feet.

Evolutionary botanists believe it is there, in the Tien Shan, that the proto-apple evolved.

At first, it was a small, crabby-type apple, eaten and distributed by birds.

Succeeding generations of proto-apples were larger.

The evolved, larger green, yellow and red fruit became a dietary staple for the Himalayan Brown Bear, which distributed apple seeds throughout the region, creating vast apple forests in the Tien Shan foothills.

Few of these prehistoric forests remain today.

The next apple vector was mankind, which had evolved side-by-side with the apple.

Two million years ago, as man was evolving to walking upright, the apple grew larger.

It, too, became a dietary staple.

We know this because archeologists have found dried fruit in 40- to 60,000-year-old excavations and, more recently, found in Jordan Valley excavations, dating to 6500 B.C., and in the tomb of Queen Pu-Abi, in Southern Iran, circa 2500 B.C.

This same region is the crossroads for the Silk Road traveled by traders, merchants and invading armies predating the Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley Civilizations.

Travelers, no doubt, packed apples in their saddle bags as they traveled through eastern civilization to western civilization.

Looking at the Middle Eastern landscape today, it is hard to imagine apples growing there, but, then again, sea levels there, two to three thousands years ago, were 120 meters lower than they are today.

As Mediterranean civilization advanced counter-clockwise, the apple followed and jumped the Bosphorus Strait entering the European continent.

And, just as it had in Asia, the western advance of the apple followed trade routes and, eventually, the Roman highway system, which lead to England.

The first arrival is sketchy, but credited to the Phoenicians, and the third arrival of the apple in England was coincidental with the Norman Invasion in 1066 A.D.

The apple arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The first named American apple, the Roxbury Russet, was found in Boston 1640 - 1650.

How the apple evolved

Apples and humans are similar in this way: each is heterozygotic.

Heterozygosity means each is influenced by the genetic contribution of a male and female

Think of the pollen as the male contribution to fertilizing the fruit ovum.

Each combination of pollen and ovum, every one, means that each seed in an apple, and all the other fertilized blossoms, will yield a uniquely individual variety, if grown to maturity.

Each seed, therefore, is as unique as are the individual members of your extended family.

As the apple traversed the Asian and European continents, it crossbred with crab apples, just as they did when they arrived on the North American shores.

A crab apple is defined as an apple less than 2 ½ inches in diameter. Larger apples are not native to North America.

These crab apple trees would have advanced north as the Wisconsin Ice Age glacier receded 19,000 years ago.

Any evolving North American fruit trees would have been crushed by the mile-thick glacier that deposited 60 feet of Connecticut topsoil on Long Island, which explains why the immediate two inches of Connecticut topsoil is dark and subsequent soil horizons are lighter in coloration and diminishing in mineral content.

On planting

So, Connecticut soil is, generally speaking, deficient in minerals as a result of the glacial movement of soil across Lake Quinnetukut, "the place of the long water,” to Long Island.

The topsoil is also lacking in calcium and magnesium as a result of 48 inches of rain annually. The deeper the hole, the fewer nutrients will be found.

And, anyone in Litchfield who has dug a hole in their garden will tell you, there is a lot of ledge rock here, but, as long as there is 18-24 inches of soil, a tree can be planted.

For these trees, the whips, the hole need not be so deep.

At maturity, apple trees will root, for the most part, within that 18- to 24-inch zone.

A hole measuring 18 by 18 inches is sufficient and, since the soil is assumed to be nutrient poor, liming and fertilizing is required.

My preferred fertilizer, Espoma Fruit Tree Fertilizer, and Allyndale, made in Canaan, pulverized lime with magnesium fills the bill.

Mix, a couple of soup cans of each, with the excavated soil.

Since the trees are so small, it does not take much of an effort to plant them.

The roots should be spread out and touching the bottom of the hole.

Fill the hole half-way, tamp and drench in order to reduce air pockets, then fill completely making certain the root union, the knot on the grafted trunk, is at soil level.

This can be done by eye, or by laying the shovel handle across the hole and sighting the knot. And, there, you’re done.

Peter Montgomery is owner of Montgomery Gardens, Heirloom apples and Orchards, at 45 Kent Road in Warren, where he manages a mixed fruit orchard, consults, designs and installs orchards throughout New England.