Dwarf apple trees suited for shrinking backyards

SASKATOON – A discovery by plant breeders at the University of Saskatchewan will be good news for backyard fruit growers who don’t want the hassle of climbing ladders to pluck their harvest and prune their trees.

University horticulturists recently unveiled a new dwarf rootstock that can be grafted onto a normal apple seedling to produce a tree one-quarter the size of a regular apple tree.

“It means everything can be done from the ground,” said Rick Sawatzky, a plant breeder with the department of horticulture science at the Saskatoon university. The discovery will be especially good news for seniors, where the hobby of fruit growing has blossomed recently, he said.

Available in spring

The new rootstock, known as Ottawa No. 3, will be available in several nurseries across the Prairies next spring.

“This is really going to be ideal for people living in cities where backyards seem to be getting smaller and smaller,” said Tim VanDuyvendyk, part-owner and manager of Dutch Growers in Saskatoon, where the trees are expected to be on sale this spring for about $50 each.

Sawatzky is quick to point out shorter trees don’t mean smaller apples.

“That’s not the case,” he said. “In trials the apples have been at least as large and possibly slightly larger.”

The new 1.5 to two-metre trees also bear fruit earlier without producing an overabundance of apples late in the season, and have proven to be more winter hardy, Sawatzky said.

Ottawa No. 3 has been tested since the 1970s. Sawatzky said it takes years to ensure perennial plants survive under the conditions they are being recommended for. Currently, the recommendation only applies to northern parts of Alberta and across the southern Prairies.

“We are fully recommending Ottawa No. 3 rootstock in well-protected locations within cities and towns and within mature farmyard shelterbelts.”

Apple trees are made from two parts: The root system, or rootstock, and the fruiting cultivar, which is grafted, or mechanically spliced onto the root system. When seedling rootstock is used, the resulting apple trees vary in size, disease resistance and fruit quality, Sawatzky explained.

But rootstock clones introduced in England in 1917 and used for research at the University of Saskatchewan have a dwarfing effect by preventing the grafted tree from growing as large as it would if the seedling rootstock was used.

A larger scale, five-acre apple orchard featuring the new dwarf rootstock will go into production next fall in Radisson, Sask., Sawatzky said.

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