Posts tagged #Markus Kobelt

Apple Breeding part 3: From seed to fruit

lady williams seeds

lady williams seeds header In part one I went over some reasons why I think home breeders have a decent chance of producing some good apples. Part two covered pollinating flowers to make intentional crosses of two different parent apples. In this section, I'll discuss growing the seeds into seedlings, and options for growing those out until they fruit. COLLECTING AND STORING SEEDS:  I like to collect the seed when the apple is ripe for eating, but they seem to be mature before that.  I’ve stored the seeds in little plastic baggies in the refrigerator, but they sometimes mold.  Storing the seeds in slightly damp, but not wet, sand would probably be better, or you can just plant them... PLANTING SEEDS:  I’ve had pretty good luck with germination when planting in February after storage in the refrigerator.  At least some apples are supposed to require stratification, which means that they need to undergo so many hours of low temperatures before they will sprout.  I’ve had fresh seeds sprout without chilling, so I think fresh seeds just sprout easier.  My approach in the next years will probably be to store early seeds in the fridge in damp sand, and then plant them with the latest ripening seeds in February.  If planted outdoors, the seeds should chill enough as long as your climate is not subtropical.  If it is subtropical, then you should select seed parents carefully as many apples do not do well in warm climates with no chill.  The Apples and Oranges blog is a good resource for growing apples in low chill areas. It is possible to dry the seeds before sprouting them, but I don't see any reason to do so when they can be kept in refrigeration, or even in the ground over winter. Plant the seeds in pots or flats, or outdoors in the ground, at about 1/2 inch deep.  Don’t allow them to dry out, but don’t over water either!  Over watering can lead to rotten seeds and fungal attacks.  One strategy I sometimes use is to put a growing mix in the pot or flat, followed by 3/8 inch of sand, followed seeds and finally covering the seeds with 1/2 inch of sand.  This method surrounds the seeds with clean aerated sand to sprout in, which minimizes bacterial and fungal attacks, while still providing them with nutritious flat mix just below.  My germination rate has been pretty mediocre, but since it doesn't take long to produce a couple hundred seeds, maybe that's Ok. apple seeds in flat After they grow a few leaves, you can move the seedlings outdoors into the soil, or into bigger pots.

These are on the young side for transplanting.

These seedlings are a little too big for transplanting.  They would have done Ok regardless if I had taken better care of them, or put them into pots instead of in the ground.  Better to transplant before they are crowded and when they only have a few leaves.

GROWING OUT:  Markus Kobelt at Lubera nursery gave me some tips on apple breeding.  He says that growing the seedlings as tall as possible the first year shortens the time to fruiting.  Seedlings are in what is called a juvenile stage.  Growing the seedlings fast and tall pushes them out of the juvenile stage and into sexual maturity more quickly.  My first batch of seedlings were left in flats for too long, and then planted in an out-of-the-way bed where they received poor care, resulting in some pretty stunted plants.  The seeds that I planted straight into the ground in a garden bed did quite a bit better.  Wherever you plant them, take good care of them with regular feeding and water.  Under ideal conditions you might end up with 4 to 5 foot stems.  Check out Markus Kobelt's cool video series on all stages of apple breeding! It is probably best to cull some of the seedlings, but I'm not entirely sure what to look for in culling, so I'm not culling many of mine.  Nigel Deacon, in breeding for red flesh, selects for red pigmentation in the leaves as well as for vigour.  I'd like to talk to a breeding expert about culling.  At this point, I'm kind of cull shy. TO GRAFT OR NOT TO GRAFT?:  Is that the question?  I think a more relevant question is where to graft, because it is better to graft the seedling stems onto something else.  Putting the scions onto a dwarfing rootstock that encourages early fruiting, or onto a mature fruiting age tree will give you fruit sooner than growing the seedlings out until they begin to bear fruit, in some cases much sooner.  If you don’t know how to graft, or don’t have a mature tree to graft on to, you might want to just plant the seedlings and wait.  However, if you don’t know how to graft, now is a great time to learn!  If you come up with the best apple seedling ever, someone has to propagate it by grafting, so it might as well be you.  There are plenty of apple grafting resources on the internet and I’ll probably add my own before too long.

A basket of red fleshed apple seedling scions headed for dwarfing rootstocks.

GRAFTING OPTIONS:  For the average home breeder, grafting onto a mature bearing tree may be the best option.  It requires a lot less room than growing each seedling on it’s own rootstock, way less care, and it’s cheap.  Rootstocks in small quantities will usually cost you $2.50 and up.  Larger quantities, usually 50 or more can get down into the $1.25 and up range, especially if you buy B grade stocks which have crooked stems.  Still, even at $1.25 each it adds up pretty fast, especially after shipping and handling.  Then you need room for all those stocks.  I’m planning to plant mine at 12 inches apart in rows about 6 feet apart.  All that sounds daunting, but there is one good reason to grow the plants on their own stocks and that is disease.  Apples are host to many diseases, but the concern here is with virus.  Seeds don't carry virus from the parent, so the seedlings are virus free.  Virus are transmitted to a scion that is grafted to an infected tree though.  Most of us don’t have trees that we know are virus free, so keeping your seedlings fresh and unburdened by virus is somewhat compelling. The other side of the coin is that most apple varieties are minimally affected by the common Apple Mosaic Virus and there are millions upon millions of infected trees living and bearing fruit.  It is quite possible also that your mature apple tree is not infected anyway.  It is possible to rid a variety of virus by a process of heating, but that process is probably not accessible to the homescale grower (though I'm curious, maybe it's not that hard!).  If having to graft onto individual rootstocks will keep you from experimenting, I'd say don’t let it.  Go ahead and graft them onto whatever you have. ROOTSTOCKS:  Very dwarfing rootstocks that keep trees under 10 feet will also induce fruiting early in the life of the tree.  I’ve mostly used bud-9, and this year some Geneva-11.  Geneva-11 has weak roots, so I’m not sure I like it yet, but the Bud-9 seems nice enough and it’s cheaper. M-9 is probably also a fine choice, though Bud-9 is generally thought to be an improvement on M-9.  Charts and descriptions of the various apple roostocks can be found online.  Just remember that you want one that induces early fruiting and makes for a small tree.  Trees can be planted close together in rows, I don’t think there is a reason to plant them further than 18 inches apart, and I’m probably going to use 12 inches to save space.  A trellis is necessary to support the trees since the dwarfing rootstocks lack adequate roots to anchor the trees in high winds.  Markus Kobelt says to let them grow without pruning to induce early fruiting.  I guess I’m going to follow his advice.  Don’t think of these dwarf rows as permanent.  They are more like shrubs for testing your new varieties.  If you get something good, it can be grafted and reproduced.  The original dwarf test plant is not important.  I have however saved the original seedlings which are planted about 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart... man is that going to be a mess in a few years!  I just wanted to save them at least temporarily in case of graft failures, gophers, accidents, etc...  Ideally I'd like to keep them all with enough space for them to grow and fruit later on, but that is not practical considering the resources I'm working with. I've gotten bulk rootstocks from both Copenhaven and Willamette Nursery, and have been happy with both companies.  Again, ask about B grade stocks to save some money.

Shaded nursery bed of seedlings on bud 9 and Geneva 11 dwarfing stocks.  If all goes well these will be ready for permanent planting in rows on a trellis by next winter/spring.  Note that I grafted the scions long.  Not sure that was a good idea yet, but I suppose I'll find out...

GRAFTING ONTO LARGER TREES:  Most grafting onto larger trees is done by a method called top working, wherein large branches are cut off, the cut is split open, and a couple of scions are wedged into the split.  That is a fast way to change a tree to another variety, but it is also crude and likely to introduce rot and disease into the heart of the branch.  Furthermore, it allows for very few varieties to be grafted onto the tree.  In Frame working by contrast, you work onto smaller wood, usually under an inch.  I avoid working into larger wood whenever possible.  If you use frame working, you are keeping the existing frame work of the tree, which has some advantages. I hope to blog about frame working sometime, and I’ll leave most of that discussion till then but, in the meantime, if you are working onto a larger tree, use scions with 8 to 15 buds.  Use cleft grafts if the branch is larger than the scion, and whip and tongue grafts if they are the same and you have a grafting skill level to do so.  I like to paint the longer scions completely with a thin coat of grafting wax to seal and prevent drying.  Other people use parafilm as a wrap to prevent desiccation of the scion.  See the Frankentree post for grafting photos.  On a large tree you can fit upwards of 200 different grafts, although if we follow Markus Kobelt advice to let the scion grow, that could get pretty messy, so leave plenty of room for each variety.  Albert Etter used frameworking to house the 500 or so varieties he collected for testing, as well as to fruit out and test the new varieties he was breeding. About 3 years ago I grafted 4 different open pollinated Wickson apple seedling scions onto various trees of mine.  They have grown great, but have yet to fruit out at all.  This season there is still no sign of blossoms at all on any of them.  So, this is a proposition that takes some time. My new seedlings have now been grafted onto dwarfing Bud-9 rootstocks and are beginning to grow in a nursery bed for planting out into a longer term growing site next winter/spring.  I grafted them rather long as that is my default any more, and it seems to work well as long as the graft is sealed.  Markus Kobelt says to graft the top of the seedling as it is less juvenile than the bottom.  In most cases I grafted most of the seedling stem, but then my seedlings were mostly well under 3 feet.  I also put 4 open pollinated red fleshed seedlings onto some larger trees to grow out for comparison.  I know I said not to use open pollinated seeds, but I just couldn't throw the cute little things in the ditch!  Who knows what's hiding in those genes. The grafted trees will be planted in rows at least 5 feet apart, probably 6' feet on 12" to 18" inch centers and allowed to grow without pruning.  Allowing them to grow without pruning is supposed to bring them out of the juvenile stage, so that's what I'm gonna do.  A trellis is necessary for support as these rootstocks are weak growers with small roots.  I hope for some fruit to examine and taste in about 3 to 5 years, but evaluating any that are decent enough to continue testing will be a much more lengthly proposition.  By that time I will have considerable investment in these plants, but the potential rewards are very exciting for an applehead like me.  Applehead, that may be the title of my next post... I'm also gearing up to make more crosses this season.  The list of interesting varieties is long but most, if not all, will be red flesh crosses.  I haven't made a complete count lately, but I have over 200 varieties on trial that I can use as parents.  I'm just hoping I can curb my enthusiasm enough to keep my time investment low, since that is part of the plan.  A lot of people growing a few seedlings promotes diversity and keeps power in the hands of the people who eat the fruit.  a few people growing a lot of apples has it's advantages to be sure, but to think that we will always be well served by such a system is naive because power is the primary currency of life, and consolidation opens the door for monopolization.  Breeding new apple varieties may not be the most important activity in reclaiming control of our food supply, but if it is a subject of interest to a person, it's one pretty neat way to keep our food closer to home and to live dynamically with a source of our sustenance. If I can come up with one apple that is really worthy of propagation, something that will make people happy, I'll be stoked.  That would probably be the most useful thing the Turkeysong project ever produces.  But the really great part that will make it all worth it, is that I get to name that apple whatever I want!  I've already spent way too much time dreaming up and listing prospective names.  So many names, so few apples... If anyone does come up with a good seedling apple, I just found this website which aims to promote seedling apples!  How cool is that... Seedlingapples on wordpress

Apple Breeding part 2: Doin' it anyway.

applebreeding header steven The awesome Photos of pollinating in this post are by tonia Chi

In part one I laid out some ideas and a little history toward the end of convincing you to try breeding new apples.  Here I present the nitty gritty of pollinating the flowers and in Part 2 I'll cover growing the seeds out.  Neither process is very difficult, nor particularly time consuming.  Later on, grafting of the trees and growing them to fruition may require some skills that most people don't have, but those can be learned elsewhere, or may be covered in future posts here, so don't let that stop you.

SELECTING PARENTS:  You can of course just plant some apple seeds from any apple you like, but the real fun is in selecting two apples that have something awesome about them and assisting them to procreate.  Albert Etter’s success was based on extensive trials using over 500 varieties to find apples with the most promising characteristics to use as parents.  In his own words....

"In selecting apples one has a double index to go by: he selects his mother variety and his "mother-apple" to take the seeds from. The immediate success, of my work may be attributed to the foundation I laid, and my ability to select the individual fruits that will develop superior progeny." 

“I am sending a collection of some of my new varieties of apples... The whole problem is now as simple as breeding up a herd of good dairy cows when one has a good herd to begin with. “

“Some people wonder where it is possible to make any very decided Improvement over existing varieties of apples now in general cultivation. To my notion we have really only begun to improve the apple systematically. I admit I have opportunity to study first hand that which gives me an insight denied to others who think and work along other lines. Comparison is a wonderful means of discerning faint lines. By this simple mental process what seems as opaque as milk reveals lines of similarity undreamed of before."

Something else that interested Etter was taking chances on more primitive apples like crabs, and the red fleshed Surprise apple, to breed in exciting new characteristics.  I would imagine that such a project can take a greater number of generations than working with more refined apples, but in his case it paid off.  Fortunately, we can build on Etter's work.  Wickson, which is probably destined to be Albert's most famous creation, is a case in point.  It is a very small, and incredibly sweet, apple having unique and intense flavor coming from somewhere other than just the standard large varieties.  Though newer apples seem to be diversifying, much of what has been done in breeding so far has been to try to improve on what people already considered to be a good, or archetypal, apple.  We aren't in great need of any more of those!  Apples with intense and diverse flavors, better textures over a greater range of seasons is something we can definitely use.  I would say that instead of crossing apples that are just good, or even really good, cross apples that are really interesting.  Not only will that give us interesting apples, but it just increases the chances that we will come up with something worth growing.  If you come up with the most bubblegum flavoredest apple ever, then we'll all just have to grow it until a better bubblegum flavored apple comes along.  If you're trying to grow a better Golden Delicious or Macintosh style apple, you're probably not going to compete with the many already released by all the advanced breeding programs out there.

My efforts select primarily for flavor and internal color, with keeping ability nudging in as an important third priority, though I'm also interested in better early apples.  All of my crosses so far have been using Albert Etter’s red fleshed apple varieties as one parent, combined with other apples that I think are awesome.

I would encourage you to work only with apples that really inspire you.  If you don't have any, consider collecting some.  At the simplest, just take two awesome apples and rub their stuff together.  It doesn't have to be that simple though.  Some traits are dominant and some recessive.  Dominant traits will express in the offspring even if only one parent carries that gene.  Recessive traits will only express if both parents carry the gene.  It only gets more complicated from there and I've yet to find and assimilate much of that information.  The truth is that  I'm dragging you with me down the path of apple breeding with very little of that knowledge.  The only thing I know at this point is that the red flesh gene is dominant.  So, I cross red fleshed apples in both directions.  I also read something indicating that a columnar habit of the tree is dominant (columnar trees have few if any side branches, having instead single upright trunks).   If anyone out there knows more about dominant and recessive apple traits, post something in the comments, or email me.  I've looked for a simple list, or short treatment of dominant and recessive traits, but have yet to find one.  For more on plant breeding on an amateur scale, including basic genetics, see Carol Deppe's cool book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties.  (Carole Deppe is awesome and a huge cut above the average garden writer.  Her book The Resilient Gardener is a must read for homesteader types.)

One thing you can pay attention to is who the parents of apples you like are and consider going back to one of those or using other apples which are the offspring of those same parents.  If the parents are known, that information is not usually difficult to find.  For instance, at least two promising apples here have Northern Spy as a parent.  While I'm likely to use the offspring, I also may end up going back to the source.

(I edited out a section of the original post here misinforming people that patent law extends to pollen.  I'm not totally clear on this, but I don't think it does in the case of vegetatively propagated plants)

A few apples, known as triploids, have sterile pollen.  Although triploids cannot be used as pollen doners, they can be fertilized with pollen from another tree, so look up the apples you want to work with and if one is a sterile triploid, use it as the seed parent and not as the pollen parent.  I can't find a full list of triploids anywhere, but if you google the name of the apple with the word triploid, you'll probably find out if it's a triploid easily enough... that's what I do anyway.  Triploids are uncommon, but some popular and excellent apples are included in the group, such as: Orleans Reinette, Roxbury Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, Suntan, Belle de Boskoop, Arkansas Black, Baldwin, Bramley’s Seedling, , Gravenstein, Holstein, Jonagold, Jupiter, Lady, McIntosh, Reinette du Canada, Rhode Island Greening, Ribston Pippin, Spigold, Stayman Winesap, Suntan and King of Tompkin's County.  I've had some trouble pollinating triploids and getting their seeds to grow, but will continue trying.

NIGEL DEACON:  I first learned how to pollinate apples from Nigel Deacon in the U.K.  Who is also attempting to breed red fleshed apples.  He cuts off the calyx with a special pair of scissors removing the pollen bearing anthers in one snip.  Nigel’s method is very fast, but the apples grown after pollinating are sometimes slightly deformed due to the missing calyx.  I prefer to remove the petals and anthers carefully with fingers and scissors.  My method is slower, but leaves the apple to grow normally.  I’m not sure one way or the other is really better, but I tend to subscribe to the idea that healthy plants make the best seed doners. Genetic coding is one factor in what a plant turns out like, but it is not set in stone and good genes are better expressed in healthy plants from healthy parents, so I err on the side of caution, even though if I had to guess I'd say it's probably not very relevant.

Nigel's special emasculating scissors.  Read about nigels methods on his extensive website.

BALLOON STAGE:  Apple blossoms are pollinated when they are in what is called the balloon stage.  At this stage, the female parts of the flower in the unopened petals are already receptive to pollen, but insects can’t reach them to pollinate.  At the same time, the Anthers, or boy parts, on which the pollen is produced, have not made any pollen yet, so the flower cannot have self pollinated either.  If you open the virginal flower, you can pollinate it manually and remove all the anthers before they bear pollen, thus assuring that it is your chosen parent which fertilizes the flower.  The balloon stage is when the flowers are blown up like a balloon and look like they will open in the next day or so.  Look at a few clusters of flowers.  If some are open and others are not, the best ones to open and pollinate are the ones with the biggest balloons.  You can often pollinate over a couple of weeks, but it is best to pollinate earlier than to wait till later when there are only a few blossoms left.

Balloon stage.

COLLECTING POLLEN:  Pollen must be collected a day or two before pollinating so that the anthers have time to dry and release the pollen.  Open some flowers of the variety that you want to collect pollen from by carefully pinching away the petals.  The pollen is made by the Anthers, which grow around the edge of the flower on little stalks.  The 5 delicate center stalks are the female parts, which you can ignore for now unless you are pollinating the same flower that you gather pollen from.  In fact, it is easier to just clip them off with the anthers when you are gathering pollen than it is to try avoiding them.  The anthers will not have any pollen on them yet, but they will finish making pollen as they dry.  Trim off the anthers into a small container with a sharp pointed pair of small scissors.  Nigel Deacon uses a hair comb to comb them off.  The anthers produce a small amount of pollen only.  You don’t need a lot to do just a few pollinations, but collect anthers from at least 6 to 10 flowers or so.  Allow the anthers to dry in a warm room until the pollen powders out.  Nigel says the pollen can be stored for up to 3 years if kept very dessicated, but I haven’t tried that yet.

collecting pollen.  The anthers are snipped off and allowed to dry in a small jar.

POLLINATING:  The best time to pollinate is on a warm sunny day in mid morning to early afternoon, but just do it whenever you can make time.  To pollinate a flower, pinch off any in the cluster that are open and any that are small leaving just 2 or 3 large balloon stage buds.

Carefully pinch or trim away the petals of the remaining flower buds.

    Carefully pinch away the flower petals.

With sharp pointed scissors, trim away the anthers around the outside edge of the flower, leaving the 5 center female "pistles" untouched.  There are 5 five pistles coming out of the center of the flower and each one communicates to what will be one of the five seed cells in the mature apple.  If any of these is damaged, use a different flower if you can.  You may still get some seeds, but the tree is more likely to reject a partially fertilized apple.

Carefully trim away all the Anthers along the outside edge of the rim, leaving the five "girl parts" in the center.

Once all the anthers are removed, apply some pollen to the female parts.  Use a piece of grass blade, a fine tiny paint brush, a glass rod, or even the tip of a finger.  There is a slightly sticky tip on the pistle called the Stigma.  Pollen will stick to the stigma easily.

Pollen on grass blade ready to do it.

Pollinating the Stigma. Very little pollen is required, and no foreplay.

You can see when the flower is well pollinated, because the stigma will have pollen stuck to it, but your odds will probably increase if you visit the flower again for a second pollinating the next day.  I don't usually do so and seem to do Ok, although it is not uncommon to find only a few seeds in an apple.  Triploids can be troublesome, so it might be well to visit them again.  I've had poor luck with pollinating Suntan, a triploid, and even poorer luck growing out the few seeds I've managed to get from it.

Pollen on stigma

BTW:  I have a TERRIBLE time remembering the names of all these flower parts for some reason and am constantly looking them up again.  It doesn't really matter though, just remember: girl parts in the middle need pollinating and boy parts on the outside need removing.

BAGGING V.S. NOT BAGGING:  To be as sure as possible that the flowers you've chosen to pollinate are not pollinated with undesirable pollen by bees and other insects, you would have to bag the blossoms, or cage the tree.  I choose not to.  My rationale is that since the petals are removed, there is little to draw insects to the flower.  Also, by that time I've already pollinated the blossom and the stigma should be crusted with pollen of my choosing.  At worst a few of the seeds in the apple might receive some random pollen, but it seems unlikely, therefore I choose not to bother bagging because it would just increase the effort spent for a small degree of insurance.

LABELING:  Always label!  tie a marker around the flower cluster so you can identify it later, because all the other apples will look just the same.  Only the genetic information in the seeds is different, while the fruit will look the same as the other fruit on the tree.  I use neon colored plastic strips so they are easy to find later.  Be sure to write what the crosses are on the tag with permanent marker.  When the apples get to be about half grown, I actually write on the apple with a permanent marker so that if it is knocked off  by birds or wind, I can identify that it is an apple which I pollinated, and which cross it is.  The convention for writing crosses is Seed Parent X Pollen Parent.

A Newton Pippin pollinated with Albert Etter's Grenadine®

The next post will be on growing out the seedlings, and someday I'll write about something besides apples again!  promise...