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Area orchardist tests northern Minnesota fruit-growing potential

Del Stubbs admires this spring's apple blossoms in his orchard northwest of Pinewood. His test orchard also features stone fruit, currants, grapes and pears. Submitted Photo1 / 2
Last fall's apple crop showed which of Del Stubbs' trees are early bearers and which are hardy in the northern Minnesota climate. Submitted Photo2 / 2

Duchess of Oldenburg, Fameuse, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, September Ruby - Del Stubbs walks through rows of fruit trees in his orchard northwest of Pinewood reciting the names and checking conditions.

In 1998, Stubbs grafted 85 varieties of apples onto hardy rootstocks, such as the Russian Antanovka and Renetka, and waited the eight to 12 years for the trees to produce fruit. He wants to know which of the northern varieties, some developed in Canada and Alaska, will thrive in the area's zone 3/2 where his thermometer read minus 42 last winter.

"Here's a Sweet 16," he said pausing by a somewhat distressed young tree. "Turns out to be borderline here, but it's coming back. Every fourth year, the frost will kill the fruit buds."

Since he and his wife, Mary, moved to their farm north of the Continental Divide, Del also has planted 12 varieties of apricots, nine of cherries, six of currants, nine of grapes, 18 of pears, 22 of plums and one tiny, lone peach, the Harrow Diamond.

Del said he is trying out some of the fruit trees for a colleague, Cold Spring, Minn., fruit breeder Dave Griffin, who made the Harrow Diamond peach cross and told him how to shelter it on the north side of the house. Peaches break dormancy and bloom too early for this climate, but Del hopes to make a breakthrough coup when Harrow Diamond begins to bear fruit.

"He knows of a peach that goes down to 44 below," Del said of Griffin.

Del uses a below-ground grafting method and shares and exchanges scions - tree cuttings to be grafted onto rootstocks - with other orchardists.

"Not only can't you buy any of these, I couldn't afford to," he said. "A lot of Canadian and Alaskan apples that people haven't heard of here."

He has also collected cuttings from local apples of unknown origin. He names them for the property owner who provided the scion.

"I have a tree down there I call the Louie Special; it's named after Louie Wettschreck," he said. "It started bearing at seven years."

He also has a Christopherson Giant, a baking apple named for Shevlin Master Gardener Minerva Christopherson.

Del said he grew up on a chicken farm in the northern Central Valley of California and learned grafting and pruning methods on nectarine and peach trees as a boy.

"What you're after in pruning is real open (branch configuration), like you could throw a football through it or a bird could fly through it," he said.

He said the idea is a relaxed look with horizontal branches, but each tree is different and requires an individual approach to sculpting.

Del said he didn't plant his orchard just to sell some apples. He wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge about northern fruit growing and to demonstrate that orchards are possible here.

"You expect to lose 90 percent when you're a hardiness tester," hesaid.

That's part of the test.

He also raises his trees without chemicals to produce organically grown products. So far, the only serious pest is some kind of native borer that burrows under the bark, eats the wood and weakens the trees. He said there is no research on exactly what kind of borer he is dealing with, but when he sees evidence of their work, he digs them out with a knife.

Del's Web site,, features photos of apples. During the harvest season, he said he will post notices of which varieties are available and contact information.