TREMONT — Johnny Appleseed carried a sack of seeds. Mike Mansolilli invests in rootstock with a similar goal in mind: to grow as many apple trees as possible.
Outside the garage of his business, MDI Property Maintenance and Management on Tremont Road, Mansolilli has a dozen apple trees surrounded by fences to protect them from deer.
“Right now I have 12 but the plan is to have over 100 trees here one day,” he said from the location recently. “I’ve grafted over 100 different varieties… My long-term goal is to have a small cider house on the property.”
While working to grow his company, in the last decade Mansolilli has fostered his passion for fruit trees, specifically apple varieties, by attending workshops held by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA), joining social media groups of growers and networking with apple enthusiasts.
“The best knowledge I’ve gained is from hands-on experience and from following these people around that have been doing this for years and years,” he said.
“There’s people from 18 years old to 80 years old talking about what works for them… I can remember my grandfather talking about grafting.”
Heirloom apple orchards are gaining in popularity around the state thanks to organizations supporting the proliferation of different varieties and providing training to budding orchardists.
Apple trees grown from seed may not produce the same variety of apple the seed came from — grafting aids in that process. Apple trees can be grafted with the same variety to keep them true, but other varieties can also be grafted onto the rootstock.
In grafting apple trees, the material that carries the genetic information for a particular type of apple is called scionwood. Bench grafting involves joining rootstock, a whole very young tree sapling, to recently cut scionwood.
These small branches come from a one-year growth off an apple tree, gathered in the late winter or early spring. Scionwood can be taken from a tree that is fully mature or still in the process of becoming full size. The branch should be similar in diameter to a pencil, Mansolilli said.
“All you need is two buds,” he said. “Three and it could be too much.”
If the grafting is not going to be done right away, scionwood should be kept cold but not frozen.
MOFGA and Waterville-based Fedco Seeds host a “Seed Swap and Scion Exchange” event in March every year, where cuttings from more than 200 varieties are available for free and supplies are available for sale.
Mansolilli has several starter trees in small pots outside the maintenance garage, waiting to be grafted closer to spring.
The scionwood he used for demonstrating the practice was clipped from a local roadside tree, variety unknown.
“Could be something a bird dropped, a lot of them are,” he said. “A lot of people when they think of apples, they think of Macintosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, not all these lost varieties.”
For instance, one of the trees growing outside the garage is a Wolf River apple. A large apple that flourished in the nineteenth century, Wolf River is considered an heirloom variety.
Mansolilli uses simple tools such as a utility knife to slice the two pieces of wood and splice them to form the graft. There are lots of fancy tools on the market, he says, but success can be achieved more with focus and understanding the process.
“You’re looking for something that has a nice green outer cambium,” Mansolilli explained as he split the branch into a V-formation. “Two cells have to connect for the tree to take.”
It is such a delicate process that oils from fingers holding the two pieces together can inhibit success. Once the two pieces are joined, Mansolilli connects them with tape and then surrounds that with a light tar to keep it in place. He points out that snipping the end off the newly grafted section of the rootstock helps the new graft join and grow.
“Most nursery stock trees you can look down low and see a Z,” he said, noting the signature sign of a tree graft. “Typically, I do these in April and I would have the rootstock sitting in my lap.”
Helping apple trees grow from start to maturity takes lots of work. Pest control is a particularly involved process once the trees are planted.
For the dozen outside his garage, Mansolilli not only has a fence around them but he also has painted the base of the tree with a mix of white paint and resin to ward off mice. In addition there are apple maggots, aphids, ants and scale fungus that can all have a negative affect on the apple tree. He keeps ingredients on hand for an organic pest-control cocktail he sprays on the trees to keep them healthy.
If the old saying of an apple a day keeps the doctor away, he is doing what he can to increase his own and the health of his community.
“I always liked climbing apple trees and picking them” as a child, he said. “The last few years I’ve started picking roadside apples and making pie with them.”
On another section of his property on Tremont Road, Mansolilli is in the process of constructing a subdivision at which he intends to have several apple trees and fruit bushes for residents and visitors to enjoy.