Talk Dirt To Me

Gardening in Alaska presents big challenges, whether it's the extra effort in finding plants tough enough to survive our Zone 2-4 climate, communicating with like-minded Alaska gardeners, or keeping up with the latest trends, issues and solutions. We'll try to help with that. We'll also tour gardens from Homer to Anchorage to Wasilla to Willow whenever we get the chance, and post the best garden photos around. Presenting a forum about cold-weather gardening and for cold-weather gardeners is what we are all about. We hope you'll join us on the Talk Dirt garden blog.

Photographer and gardener Fran Durner (fdurner@adn.com) writes the blog.

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Valley Apple Guy

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Dan Elliott harvests apples from his orchard on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Photo by Stephen Nowers/ADNDan Elliott harvests apples from his orchard on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Photo by Stephen Nowers/ADNBy Zaz Hollander
ADN Valley reporter

Dan Elliott grows apples. One-bite red Rescues, sweet Norlands, crisp green Norkents. Apples plucked for pies and applesauce, sure, but also for cider-pressing parties and definitely for eating straight off the tree.
Make that trees.

The Elliott orchard off Fairview Loop Road in the Mat-Su Valley boasts more than 100 trees. Most are "grafts" or mixes of trees in which Elliot attaching a budding shoot from one type of tree to the trunk of another, typically a crab-apple variety hearty enough to take Alaska's light and temperature extremes.

Even in Alaska's farm belt, apple-growing takes extra TLC.
Elliott coddles the branches in spring to prevent "sap blow-outs" and watches for fall temperatures below 28 degrees or so -- though a recent 20-degree night snuck up on him. But apples weren't always in Dan Elliott's blood.

An English major and avid outdoorsman, Elliott commercial fished, then worked a series of construction jobs -- including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Dan Elliott heads into his orchard to harvest apples on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Stephen Nowers/ADNDan Elliott heads into his orchard to harvest apples on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Stephen Nowers/ADNThe apple fixation began in the early 1980s when Elliott married his wife, Marian, and settled down to garden at a cabin up the tracks from Talkeetna. The couple 15 years ago moved to their airy home on a bench above the Palmer Hay Flats.

Dan and occasionally Marian Elliott recently fielded questions about growing apples -- and why it's so hard to pick up a tasty red Delicious at the store.

Apples share a branch with early season snow in Dan Elliott's home off Fairview Loop road on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Stephen Nowers/ADNApples share a branch with early season snow in Dan Elliott's home off Fairview Loop road on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Stephen Nowers/ADNQ. So what kind of magic does it take to grow apples here?
A. An area that has no moose or protection from moose.
Q. Heartiness aside, if you could grow any variety of apple, what would that be?
A. I dunno, I used to like Delicious a lot but I got burned so much with over stored Delicious. The original Delicious wasn't bright red. I think it was called Hawkeye, it was a striped, blush fruit ... The problem is they propagated for tough skin, for deep red color to pick over a longer period whether ripe or not, and so they would store for long time. But never was flavor one of their criteria.
Q. So which are your favorites in your orchard?
A. Ordinary Red Delicious is kind of lacking in zip, acid, it's just a sweet apple. Ones that are sweet and tart mixed are more interesting. I like Simonet and Collet, Norda, Norkent. Then Breaky and September Ruby are real good.
Q. What would a moose do to your orchard?
A. Last year a cow and calf got in, broke the tops off 16 trees. The calves aren't too bad because they can't reach too high; they're just eating last year's growth. But the cow will take the tree about two thirds of the way up and bend it and break it so she can reach that new top growth.
Q. How many people in the Mat-Su grow apples?
A. Probably 15. (Among other growers he mentions are state attorney general Talis Colberg, former state veterinarian Bert Gore and his neighbors the Dinkels, a long-time Valley farming family)
Q. Would you call this a hobby?
A. Yeah. If you had a real commercial orchard, you'd put the ones you thought you'd sell the most of, with a variety of flavors and seasons of ripening. Five or six varieties, 10 or 20 in a row. Mine, when one dies, I replace with another, even if I have duplicates, they're not together. It's a hobby except so many people have asked me for fruit trees I finally got a business license and started selling (trees, grafts and apples).
Marian: But it's also, it's really research to see how you can push the envelope in Alaska for growing fruit trees. (She notes that key to growing in Alaska's climate is picking hardy rootstock, the variety if tree used for the base of the tree)
Dan Elliott harvests apples from his orchard on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Stephen Nowers/ADNDan Elliott harvests apples from his orchard on Thursday, October 9, 2008. Elliott grows over 100 varieties at his home off Fairview Loop. Stephen Nowers/ADNQ. What exactly goes on at a pressing party?
A. You make apple juice and let people try it. It's not fermented yet.
Marian: Everybody tastes it and decides whether it needs more tart apples, more sweet apples.
Dan: I sell some apples too, but I'm not a very good businessman. I don't advertise. If someone wants to buy some, I sell them to them.

Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call (907) 352-6711.

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