PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson
June 13, 2017

Keeping fields clear of invasive plants is a challenge many farmers face. It’s part of nature that any wide open field is an invitation to a wide assortment of shrubs and trees that would love to get started reclaiming the area and turning it back into forestland.

On my farm, a couple of common “pioneer species” are blackberry bushes and quaking aspen trees, and the edges of fields and clearings are dotted with these invasive plants. But in one particular field (which was in the early stages of abandonment by a previous owner), some small, shrubby bushes had taken root. At first, I paid little attention to them—they weren’t a bother and weren’t very big—and over the years, the majority of them have remained small.

What has been unusual is the way these “bushes” have grown. Instead of growing taller, they’ve grown wider, adding more branches until they form a tangle so thick that it’s difficult to see the main trunk.

Wait, main trunk? Many bushes have multiple trunks, not a single main trunk. And wait a minute—don’t these branches look like those of a fruit tree? And … are those apple leaves?

My seemingly improbable belief that these bushes might be miniature apple trees was proven in a visually impressive manner when one of the invasive plants (located near the edge of the field) quietly put on a growth spurt and blossomed one spring, producing a modest crop of apples in the fall.

Doing a bit of research, I learned that among invasive plants, apple trees are amazingly resilient to being nibbled on by livestock and wildlife such as deer—and there are certainly plenty of deer around these parts. As a result, the trees become deformed early in life, unable to grow tall and instead producing an abundance of unusual horizontal growth that becomes quite thick and tangled. However, when the “bush” finally grows large enough to escape continuous nibbling, it can resume normal growth and turn into a tree at last.

This also means that these tiny trees can be surprisingly old. Curious about their age, I cut down one tree that was a couple of feet tall. Much to my surprise, it was more than 20 years old.

Of course, depending on your plans for a particular field, you might not want an army of resilient wild apple trees taking up residence. However, removing them is easier said than done. One option is to simply cut them down with pruning loppers or a saw, though this will leave numerous small stumps that might not be ideal. Another option is to dig them up using a spade or something larger like a backhoe attachment on a tractor; this, of course, will leave holes that need to be filled in, and the roots of these small trees can be surprisingly large and thoroughly attached to their surroundings.

Then again, if apple trees are invading anyway, why not embrace their presence and turn the field into a designated apple orchard? Who knows, perhaps one of these wild varieties will eventually produce delicious apples that you can enjoy for years to come.

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