Learn the ancient and cool art of grafting with Prof. Apple
Virginia’s Tom “Professor Apple” Burford, author, horticulture historian and cider maker extraordinaire, will be at Chattanooga’s Crabtree Farms on Saturday, Mar. 7, to teach a workshop on grafting apple trees.
As he explained in a recent telephone interview, Burford is not really a Ph.D., but a hands-on, seventh-generation orchardist. “The first Burford came to Virginia in 1713 and brought a bag of apple seeds with him,” he says. Burford obtained the academic nickname after he was hired 38 years ago to help restore the apple orchard at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation and agricultural experimentation center.
“Jefferson left such detailed records, we were able to work with the archaeologists and find the tree stains, and then I made an overlay map so we knew exactly where every tree that Jefferson had in the orchard was planted,” says Burford.
The varieties planted by the gardener-president were mostly still available (but not necessarily easy to find) 200 years later, and Burford, who is the author of “Apples of North America,” and whose family business had nurtured hundreds of heirloom varieties for decades, was engaged to track them down.
But if he has established himself as the go-to guy for apple history, Burford is coming to Chattanooga more in the interest of apple future. Grafting—basically, starting new trees from pieces of mature ones—was once routinely used by individual growers to propagate varieties. Fruit trees grown from seed, Burford explains, don’t bear true to the parent plant. “With the genetic diversity of the apple seed, every seed in every apple is a different variety,” he says.
So fruit producers figured out how to graft 3,000 years ago, but Burford worries it is almost a lost art today. “It was a great agricultural skill, and it suddenly disappeared,” he says.
And that, says Prof. Apple, is because after World War II, people left their farms in droves to work in cities. Commercial nurseries took over the making-little-ones-from-big-ones business, and growers began ordering trees from catalogs.
This resulted not just in the loss of can-do among individual growers, but in a drastic reduction in apple varieties, from about 17,000 in America in 1850, says Burford, to the few dozen you can find in plant catalogs—much less grocery stores—today. “The big mega-nurseries, they’re not going to complicate their business by having hundreds,” he says.
Now, with the push toward local, sustainable agriculture, there is a new feeling among growers, says Burford: “Rather than them coming from some distant point, every orchard of any size at all should be able to make its own apple trees,” he says. “That is what is happening now. That’s one of the revolutionary parts of the new American agricultural movement.”
Prof. Apple’s workshop is from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Mar. 7 and costs $50, which includes a grafting knife, resource book and two grafted apple trees. A locally grown lunch is available for an additional $10.
Participants must preregister at crabtreefarms.org/events, or by calling Crabtree at (423) 493- 9155, extension 10.